How New Zealand joined Australia to betray West Papua

Maire Leadbeater documents the oppression of West Papua and the campaign for its freedom.

See No Evil: New Zealand’s betrayal of the people of West Papua
By Maire Leadbeater
Otago University Press, 2018
Paperback, 296 pages

New Zealand solidarity activist Maire Leadbeater’s new book, See No Evil: New Zealand’s betrayal of the people of West Papua, features a theme also relevant for Australia. Both countries were involved in the tragic betrayal of West Papua.

It is a valuable record for anybody interested in West Papua. It’s a well-documented timeline of the history of the nation from its early links with Asia through the period of Dutch colonisation, the Indonesian takeover in the 1960s and up to the present day.

New Zealand and Australia both shared a deep fear that they may be overwhelmed — swamped — by the Asian masses to our north. NZ had its equivalent of the White Australia policy.

NZ officials even had their own version of the domino theory. Then-NZ foreign minister Frederick Doidge attended the Commonwealth Foreign Ministers conference in Colombo in 1950 where the Colombo Plan was inaugurated with the aim of preventing Southeast Asian nations turning to the Communist world. His officials warned him that the unsolved problem of “Dutch New Guinea” might be raised at the conference.

NZ officials said in a memo: “New Guinea (or any major part of it) in the hands of an enemy or potential enemy would constitute a threat to New Caledonia, Fiji and hence to NZ.”

The same memo said of New Guinea: “It is part of the long, broken spine of mountains that runs from Central Asia through Burma, East Indies, New Guinea, New Caledonia down to New Zealand and would be on the direct route for any potential aggressor from South or South-eastern Asia.”

If such a scenario seems far-fetched today, the memory of the Japanese advance south in World War II was still fresh in people’s memories. The Japanese occupied the Dutch East Indies during the war.

The Indonesian people won independence from the Dutch in 1949, but the Dutch held on to their colony in West New Guinea. With Indonesian President Sukarno demanding that Dutch New Guinea be part of Indonesia, the Dutch prepared for West Papuan independence.

At first, NZ and Australia supported Dutch claims to the colony. It was seen by both countries as in their strategic interest to have another colonial power acting as a buffer zone from any potential invader from the north. Leadbeater writes that NZ “was not looking at the Papuan people but rather at its own strategic interests and the need to stay in step with Western allies”.

It was ultimately a plan by United States diplomat Elsworth Bunker, the New York Agreement, which eventually paved the way for Indonesia's takeover of West New Guinea.

The New York Agreement aimed to “set out a semblance of international involvement and fair process: first temporary UN administration, then full Indonesian control and finally some opportunity for ‘self-determination’, which would involve the United Nations.”

Tragically the “self-determination” involved was a farce — the so-called Act of Free Choice held in 1969 is known to West Papuans as the Act of No Choice.

Australia was probably the last country to keep supporting the Dutch claims on West New Guinea, finally caving in after the New York Agreement.

An indication of Australia’s commitment to supporting the Dutch was an anecdote told to me by a former Australian soldier from those days who told me he was part of a contingent of Australian troops who were set to fly to West Papua to support the Dutch, until Australia’s change of heart with the New York Agreement.

Leadbeater also covers the effect various regional issues had on West Papua. The most important was the horrific mass killings in 1965-1966 of Communists and leftists that accompanied a military coup. Up to a million people are believed to have been killed, with thousands more jailed.

Leadbeater writes: “Within months … Sukarno’s left-leaning nationalist regime gave way to the ‘New Order’ — an anti-Communist dictatorial regime with a welcome mat for foreign corporations.”

It also led to the West, strongly supportive of the New Order dictatorship of General Suharto, being unwilling to criticise the farce that was the Act of Free Choice in 1969.

Leadbeater’s timeline continues down the tragic path of West Papuan history. It takes in the Indonesian takeover and the various uprising by the West Papuan people against Indonesian rule.

Leadbeater also writes about the Papuan cultural revolution in the 1980s. This was led by Arnold Ap, an anthropologist, musician, leader of the Mambesak group and curator of the Museum at the Cenderawasih University. He was arrested in November 1983 as a suspected sympathiser of the Free West Papua Movement (OPM), which was waging an armed struggle against Indonesian occupation. He was shot while allegedly escaping custody in 1984.

Leadbeater also documents the growing support for West Papua’s cause in the Pacific region. She looks at the formation of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) in 2014, led by Octo Mote and Benny Wenda. This was critical to presenting a united front to the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) who the West Papuans were lobbying for membership. The ULMWP was granted observer status at the MSG in June 2015.

Support by governments in the region has led to the issue being raised at the UN and support by civil society continues to grow in the Pacific region. Indonesia has responded to this growing support by offering aid to Pacific countries.

NZ civil society groups have hosted many visits from West Papuan activists and leaders. The NZ media have also continuously covered the West Papuan issue, in particular Radio New Zealand International (now Radio New Zealand Pacific).

It is now 55 years since Indonesia took over the administration of West Papua. The West Papuan people are still marching in the streets, risking arrest and torture to insist on their right to self-determination.

As long as the West Papuan people continue to protest the injustices they suffer under Indonesian rule, and their supporters continue to help in raising awareness of the issue, they will be successful. 

As Leadbeater concludes: “Freedom finally came to East Timor, and international solidarity was a key factor in bringing about change.”