Papua New Guinea will be celebrating 44 years of independence this month. I’ve heard people ask questions about why we celebrate independence when our government systems are corrupt, when our service delivery is inefficient, when 80% of the country in rural areas still struggle with access to basic services, when our roads keep deteriorating etc…
I’ve not only heard, but I’ve also asked these questions myself, what are we celebrating when our country seems to be moving back instead of forward? Comparing the past with the present, hearing stories and seeing pictures from the past made me wonder if independence was a good idea.
This year, PNG’s oldest political party, Pangu turned 52 years old. Pangu strongmen Sir Peter Lus, Sir Michael Somare and Sir Rabbie Namaliu were part of the celebrations in Lae.
I had the opportunity to hear them speak about why they wanted independence 44 years ago, and much of it was because they were being treated with inferiority in our own land.
We don’t experience it now, but there were certain places, and things that us black men and women could not do or go to, and this was in our own country. I had the privilege of interviewing Sir Michael and he talked about how Tony Voutas educated Papua New Guineans about politics and told them not to settle as second class citizens in their own country.
Sir Michael said Voutas told them that they would remain second persons all their lives if they didn’t motivate themselves to take the stand and be a Papua New Guineans.
“I thought, yeah I think receiving certain amount of education I thought we should be treated better, but we were being treated like that.”
A young Rabbie Namaliu was a student at UPNG at the time when Mr. Michael and his team went to spread the idea in schools. Of course, Namaliu having had his own experiences of being treated with inferiority, jumped at the idea. This was his step into politics.
We gained independence in 1975, and as most would know, it wasn’t much of a struggle, in fact people describe it as being handed independence on a golden plate.
Sir Julius Chan said “this must be the smoothest transition from a colony to an independent nation, by any comparison in the world.”
I couldn’t agree with this statement any less. Many countries fought blood, tooth, and nail to gain independence from their colonizers. Papua New Guinea did not.
This is what is happening right now in West Papua.
WEST PAPUA: THE MELANESIAN COUNTRY IN WAITING
West Papua is not just a neighboring country; they are part of the Melanesian family. We share more than a border; we share a land mass divided by an invisible line set by the colonial powers that governed us.
In the colonizers efforts to gain territories for their countries, they divided families, clans, cultures, ethnicities. They divided WAN PIPOL. People that shared the same dark skin and fuzzy hair.
West Papua was claimed by the Dutch along with the islands that now make up Indonesia. The Javanese had their share of fighting with the Dutch rulers and their history is no different from those countries who shed blood for their freedom.
The Dutch gained control of the islands, waging war on the natives as they moved to claim territories in the 1800’s and 1900’s. Apart from seizing Java from the Portugese in the 1700’s, the Dutch claimed Pelambang in Sumatra, Bali, Aceh, Lombok and Sulawesi, including West Papua which formally became a Dutch colony in 1894.
In 1942, the Japanese invaded Indonesia during WW2 and the Dutch surrendered. The Japanese who were seen by the Indonesians as liberators. became brutal. The Japanese surrendered in 1945 but favored independence for the Indonesian’s.
Sukarno declared Indonesian independence in 1945 but the Dutch were not willing to let the colony go. They later signed the Linggadjati agreement recognizing Java and Sumatra as the New republic but were still in control of the other islands.
The Dutch tried to claim Indonesia again but Indonesians used guerilla warfare and were successful. In 1949, the Dutch agreed to recognize Indonesia’s independence and withdrew their troops, but West Papua did not join the country.
It was evident that West Papua was geographically, culturally and ethnically different from the rest of Indonesia. In the 1950’s the Dutch started preparing West Papua for its own independence. In 1961, a congress was held to discuss West Papua’s independence, and that was when the “morning star” was first raised. West Papuan Independence was also said to have been declared at this time.
The Republic of Indonesia however wanted to claim West Papua to keep the former Dutch colonies. This caused a conflict between the Dutch, Indonesia and the indigenous West Papuans.
In the efforts to address this, the United Nations sponsored the New York agreement, and appointed Indonesia as a temporary administrator from 1963. A requirement of the treaty was that the West Papuans would vote in a referendum on independence, which would be overseen by the UN.
When the vote was held in 1969, it was reported that 1,026 West Papuans out of a population of 1 million were chosen and threatened to vote in favor of remaining part of Indonesia. What was supposed to be an “Act of Free Choice” was dubbed an “Act of No Choice”.
WEST PAPUA’S EAST IN NEW GUINEA
10 years before West Papua became a Dutch colony in 1894, the British had already established their protectorate in South-East New Guinea whilst the Germans annexed the Northern part of New Guinea.
Within a space of 10 years, the single land mass of the island of New Guinea inhabiting Melanesians with similar ethnic traits were carved up between the Dutch, British and Germans. We were divided, and ruled by separate powers. One New Guinea became Dutch New Guinea, British New Guinea, and German New Guinea.
South-East New Guinea as it was called is now the Southern Region of Papua New Guinea, including parts of the Highlands region. The Northern part that Germany annexed stretches from what is now West Sepik to Morobe, and the New Guinea Islands.
In 1906, the control of British New Guinea was given to Australia and the territory was renamed Papua.
During WW2, the Japanese invaded and occupied Papua and New Guinea but were pushed off by the Australians and the allied forces. After the war, the League of Nations and the United Nations Trust territory mandated Australia to administer Papua and New Guinea as a single territory.
In the 1950’s while the Dutch were preparing West Papua for Independence, Australia set up a Legislative council, the judiciary, and the public service for its mandated colony in Papua and New Guinea.
One year after Indonesia was appointed temporary administrator for West Papua, the legislative council in Papua and New Guinea was replaced by an elected house of assembly in 1964. In 1972, the territory was renamed Papua New Guinea.
Between 1973 and 1975, Papua New Guinea was well on its way to becoming an independent nation. West Papuans on the other hand were facing an adversity of increased military activity against them. This was when West Papuans started joining the Organasisi Papua Merdeka (OPM) of the Free Papua Movement.
The Indonesians invaded West Papua and seized traditionally owned land to be used as transmigrations sites. Indonesia’s transmigrasi (transmigration) plan from 1984 to 1989 involved the migration of 5 million people from Java, Bali and Madura to West Papua and other provinces.
An estimate of over 10, 000 West Papuans were said to have crossed the border to Papua New Guinea at the time.
THE SUPPRESSION, RACISM, AND DISCRIMINATION
Over the years, there have been reports of human rights violations against the Indonesian government as Indonesia’s military forces brutalized and jailed West Papuan activists, and raided villages searching for OPM members.
Pictures of men, women and children have been shared a hundred times over showing them fleeing from their homes to seek refuge in safer places. Reports of gun battles between the Indonesian militia and the retaliations by the resistance have often come from the Papua Province, particularly in Nduga – the highlands of the West Papua.
In August, West Papuan Students in Surabaya were called monkeys and were tortured by the Indonesian forces. This sparked a series of protests that were staged simultaneously in the cities of West Papua and across the country condemning the racial slurs that were made by the forces.
One message I received read, “Kami marah karena sudah sering mereka bilang orang Papua monyet.” – “We are angry because they often say Papuan people are monkeys.”
In Manokwari, the provincial capital of West Papua, protesters set fire to a local parliament building following the Surabaya incident, which had 43 West Papuan students detained.
The protests have continued in parts of West Papua as they demand their right to self-determination. There have been up to 6 deaths already, including a 29-year-old student from Sorong, whilst others are being arrested.
Whilst East New Guinea approaches 44 years of independence, West New Guinea still fights for the freedom that they long to declare.
PNG APPROACHES 44 YEAR OF INDEPENDENCE
Ask me why you should celebrate independence despite our broken down systems and I’ll tell you this.
Celebrate independence because you are not suppressed in your country.
Celebrate it because you are not being brutalized in the country that is supposed to be your home.
Celebrate it because you are not being held at gunpoint fighting for what you believe in.
Celebrate it because you are not being discriminated and tortured because of the color of your skin.
Celebrate it because you have the right to raise your provincial flag and sing your provincial anthems.
CELEBRATE IT BECAUSE YOU ARE INDEPENDENT AND YOU ARE FREE!
As we approach 44 years of independence, I hope you listen to the words of the Anthem as it is being sung. Sing it not only for Papua New Guinea, but sing it for West- Papua- New Guinea because we are one people, Yumi Wan New Guinea, Yumi Wan Melanesia.
Hope for our brothers and sisters that we will one day raise the “Morning star” and sing “Hai Tanahku Papua” with pride and not with fear.