Sixty years ago in Bandung, 29 representatives from Asian and African nations were enthused with the spirit of decolonization, and today even more seem determined to pursue South-South cooperation.
If we look back at the 1955 Bandung conference as described in Richard Wright’s “The Colour Curtain,” it was simply stunning. Most of the leaders of newly independent nations were former political prisoners under their respective colonial regimes. Those who had long been treated as underdogs were now in charge of new nations. It was a new dawn of liberation and in 1960 these Asian and African countries made history through the adoption of Resolution No. 1514 on Decolonization at the General Assembly of the United Nations.
For this year’s commemorative Asian-African Conference, Indonesia has set three main goals: 1. strengthening South-South cooperation to promote world peace and properity; 2. reinvigorating the New Asian-African Strategic Partnership; and 3. a Declaration on Palestine.
However, one thing is missing in this picture: Papua.
Sixty years ago, Papua was on the top of then-president Sukarno’s decolonization agenda. He managed to get the support from many of the participants of the Bandung conference for his diplomatic battle at the UN to make Papua — still ruled by the Dutch — part of the Republic of Indonesia. The Dutch were still recovering from their postcolonial syndrome and although they had started to realize that their time had passed, they were determined to hold on to what they called Netherlands New Guinea, and what Indonesia referred to as West Irian.
The debates at the UN centered on the topic of unfinished decolonization and the serious threat to world peace this posed. With the support of other Asian and Africa countries, Indonesian diplomats tirelessly argued before the General Assembly that West Irian was part of Indonesia as agreed during the Roundtable Conference in The Hague in 1949. Furthermore, they argued that the situation was detrimental to stability in the Southeast Asian region, calling on the UN to step in, as mandated by the UN Charter.
With the support of 14 countries, in 1954 Indonesia managed to table “The Question of West Irian” at the UNGA but it took another year before the UN General Assembly adopted it as Resolution 915(X) in 1955. The journey was far from over.
In the following years, Indonesia fought hard for the topic to be put on the agenda at the UNGA, with the support of 15 Asian and African nations, but failed. Australia was one of the countries that consistently voted against the proposal, whereas the United States opted for abstention — giving the Dutch leeway. This diplomatic failure led Sukarno to divert his energy to scale up the nation’s military capacity and, ultimately, launch an assault — Operation Trikora in 1961.
Not long after, the current provinces of Papua and West Papua were transferred to Indonesia after a brief period of UN administration. However, many people do not realize that until today, “Papua” remains an unresolved question.
Papuans have long appealed for a peaceful solution to the decades-old conflict in the easternmost part of the country. It has been a while since local church leaders declared Papua as a “Land of Peace” in 1998, following the bloody massacre of Biak, which remains unresolved. Filep Karma, who rose the Morning Star flag in Biak days before the massacre, remains in jail for doing the same thing in 2004.
The Papuan Peace Network has been trying to persuade Jakarta to engage in dialogue with Papuans since 2009. President B.J. Habibie’s administration told the 100 Papuan representatives to go home and rethink their call for independence. The administration of president Susilo Bambang Yudhyono held two separate meeting with Papuan church leaders and promised to organize a dialogue, which never happened. President Joko Widodo visited Papua after promising to improve the situation on the campaign trail.
But Papuans are still waiting.
While the national government is determined to revive the Bandung spirit of liberation by proposing a Declaration onPalestine, local police in Jayapura on April 8 arrested five Papuan leaders and charged them with treason even though they had only just returned home from a meeting with Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu. Papuan efforts to establish a dialogue are being criminalized. Charges remind us of the colonial time, when our founding fathers were persecuted for expressing their political positions.
Papuans are no longer placing their hopes in Asian and African countries, and some have started to shift their focus to the Pacific.
The Melanesian Spearhead Group has become a new forum to find a solution for Papua. During its 2013 summit, the MSG expressed concerns over the human rights situation in Papua and called on Indonesia to find a peaceful solution. The summit also discussed an application for membership from Papuan representatives, although a decision has been delayed. But in May, the MSG will again discuss the application during its summit in Honiara.
“The Question of West Irian” is still very much alive.
Budi Hernawan is a research fellow at the Abdurrahman Wahid Center for Interfaith Dialogue and Peace at the University of Indonesia (UI).