History Content for the Future

Papua / New Guinea – A Forgotten Conflict

From at least 1512 CE until today, the motley patchwork of states and ethnicities of the archipelago of the pacific islands that we know as Indonesia and Papua New Guinea has been contested land. The resource-rich region saw local lords caught in a struggle between Great Britain, the Netherlands, the Ottoman Empire and Japan until after the world wars. In 1945 the Indonesian War of Independence broke out against the main colonial power, the Netherlands aided by Great Britain and Japan. The bloody war ended in Indonesian independence in 1949. Well, almost – the Dutch still retained control over Western New Guinea, while the other half of the Island gained autonomy within Australian dominion.

Papua or New Guinea is one of the most ethnically diverse regions in the world. In 2020 the island has a total population of over 13 million, speaking over 850 languages. It is still largely wilderness, with only 13.5% living in urban areas, and some populations who have never been contacted by the outside world. Yet, the island is caught in a struggle between Indonesian dominance and unified independence.

From 1949 onwards, Western Papuans also sought self rule. Gradually the Netherlands were forced to face the inevitable, while Indonesia stepped up pressure to incorporate West Papua. Through the 1960s various attempts were made to find a resolution. The Dutch tried and failed to gain international military support to hold off Indonesia and grant the Papuans independence. Finally, in 1969 Indonesia orchestrated a rigged referendum to vote for incorporation, where only 1,022 of the 816,000 Papuans of the time were allowed to vote. Faced by the choice of war with Indonesia or accepting Indonesian rule, the United Nations chose to accept annexation.

While East Papua gained full independence in 1975, the conflict with Indonesia over West Papua with sporadic fighting on the Island continues to this day. It has so far cost the life of up to half a million people.

Watch our series about the Indonesian War of Independence here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLrG5J-K5AYAUw4KtvsHRu-ZS0sSEcHmJE