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International Relations and Hegemonic Determinism on the Future of West Papua

February 19, 2017

Written by Virginia Reid, George Mason University



International relations are essentially intrinsic phenomena in the globalized world. The establishment of positive economical and political connections among nation states is paramount for the adequate development and maintenance of country, as well as for granting nations the right to self-determination and the recognition as member of a transnational network.

International coalitions formed by developed countries such as NATO, the European Union and the United Nations, alongside Hegemonic nations are deterministic forces who exert power over underdeveloped countries deciding their fate according to selfish objectives. According to Colin Flint, Hegemony is an economic process for selfish goals, and not global benevolence. (Flint, 2011, p. 198) Although the geopolitical actions of powerful countries in the world may at times benefit poorer countries or even the world as a whole, they primarily focused in strategic protocols that seek to guarantee benefits to their political and economic needs.

A well depicted example of the determinism on poor nations caused by International coalitions and hegemonic powers is the dispute over the territory of West Papua[1]. Its status as Indonesian territory has been conceded through international negotiations among Indonesia, the Netherlands, the U.S., and other nations and international alliances, without truly considering the needs and wants of the native Papuans.

Geopolitics seeks to explain the relationship between land and power, by analyzing how political interests affect national and international struggle over the land and resources. It is in the geopolitical light that the struggles over the Papuan territory as well as the deterministic role of Hegemonic countries over the Papuans are explored in this paper.

The dispute over West Papua

The origin of disagreement over possession of the territory of West Papua, for the purposes of discussion in this paper, was a result of “The Round Table Agreement” of 1949, when the Netherlands granted independence to the archipelago nation of Indonesia, after being deserted by important allies, the U.S and Australia, who allegedly wanted to see an end to the era of colonialism. After that agreement, Indonesia and the Netherlands still had shaky relations and a heated disagreement over the possession of West Papua.

For the Dutch, West Papua was important in the past due to it being an outer defense perimeter against foreign incursions on the eastern flank of the Netherlands East Indies. Although that importance became meaningless after the dissolution of the Dutch empire, they still wanted to hold on to the territory of West Papua as remains of the empire they were once proud of, in addition to showing superiority over the Indonesians by retaining a territory that was desirable to them. Simply handing over West Papua to Indonesia would mean complete loss of a great empire legacy and hurt the nationalist pride of the Dutch. Christopher McMullen, a history PHD from Georgetown University, argues that the Dutch policy of retention of West Papua was a form of revenge against Indonesian nationalists who had rejected Dutch rule. (McMullen, 1981, p. 3)

For the Indonesians, allowing the Dutch to keep control over West Papua would jeopardize their new and fragile national cohesion. The Indonesians still felt great resentment against the Dutch due to their efforts to fragment the Indonesian nation through the imposition of a loose federal system prior to independence. Additionally, the Indonesians believed the Dutch were secretly involved in separatists’ movements against the establishment of the Indonesian National Revolution. The Dutch presence in West Papua was a constant threat to accomplishing the territorial goals of Indonesian Revolution as well as a vestige of colonialism. (McMullen, 1981, p. 2)

After the initial years post “The Round Table Agreement” of 1949, both Indonesia and the Netherlands appealed several times to the United Nations attempting to gain approval in the control of West Papua. Although none of the parties were able to get a substantial number of votes on general assemblies for the resolution of the matter. Relations between the two countries escalated. The Indonesian government, adamant about possessing the Papuan territory sought help from the communist bloc countries. It accepted large amounts of military and economic aid from the Soviet Union, and was ready to go on war to guarantee that West Papua became permanently part Indonesian territory.

Meanwhile, the Dutch government realized it would be costly and dangerous to fight the Indonesians, who had been actively and tactically getting ready for a war. Attempting to avoid complications in the international arena, which condemned colonialism, and preventing war against the Indonesians, the Dutch took a more philosophical approach on the matter. They changed their policy in regards to the Papuan issue by recognizing that the Papuan people were distinct from the Indonesians and should be allowed to determine their own political future. Instead of claiming control over the Papuan territory the Netherlands asserted that the Papuans should be granted opportunity for self-determination, and decide whether they wanted to be under Indonesian rule through a plebiscite. The Dutch started investing on the development on West Papuan public services and education of the people, preparing them for the possible independence to come. (Fernandes, 2006, p. 53-54)

Initially, the United States did not get involved in the Papuan territorial disputes. The U.S. stood for the principle of “freedom” and had been previously involved in the process of self-determination of other countries such as Indonesia itself. However, on the context of the cold war, interfering in a mere territorial dispute and assisting the Dutch on the self-determination act of West Papua was not a priority at first. The Unites States was already involved in conflict in Laos and in the Vietnam, and could not afford to get deeply involved in another war context; therefore it just maintained a position of neutrality for a while. (McMullen, 1981, p. 7) Additionally, the Australian Government sympathized with Indonesia’s nationalist and anti-colonialist position and was also supporter of the process of independence of Indonesia, being in favor of its dominance over West Papua. (Fernandes, 2006, p. 18)

The failure of bilateral negotiations between The Hague and Jakarta resulted on increased tensions. With the growth and expansion of communist sentiment through the PKI, a Moscow- oriented Communist Party, the Indonesians threatened to fight the Dutch for the Papuan territory. At that time, the American government felt the need to diplomatically intervene in the negotiations and attempt to pacify the Indonesian government. The United States and Australia feared that if a war between Indonesia and the Netherlands occurred, it would trigger deeper issues of polarization since they would have to align with the West and support the Dutch, while the Indonesians would be supported by the communist camp. Such polarization would translate in a deeper entrenchment of communism in Indonesia conceding strategic advantages to Soviet Union and Communist China. (McMullen, 1981, p 7-8)

In late 1961 the American president, Kennedy, issued letters to Indonesian and the Netherlands governments urging the importance to avoid war and settled the territorial dispute peacefully. Both countries selected an American, Ellsworth Bunker, to serve as a mediator during the negotiations. Bunker was tasked by the American government to prepare a thoroughly crafted proposal that would ideally benefit both parties, ensuring that Indonesians would not pursue war and that the Dutch would be conceded that the right for self-determination would be granted to the Papuans. The negotiations were heated. The Indonesians requested that West Papua be conceded as their territory immediately ending any further dispute. Meanwhile, the Dutch wanted a transition period, with the UN being responsible for overseeing West Papua during the preparation of the people for the plebiscite. (McMullen, 1981, p 9-13)

According to McMullen, the United Nations was an important instrument for the Dutch to save face on the Papuan issue. The Dutch were aware of the ramifications that a war with the Indonesians would provoke on the context of the cold war. They also knew that the United States and Australia’s reluctance in backing them up with military personal at first, indicated that those countries were more concerned about the negative impact the conflict would bring for containment of communism. Therefore, the Dutch came to terms that they might not be able to secure the possession of the West Papuan territory, and just wanted the world to know that they did not give up in the matter and attempted to protect the Papuans right for self-determination. (McMullen, 1981, p 13 and 42)

On August 15, 1962, the Netherlands and Indonesia’s governments came to an agreement, accepting the terms of the Bunker- Stavropolous plan, also known as the New York agreement, which was crafted by the United States’ mediator and adjusted by the contending governments to ensure that both parties’ requirements were satisfied. The plan stated that The Netherlands would transfer control of the Papuan territory to the UNTEA (Unite Nations Temporary Executive Authority) and its personnel, which would manage the territory for a year. The plan also stated that the Indonesian armed forces had the right of presence in that land if they stayed under the authority of the UN commissioner until the complete transfer of the Papuan territory to the Indonesians occurred in no later than May 1, 1963. Following the transfer of administrative authority to Indonesia, UN personnel would remain in West Papua to advise and assist in the preparations for the conduction of the decision over self-determination, which was supposed to take place within six years of the Indonesian sovereignty. Lastly, it stated that full diplomatic relations between Indonesia and The Netherlands would be restored after the signing of this agreement. (McMullen, 1981, p. 38-64)

Although the New York agreement had been signed by the Indonesian president Sukarno, it was the new leader, the repressive and authoritarian Major- General Suharto, who devised a plan to guarantee that the Papuan territory would stay under Indonesia’s rule. Suharto claimed that due to the unique social and geographical difficulties of the Papuan territory. He affirmed that the one person one vote system was not adequate in the rural areas of Papua because the population was not politically educated enough. Suharto determined that the best alternative to conduct a poll of the opinion of the Papuan people over the question of self-determination would be through the process of “musywarah”- a process towards decision-making based on discussion, understanding, and knowledge of the problem. The United Nations diplomat, Fernando Ortiz, was sent to Indonesia to participate and oversee the Papuans decision in regards to their self-determination. The Indonesian government purposefully delayed his entrance into the country in order to intimidate the Papuans to accept Indonesian sovereignty, through the means of air and ground attacks, torture, and mass killings. In the summer of 1969, the act of free choice, as denominated by the Indonesian governor, took place involving only 1022[2] West Papuans handpicked and coerced by the Indonesian government without the supervision of the United Nations. The act of free choice, which resulted in the unanimous vote of the selected delegates Papuans expressing their will in continuing being part of Indonesia, was accepted by the UN General Assembly, making of west Papua the 27th province of Indonesia. (Fernandes, 2006, p. 56-58)

A maritime odyssey by forty three West Papuans in a traditional outtrigger canoe. They circumnavigated their huge homeland before crossing the bottleneck of currents between New Guinea and Australia, then beached their canoe at Mapoon on the west coast of North Queensland on 17 January 2006.

Damien Baker of Torres News ( a small weekly newspaper based on Thursday Island ) took the first photograph of the group, sitting under a tree at the edge of a lagoon, and immediately uploaded his photo to the internet. When the group was granted asylum, Indonesia withdrew its ambassador from Canberra, Australia.

The Papuan People and consequences of Hegemonic determinism

West Papua represents half of the second biggest island in the world, which was divided in the mid-19th century between Germany and the Netherlands. The Germany share was the eastern portion, called New Guinea, and the western portion denominated West Papua. West Papua is home for thousand of Melanesian natives who first occupied the island approximately 50,000 years ago. The natives are divided among hundreds of tribes, speaking 250 distinct dialects. As accounted by Clinton Fernandes, lecturer in strategic studies at University of South Wales, “the collision of the Indo-Australian and Pacific geological plates, about 10-20 million years ago, created the mountains of over 500 meters located in the southeast and northwest of the island. It also set off volcanic eruptions that pumped molted material from the ocean floor into the mountains, forming large mineral deposits of copper and gold.” (Fernandes, 2006, p 45)

For Indonesia, taking legal control over West Papua represented the achievement of complete nationhood; for the Papuans it was the beginning of its ruin. The population of Papua have been suppressed and denied the expression of their culture as well as the possibility of ameliorating its economical status. According to Dale Gietzelt of the University of Sidney, the Indonesian government had systematically tried to forge new identities for the indigenous Papuan people, as Indonesians (Malays) rather than Melanesians. This acculturation process seeks to fully incorporating the West Papuan population into the Indonesian nation-state through the education system, the media, economic development and trans- migration. Gietzelt calls this process ‘Indonesianization’, which implies forced instilment of the Indonesian world-view on the Papuans with the premise that they are more advanced and civilized. This process would also ensure greater trouble-free exploitation of the rich resources in the region. (Gietzelt, 1989, p 201)

Likewise, Peter King, a researcher and member of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies form University of Sydney, denounces that the Indonesian government’s main goal in the acquisition of Papua and the acculturation of its people is due to it being substantially profitable because of its biodiversity and vast natural resources. The Indonesian Government started exploring Papuan natural resources in early 1963, before the act of free choice. Later, in 1967, they signed a contract with New Orleans Company Free Port McMoran to exploit the copper and gold resource of Papuan Land. After this transaction, Freeport found itself owner of the largest gold mine and most profitable copper mine in the World. Fifty percent of the Papuan territory’s national GDP come from these mines. In addition, lucrative natural-gas fields are operated by several companies, with the large operation in Tangguh by BP. However, profits and royalties of these activities are drained away to Jakarta and to the brutal militias who ensure protection of the mines and gas fields. The native West Papuans have lived in extreme poverty and segregation situations. They are treated as a minority in their own country, suffering innumerous counts of human rights violations. (King, 2004, p 23) Amnesty International has estimated that over 100,000 Papuans have been killed by Indonesian troops and police since Indonesia assumed control of West Papua. (Asia Sentinel, June 2012)

Fernandes argues that Papuans had a distinct ethnicity identity long before Europeans entered the region and they have attempted to maintain their sense of own racial and cultural distinctiveness[3]. Furthermore, King states that Papuan have mobilized to assert their rights to greater participation in decision-making and self-determination. Fernandes affirms that formal Papuan resistance to Indonesian rule started as early as 1963, with the emergence of OPM (Organisani Papua Merdeka- Free Papua Movement). The OPM is insurgent militant group which has engaged in physical confrontation against Indonesian militias and police. (Fernandes, 2006, p 57).

Herman Wainggai – Leader of Nonviolent Struggle in West Papua

Other insurgent groups take a more pacifist approach, such as political nonviolent activists groups directed by highly educated Papuans, which have mobilized the population to demand the right for a democratic conduction of the act of free choice, and forged Papuan councils in preparation for economic and political autonomy of the country. Herman Wainggai, a member of the West Papuan National Authority and leader of nonviolent political actions, states that the nonviolent struggle in to achieve Merdeka (Freedom) is restless and ongoing. He affirms that the Indonesian government has arrested incarcerated and tortured nonviolent political activists since the 1980’s. It also has committed several counts of human rights violations against activists and civilians in order to contain the Merdeka movement. Wainggai also affirms that the Indonesian government ensures isolation of the Papuan people being very restrictive in allowing diplomats, NGOs and media in the territory, to avoid leakage of its inhumane practices in the international arena. Wainggai asserts that the Papuans struggle for freedom will not end until it is achieved, and the Morning Star Flag[4] rises as the national symbol of a Papuan country. (Wainggai, 2012)


The interplay among Hegemonic powers was a deterministic force that manipulated the situation of the territorial dispute of West Papua and affected the reality of its native people today. The forging o the New York agreement by US officials along with the Dutch and Indonesian government reflected entirely and simply the warranty of the fulfillment of their national interests. The United States and Australia were satisfied in securing the avoidance of war and polarization that could have strengthened the communist bloc during their containment policy. The UN helped save face of the Dutch by avoiding a direct transference of the Papuan territory to Indonesia, however denying the Papuans a fair opportunity to self determination and closing its eyes to the corruption and unfairness of the Act of Free Choice. The Dutch gained a good reputation by posing as Papuan benefactors by being adamant that the Papuans had a right of self-determination, when their chance of securing the territory as their own became slim. As a result, the Indonesian rule over West Papua has been an abusive and authoritative form of neocolonialism, that has oppressed the people, exploited the land without providing opportunity for Papuans descent living. The Hegemonic determinism may deny the Papuans acknowledgment of their distinct and rich culture and identity, as well as the right to their land. However, I believe that it may not quench their hope in their heart for Merdeka!


 Works Cited

Correspondant. Asian Sentinel. 14 June 2012. 23 July 2012.

Fernandes, Clinton. Reluctant Indonesians; Australia, Indonesia, and the future of West Papua. Carlton North, Australia: Scribe Publications, 2006.

Flint, Colin. Introduction to Geopolitics. New York: Routledge, 2012.

Gietzelt, Dale. “The Indonesianation of West Papua.” Oceania March 1989: 201-221.

King, Peter. West Papua & Indonesia since Suharto; Independence, Autonomy or Chaos? Sydney: UNSW Press, 2004.

McMullen, Christopher J. Mediation of The West New Guinea Dispute, 1962; A Case Study. Washington DC: Library Of Congress, 1981.

Wainggai, Herman. Interview. Virginia Reid. 25 July 2012.


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