The Political Status of West Papua


Netherlands New Guinea – Indonesia West Papua

The people of Indonesia had realised their right to self-determination after a long struggle against colonial ruler when they proclaimed their independence on 17 August 1945, which lead to the establishment of a free and independent Republic of Indonesia, covering the whole territory of the former Netherlands East Indies. Such a right, however, was challenged by the colonial power and an armed conflict between Indonesia and the Netherlands ensued. The conflict ended when the parties concluded a peace agreement under the auspices of the United Nations Commission for Indonesia resulting in the Round Table Conference, held at the Hague in 1949. The peace accord of 2 November 1949 was achieved as a result of the full recognition and acceptance by the Netherlands of the independence and sovereignty of Indonesia as reflected in Article 1 of the Charter of Transfer of Sovereignty (S/1417/Add.1) which provided :

“The Kingdom of the Netherlands unconditionally and irrevocably transfer complete sovereignty over Indonesia to the Republic of the United States of Indonesia as an independent and sovereign State”. (*)

The Round Table Conference agreement, however, did not settle the conflict between Indonesia and the Netherlands in a comprehensive manner. It left the question of the Indonesian territory of West New Guinea, constituting a substantial part of its territory, to be resolved within a period of one year. This unsettled question found a temporary compromise in Article 2 of the Charter of Transfer of Sovereignty wherein it was decided that with regard to the residency (**) of New Guinea:

“In view of the fact that it has not been possible to reconcile the views of the parties on New Guinea, which remain, therefore, in dispute.”

“In view of the dedication of the parties to the principle of resolving by peaceful and reasonable means any differences that may hereafter exist or arise between them”.

“That the status quo of the residency of New Guinea shall be maintained with the stipulation that within a year from the date of transfer of sovereignty to the Republic of the United States of Indonesia, the question of the political status of New Guinea be determined through negotiations between the Republic of Indonesia and the Kingdom of the Netherlands”.

For Indonesia, this was a difficult compromise for what this envisaged was that the Netherlands military presence and administrative control would remain in Indonesian territory for the stipulated period of one more year. It also presented Indonesia with great difficulties to have part of its territory under occupation and have such position ratified by its Parliament. Therefore, it can be said that Indonesia’s acceptance of this compromise was a reflection of its sincere determination to resolve through peaceful means in accordance with the aims of the United Nations and its own national policies, a situation that had the potential to disturb international peace and security. What made this position even more unacceptable was that the newly independent Republic of Indonesia had to contend with a dispute over its territory, when it was not a question of its making. (***)

Indonesia’s right of sovereignty rests on two grounds: first, it had succeeded to Dutch sovereignty over the whole of the Netherlands East Indies, including West Papua; second, there were historical ties between the rest of Indonesia and West Papua.

As demonstrated in the previous chapter, it is a historical fact that West Papua was always an integral part of the territory of the former Netherlands East Indies, and therefore, of the Republic of Indonesia. In this context, it is fitting to recall that never at any time prior to the Round Table Conference was there any doubt about the status of West Papua in the negotiations and agreements between the Dutch and the Indonesians. On 25 March 1947 the two parties signed the Linggadjati Agreement and Article 3 of the said Agreement specifically stated:

“the United States of Indonesia shall comprise the entire territory of the Netherlands East Indies”

The status of the Netherlands East Indies territory including West Papua, was never in question is further confirmed by the following events concerning the validity of Indonesia’s position.

  1. In December 1946 the Dutch Governor-General Dr. H.J. Van Mook reiterated the view of his government: “Decidedly not the intention of the Government (the Dutch Government) to exclude New Guinea from Indonesia”.
  2. On 17 January 1948, the Renville Agreement reached under the auspices of the United Nations Good Offices Committee stated inter alia: “Sovereignty throughout the Netherlands East Indies is and shall remain with the Kingdom of Netherlands until, after a stated interval, the Kingdom of Netherlands transfers its sovereignty to the United States of Indonesia”. Once again, it was apparent that the Netherlands East Indies would be replaced by a new sovereign and independent state of Indonesia.
  3. The preliminary agreement on the ROund Table COnference, the so-called Roem-Van Royen Agreement of May 1949 asserted: ” the discussion will take place as to the way in which to accelerate the unconditional transfer of real and complete sovereignty to the United States of Indonesia in accordance with the Renville Agreements”.
  4. The same viewpoint was reaffirmed in the letter by the Netherlands representative to the United Nations dated 2 March 1949: “the Netherlands Government has reached the conclusion that the best solution of the pending problem is to be found in an accelerated transfer of sovereignty over Indonesia to an Indonesian federal government which will be fully representative of the whole of Indonesia”.
  5. Also, it is pertinent to note that the delegation of the Netherlands had concluded the earlier preliminary Roem – Van Royen Agreement atthe Round Table Conference and affirmed in the Security Council proceedings.  “As I explained at the outset, this dispute is not about the question of whether or not Indonesia will become independent. All parties agree that what used to be the Netherlands East Indies should become an independent State as soon as possible”. (*)  Furthermore, Dr. Van Royen stated at that meeting : “the population of Indonesia consists of about seventeen ethnic and linguistic group which, in their turn, contain a still greater number of sub-groups… Common existence under the Netherlands Crown has created a sense of Indonesian nationality”.

This statement is most relevant because it demonstrates not only the common existence but also common fate and common struggle of the people of West Papua with the rest of Indonesia against colonial rule.

Despite these unquestionable grounds of commonality of interests between the peoples of the rest of Indonesia and West Papua, Indonesia found it deeply regrettable and troubling that during the Round Table Conference, the Government of the Netherlands took a position contrary to its previous commitments. By reneging on its own commitments, the Dutch authorities insisted on retaining their control over West Papua. The reason being, it was widely believed, that the Dutch wanted the territory exclusively for settlement by Dutch-Indonesians under continued Dutch colonial rule. Indonesia protested and deadlock was inevitable. At the end of the Round Table Conference, the Head of Indonesia’s delegation stated:

“Our happiness is rather suppressed because not all questions have been solved. West Papua or New Guinea still remain a dispute”

When one defines “Indonesia”, it has national and political connotations as it was used in the national struggle for independence and was to replace the name “Netherlands East Indies”. The name of Indonesia was legalized by the Netherlands itself and contained in article 1 of the Netherlands Constitution of 1922 which reads:

“The Kingdom of Netherlands consists of the territories of the Netherlands, the Netherlands Indies, Surinam and the Netherlands Antilles”.

Later in 1948, when the Constitution of the Netherlands was amended, it provided:

“THe Kingdom of the Netherlands consists of the Netherlands, Indonesia, Surinam and the Netherlands Antilles”.

Such a clear demarcation was also contained in the Constitution of Indonesia, in 1945 and 1950 as the separation of Indonesia from West Papua was only meant to be temporary pending negotiations between the concerned parties.

West Papua was thus never mentioned apart from the Netherlands East Indies. After the Second World War, it was part of te Residency of Ternate within the province of Mollucas with Ambon as its capital. Later, it became a residency itself. Thus, it was only logical for the Government of the Netherlands in the 1949 report to the United Nations to states:

“Indonesia consists of a series of island groups in the region of the equator, extending from the mainland Asia to Australia. The principal groups are the Greater Sunda Islands, the Mollucas and New Guinea, west of 141 degrees east longitude”.

In the contemporary world, Indonesia is accepted throughout the world as one nation comprising numerous and diverse ethnic and cultural groups that live in the territory of the former Netherlands Crown as a single entity.

Thus, no one can draw artificial distinctions between the Papua and Malay peoples. Mixed groups have developed in many parts of the Moluccas in the course of history. It can not be determined therefore that the West Papuans are an exclusive ethnic group. There were and continues to be Indonesians coming from other islands to live in West Papua. The people of West Papua also live in other islands such as the Moluccas, Sulawesi, the Lesser Sunda and in Java. Hence, close relationship have been established over the years between this region and other parts of Indonesia.

The importance of West Papua to Indonesia must be self-evident. In covering 413.000 square kilometers, West Papua is an area constituting 22 per cent of the entire Indonesian territory with a population of about 4 million and although under-developed was thoroughly neglected by the colonial authorities. It is also significant in the political and national spheres. As part of the Netherlands East Indies, West Papua and its people played an important role in the Indonesian struggle for freedom and independence. Hence, the Indonesian Proclamation of Independence of 17 August 1945 was of profound significance for West Papuan people who considered themselves as Indonesians. Following this Declaration by their  national leaders, the people of West Papua, together with the rest of the Indonesian population resisted attempts to re-impose colonial rule.

In 1946, largely on the initiative of Mr. Silas Papare, who was decorated by the Allies for his prominent role in the resistance movement during the Japanese occupation of West Papua and later became a member of the Indonesian Parliament, the largest and most active political group emerged called Partai Kemerdekaan Indonesia Papua. This Organization played a particularly significant role in the independence of the entire Indonesian nation by struggling for the noble cause of exercise of self-determination of its people. Their acts rapidly won support and praise of the entire Indonesian population.

At that time in West Papua, the situation was described by the Netherlands Parliamentary mission that visited the area to be generally poor. In this regard, the report released in 1954 depicted social conditions of laborers as “very bad”, wage scales as discriminatory on a racial basis and educational program as unsuitable. 122 years of Dutch colonial rule had cemented even closer ties between the people of West Papua and their Indonesian brethren in the rest of the country.

Since the conclusion of the Round Table Conference, Indonesia had sought to find ways for a peaceful settlement to the question of West Papua in line with Article 2 of the Charter of Transfer of Sovereignty:

  • a. In April 1950, an Indonesian-Netherlands Ministers’ Conference on financial matters in Jakarta dis some preliminary work on the question of West Papua. Also a Commission comprising of Netherlands and Indonesian representatives was established to visit and make an investigation on West Papua. The Conference decided that negotiations on this question should continue, on the basis of the report of the Commission, at the Second Conference of Ministers of the Netherlands – Indonesia Union, at the Hague during 1050.
  • b. In December 1950, the Second Conference of Ministers of the Union was held at the Hague. During the course of these negotiations, the parties decided to stipulate a period of one year from 27 December 1950, the date of the conclusion of the Round Table Conference Agreement. At that Conference, the Indonesian delegation submitted a note containing the following main point upon which to base the resolution of this dispute:

” That de jure sovereignty over West Papua of the Republic of Indonesia be recognized by the Dutch without delay, and that the transfer of the Netherlands Administration could be implemented through mutual arrangements by the middle of 1951″

In an effort to arrive ata compromise solution, the Indonesian delegation, aside from guaranteeing human rights and religious freedoms, also agreed to provide autonomy for the territory. It also recognized the present and future interests of the Dutch in West Papua, including the guarantee to employ Dutch officials in the administration and its nationals in the immigration department. On the other hand, in a significant departure from its past commitments, the counter proposals of the Dutch included the transfer of sovereignty over West Papua to the Netherlands – Indonesian Union and to retain in the Netherlands the administration of the Territory, with Indonesian members participating on a parity basis in a West Papua Council. These were totally unacceptable to Indonesia as it would perpetuate colonial domination and practices. The West Papua dispute thus failed to be settled.

  • c. In December 1951, a third Indonesia – Netherlands Conference was held. At this time the Netherlands proposed that the dispute be submitted to the International Court of Justice which Indonesia rejected arguing that the issue in question was a political and not of a judicial nature. Indonesia made sincere efforts to break the “impasse” but the negotiations had to be suspended due to a change of Government in Jakarta.
  • d. The Government of Indonesia had made this issue a priority to be resolved in a peaceful manner but the Dutch Government showed a reluctance to negotiate a final solution while remaining the colonial ruler. Throughout the dispute, Indonesia has challenged the sovereignty of the Netherlands over West Papua. The exercise of such sovereignty was unacceptable as it contravened the Charter of Transfer of Sovereignty to “unconditionally” transfer “complete sovereignty over Indonesia to the new Indonesian Republic”.

It was against the backdrop of the aforementioned developments and the refusal of the Dutch to   enter into negotiations thereafter that the Indonesian Government deemed it necessary to bring this matter to the General Assembly at its ninth session in 1954. After full consideration of the matter, the First Committee adopted by a two-third majority vote resolution A!C.1/760 which was thereafter submitted to the General Assembly. Regrettably, the General Assembly failed to adopt the resolution despite the support of many member States.

In April 1955, the Asian-African Conference, convened in Bandung and attended by 29 countries, representing two thirds of the world’s population, adopted the following resolution:

The Asian-African Conference in the context of its expressed attitude on the abolition of colonialism, supported the position of Indonesia in the case of West Irian, based on the relevant agreements between Indonesia and the Netherlands.

“The Asian-African Conference urged the Netherlands Government to reopen negotiations as soon as possible to implement their obligations under the above-mentioned agreements, and expressed the earnest hope that the United Nations would assist the parties concerned in finding a peaceful solution to the dispute”

Such unstinted support of the Bandung Conference for a negotiated settlement of the colonial question of West Irian was greatly appreciated by Indonesia as well as all those member States that espoused the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter. The efforts of the Asian-African Governments proved successful and General Assembly adopted resolution 915 (X) in 1955 on the question of West Iriari. Regrettably, from the years 1954 to 1957 and in 1961, the United Nations General Assembly discussed this item but the adoption of a resolution proved elusive.

Meanwhile, in 1960, diplomatic relations between the two countries were broken after the Netherlands’ dispatch of its aircraft carrier to New Guinea waters in order to safeguard its on-going preparations for internal self-government in West Guinea. In response to such maneuvers, the Indonesian Government adopted a more assertive policy outlining a possible military take-over of the occupied territory by announcing the “In Komando Rakyat” (People’s Triple Command) i.e.;

1. to thwart the formation of a puppet state of Papua by the colonial power;
2. to raise the Indonesian Red and White flag in West Irian; and
3. to prepare a general mobilization to defend national inde¬pendence and unity;

Such a pronouncement demonstrated beyond any doubt that a military confrontation between Indonesia and the Netherlands was inevitable.

As a co-sponsor and ardent supporter of the historic landmark General Assembly resolution 1514 (XV), Indonesia objected to the Government of the Netherlands to invoke the said resolution not to complete the independence of the Indonesian nation but to partition its territory.(****) Indonesia continued to extend its cooperation to resolve the dispute in a peaceful way but made clear that it would not hesitate to use force to defend its territory.

The Government of Indonesia also took strong exception to the efforts of the Netherlands to confuse the meaning of Article 73 of the United Nations Charter and of General Assembly Resolution 1514 (XV). In this context, it emphasized that Article 73 could not apply to West Irian as it forms an integral part of the Republic of Indonesia and was occupied by force by the colonial authorities.(*****) Likewise, it stated that Resolution 1514 (XV) had no relevance to the case of West Irian in view of paragraph 6 which declared that “the partial or total disruption of national unity and the territorial integrity of a country is incompatible with the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter”. Furthermore, Indonesia maintained that if the United Nations was sincere in resolving this issue, it would eradicate Dutch colonialism and return that territoly into the fold of the Republic of Indonesia. Bringing this dispute under Article 73 would mean a negation of the letter and spirit of the Round Table Conference as well as a denial of freedom and such an approach was contrary to the purposes of the United Nations Charter and, in essence Article 73 itself.

For eight long years, the General Assembly had been unable to assist the parties in finding a solution. Thus, it became apparent that only bilateral negotiations would provide a reasonable solution — the transfer of the administration of West Irian to Indonesia. Since such a transition was of compelling national interest as it concerned the completion of its territorial sovereignty and also in light of breakdown of diplomatic relations between the two countries, Indonesia had no alternative but to seek a third party as intermediary in the needed bilateral negotiations. Indonesia availed of the initiative of the UN Secretary-General to join the Netherlands in informal discussions. Both Governments agreed to the intermediary of the Secretary-General U Thant and Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker. Largely due to their tireless efforts and coupled with the desire of both Indonesia and the Netherlands, a settlement was reached within a period of two weeks which can be regarded in the annals of international affairs as a speedy settlement considering a conflict that had lasted for 13 years. This gave birth to the New York Agreement which was signed by Foreign Minister Dr. Subandrio of Indonesia and Ambassadors JR. van Roijen and C. Schuurman of the Netherlands, in the presence of the Secretary-General, in New York, on 15 August 1962.


(*) The formal transfer of sovereignty took place on 27 December 1949. In the course of 1950, the Republic of the United States of Indonesia transformed itself through internal processes into the Republic of Indonesia, which was admitted to the United Nations on 28 September 1950.

(**) Recidency is an administrative unit of the government of the Netherlands.

(***) On November 1949, at the closing session of the Round Table Conference, the Chairman of the United Nations Commission for Indonesia spoke of this significant event as “the end of the conflict, the solution of a problem”.

(****) Document A/4944 — Note Verbale dated 27 October 1961 from the represent aLt ye of Indonesia, transmitting a statement of the Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Indonesian.

(*****) Document S/SI 28— Letter dated 25 May 1 962 from the representative of Indonesia to the Secretary-General

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