Shifty Lines: Papua

The South Pacific rarely features in anyone’s mental registers of conflict zones.  The region was a major theater of World War II, but it was settled very late in human history and discovered very late by colonizers.  Its extreme isolation meant that it has mostly avoided creating indigenous conquering empires or being riven apart by colonial divisions, especially when compared to Africa or western Asia.  So it’s fitting, in a way, that the westernmost edge of the Pacific region, where it blends into Asia, should be home to a long-running conflict alternately dubbed “Asia’s Palestine” and “the forgotten war.”  (Someone tell that first group that Palestine is in Asia).  The struggle to turn New Guinea into a free and united Papua receives far too little attention and even less understanding, which is far less than this fascinating region deserves.

A Gradient Fit for a Linguist

Maritime Southeast Asia, the region encompassing the modern states of Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia, East Timor, the Philippines, and ostensibly Papua New Guinea, was home to tribal territories, small kingdoms, and eventually substantial empires.  Due to its location, its western edge was occasionally subject to Indian rule (particularly under the Pallavas and Cholas).  This entanglement added a strong Indian substratum to Indonesian culture and a history of Buddhism and Hinduism in the region still evident in Bali.  The emergence of the Srivijaya Empire and its successors laid the groundwork for a common Malay and western Indonesian culture, which would eventually spread to encompass the coastal regions of the large islands and many of the small ones.  These empires established Malay as a lingua franca throughout the archipelago, in addition to the Javanese, Madurese, and related languages spoken natively.

At the opposite end of the archipelago, the native Papuans were another set of peoples entirely.  The native Papuans are Melanesian, most likely kin to the aboriginal Australians and descendants of a much older human migration than the Austronesian Malays.  The native Papuan languages number in the hundreds and belong to numerous small language families still being studied and discovered, or to new branches of Austronesian formed via contact with native Papuan tongues.  The Srivijaya initially traded with the Papuans rather than asserting control, but later sent slaving parties, while the Majapahits claimed western New Guinea as theirs but did not venture inland.  This minimal contact between the two regions enabled Papua to retain its Melanesian distinctiveness despite the burgeoning power and influence of the western empires.

Outside Looking In

Muslim missionaries beginning under the Abbasid Caliphate spread Islam to Indonesia in the 16th century, replacing many of the local kingdoms with sultanates.  Indonesia persisted as the domain of warring sultanates for another two centuries.  The Dutch, British, and Portuguese visitors who all sought to capture the trade in Maluku spices were mostly limited to meddling in these internal battles, trying to turn them to advantage.  The Portuguese managed to maintain pockets of control in Malacca (on the Malay Peninsula) and in the Maluku Islands off of Papua’s coast, which helped establish a Christian presence as well.  The Dutch eventually expelled the Portuguese from the archipelago (except for East Timor) and rapidly gained control over all of Maritime Southeast Asia except for the British Malay Peninsula, the British eastern half of New Guinea, and the Spanish Philippines.  Dutch rule was initially exploitative and brutal, compelling Javanese farmers into serfdom in all but name.  Later, the Dutch switched to ruling through local proxies (often deposed sultans reinstated as regents), reducing the brutality somewhat and enabling the region to become a hotbed of Dutch entrepreneurship.  Dutch-owned, Chinese-administered, locally worked plantations for a variety of crops, including cacao, rubber, coffee, and tea, in addition to the trade in spices from the Maluku Islands and eventual mining and oil exploration in Borneo, made the Dutch East Indies the most valuable colony in the world.

Dutch rule over so much of Maritime Southeast Asia led to the dispersal of the most populous ethnicities of the colony to the outlying islands.  Hundreds of thousands of Javanese, Sundanese, Balinese, and Madurese settled on the outlying islands, particularly Sumatra, Borneo, and the Lesser Sunda Islands such as Timor.   Papua received neither large-scale cultivation nor large-scale immigration, either of Dutch settlers or of western Indonesian migrants, at this time.  The same farming operations that worked so well for Dutch fortunes in the neighboring Malukus seemed to fail in Papua, leading most attempted Dutch settlers to leave disappointed.  Papua was, likewise, mostly left out of the network of roads and schools the Dutch established in the service of their empire.  The Papuans were not coerced into serving as colonial subjects in the same way as the Javanese and southern Malays and could maintain their ways of life for a few more decades, but neither could they enjoy the fruits of large-scale road building and deep trade ties with Europe.

The eastern half of the island had a more intense initial experience.  In the late 19thcentury, the northern portion became a German possession and the south fell to the British via Australia, divided by the Owen Stanley Ranges.  German New Guinea was a huge farming venture for cocoa and copra using forced native labor, whereas the British mostly ignored the Territory of Papua.  In 1921, as the Netherlands solidified their control over the western half of the island, Australia gained control over German New Guinea.  Under both the Germans and Australians, most colonization took place on the mid-sized offshore islands of the Bismarck Archipelago rather than the mainland.

In the interim between the World Wars, an Indonesian nationalist movement began to form.  Dutch efforts to interconnect the islands’ cities and to build an educated class that would, in their minds, serve as clerical labor for Dutch masters instead created a sense that Indonesia was (or could be) a single nation and provided the means and inspiration to work toward that goal.  Envisioning a consolidated Indonesian state that would encompass virtually all of Maritime Southeast Asia, the various components of the Indonesian National Awakening began agitating for independence from the Netherlands.  If any similar movement arose in the eastern half of the island, it was not nearly as prominent.  Neither movement had much success until World War II.


When the Empire of Japan invaded Indonesia in 1942, it effectively deposed Dutch, British, Australian, and Spanish control over all of Maritime Southeast Asia, though those nominal claims would be honored after the war.  The arrival of the Japanese was celebrated throughout Indonesia, and locals collaborated with the Japanese to expel their former Dutch rulers.  Japan actually encouraged the nationalist movement until it began to consider such sentiments threatening to its future plans for the archipelago.  In 1945, the Allied Powers defeated Japan and required its removal from all of Southeast Asia, restoring the previous colonial regimes as League of Nations mandates.  In Indonesia, this led immediately to the Indonesian National Revolution and a bloody four-year war against Allied (mostly Dutch) forces and separatists in the Maluku Islands for proper independence in 1949.  In what would become Papua New Guinea, agitation for independence was more subdued.  Papua New Guinea gained independence from Australia peacefully in 1975, followed promptly by the Bougainville revolt in its easternmost island and quasi-federal status for this distinctive island.

The Indonesia that became independent in 1949 did not include territory on New Guinea, a fact which incensed the increasingly authoritarian rulers of the new island country.  The Dutch encouraged their New Guinea territory toward separate independence, which it declared in 1961.  After the Dutch refused to instead consign the landmass to Indonesia, Indonesian paratroopers landed in Papua to fight the Dutch.  Hoping to retain Indonesia as a Cold War ally against the Soviets, the United States pressured the Netherlands into secret negotiations with Indonesia.  The resulting New York Agreement handed responsibility over former Dutch Papua to Indonesia pending a referendum to decide the territory’s ultimate fate in 1969.  This referendum was intended as a large-scale assessment of Papuan desires, but instead was a show of hands from a carefully selected group of 1025 (or 1056 or 1062; sources vary) village elders in the presence of the Indonesian military as well as UN observers, and given the farcically Orwellian name “the Act of Free Choice.”  Indonesia likewise invaded East Timor after the Portuguese withdrew unilaterally from their last possession in the area in 1975; again, the United States and other Western powers took Indonesia’s side to keep it in their Cold War toolbox.

In 1965, before the “Act of Free Choice” further motivated resistance to Indonesian control, the Organisasi Papua Merdeka, or Free Papua Movement, adopted the Dutch-inspired Papuan flag and anthem as their own and began agitating for Papuan independence.  In 1971, their commanders declared independence once more as the Republic of West Papua and drafted a constitution.  Subsequent insurgent activities have included attacks on the majority-migrant capital city Jayapura, sabotage of oil and mining pipelines, hostage-taking, and attacks on Indonesian security and military installations, continuing into the present day despite the act of even flying the Papuan flag being treasonous by Indonesian legal standards.  On the other side of New Guinea, Papua New Guinean forces faced their own conflict against separatist insurgents on the island of Bougainville, which ended in 2001 with a quasi-federal arrangement.  Papua New Guinea has refused to come to the aid of its ethnic and cultural kin to the west, instead preserving relations with Indonesia by returning refugees, disallowing the establishment of rebel bases in its territory, and establishing joint border patrols.  Yet the movement for a free Papua has been overwhelmingly peaceful, as attested by international observers, with OPM violence being far, far lower than the overwhelming military response from Indonesia would imply.

Under Indonesian sovereignty, West Papua (as it would come to be known) was a heavy recipient of Transmigrasi, an Indonesian population-transfer policy.  Much like the Dutch population transfers, Transmigrasi was an institutional inducement for people from the densely populated regions of Indonesia—Java, Bali, and Madura—to settle in the country’s periphery.  Ostensibly to more effectively utilize the natural resources of these areas and relieve population pressure in the crowded islands, this internal colonization policy also endeavors to crowd out and overwhelm indigenous resistance to Javanese control and to the idea of Indonesian nationhood.  In Indonesian Papua, migrants may comprise over 1 million of the region’s 3.5 million people, though exact figures are a state secret.  The region is officially controlled by the Indonesian military, which has wide authority to arrest, detain, and punish agitators of any sort under the mandate to squelch the separatist movement.  In addition to the millions of new settlers, the Indonesian military has killed 100,000-400,000 people suspected of aiding and abetting the separatist movement.

Looking Forward

Like India, Indonesia and especially New Guinea are dense webs of overwhelming ethnic and cultural diversity.  Indonesia is the kind of country that likely would not have formed without colonial intervention, with or without Papua.  Indonesia would likely have emerged into the 20th century as a series of independent sultanates, somewhat like Malaysia, if it had not been conquered and dominated centuries earlier.  Still, the prevalence of Malay dialects and closely related languages like Javanese suggests that a unifying cultural thread was already present, which could have served and may yet serve as a catalyst for a more natural sense of national unity to encompass this large country.  For all its diversity, Indonesia as a single country makes a certain amount of sense.

None of these thoughts apply to either half of the island of New Guinea.  New Guinea has a totally different ethnic composition, cultural environment, and history from its western neighbor.  Even the languages in New Guinea that show substantial influence from the west are still unique to this island and its immediate vicinity, defined by their indigenous Papuan components and their lack of speakers elsewhere.  Indonesia’s control over what are now the provinces of Papua and West Papua is nothing short of an occupation, and its continued efforts to crowd the island with Javanese and Madurese farmers nothing short of colonization.  East Timor got its independence in 2002, after an overwhelmingly positive UN-sponsored referendum and subsequent 2000-dead Indonesian military rampage, with much less cultural basis.  The Papuans now rightly ask: when is it their turn, and why wasn’t it in 1969?

Yet things are not so simple for the Papuans, either.  While the Austronesian/Melanesian language Tok Pisin is an effective lingua franca for much of Papua New Guinea, the island is the most linguistically dense region in the world.  New Guinea is home to hundreds of languages from dozens of small, poorly catalogued language families, some with only a handful of speakers.  Communication between the various regions of Papua New Guinea is already a challenge, worsened by the lack of road connectivity across much of the country.  Still, Papua New Guinea’s political system has endured for 40 years without being overthrown, unusual for a developing country, and it is tailor-made for a highly diverse population composed of hundreds of small ethnic blocs, suggesting that it might even be able to accommodate what its western neighbors would bring from their experience under the Dutch and Javanese.  Precisely because it is already so internally fragmented, Papua New Guinea is unlikely to fall apart—its people need each other.  The same internal pattern holds in West Papua, and the same systems will be enormously beneficial to the Bird’s Head as well as the Bird’s Tail.

(This map from is truly impressive in its detail and deserves to be viewed at the source.)

Such a merger would allow the Papuans—all of them—the chance to build a single Papuan/Melanesian country for themselves and to build a densely multiethnic nation out of their thousands of years of common history and shared experience as colonized islanders.  Perhaps their example would extend to the nearby Malukus, also home to Papuan speakers and historically hostile to their Indonesian leaders, or to Bougainville, whose culture pertains more neatly to the adjacent Solomon Islands.

A world where this highly underdeveloped, culturally unique region could get to make its own way in the world could be more interesting than any other.
Shifty Lines: Papua