From the vaults: The independence struggle in West Papua New Guinea (1978)

Liberation fighters today

The article below first appeared in the April 7, 1978 issue of the fortnightly left-wing workers’ paper Socialist Action.  The article is referred to in Maire Leadbeater’s new book on NZ and West Papua – we’ll be reviewing the book and interviewing Maire shortly.

by Philip Ferguson

Over the last few years there has been an upsurge in struggles for political independence in the Pacific area.  One of the least known of these is the fight currently being waged by the Melanesian people of West Papua New Guinea (West Irian) against Indonesian control of their country.  Recently Socialist Action interviewed a member of the South Pacific News Service, the information service of the Provisional Revolutionary Government which is leading the independence struggle.  This article is based on information obtained from that interview.

Dutch colony

West Irian was initially a Dutch colony, along with the rest of present-day Indonesia.  Following the Second World War the Dutch took some steps to localise the administration and began educating West Irians.  In the late 1950s they also initiated a form of “colonial democracy” by establishing local councils and representative assemblies which gave the people some voice.  Eventually a national council was established which shared power with the Dutch administration.

However, following the success of the post-war Indonesian independence struggle, which was supported by a faction in West Irian, Indonesia laid claim to the country.  There were discussions over its future involving the Netherlands, Indonesia, the United States and sometimes Australia (which ruled over the eastern half of the island).  The local population had no say in the process.

Indonesian take-over

Under American instigation a compromise was reached whereby the United Nations would take over the country in 1962.  The Dutch would be phased out and the Indonesians take over administration until they considered the time was right for what was called the “Act of Self-Determination” or “Act of Free Choice”.

In 1963, however, Indonesia took over the country and began removing West Irianese from any administrative positions.  The representative system established by the Dutch was disbanded or stacked with Indonesian puppets.

A system of “musjurawah”, or consultation, was set up by which the country was divided into a series of regions.  Each one got together a representative council consisting of traditional leaders, people from church groups and missions and, in some cases, a few who were elected.

When, under international pressure, the Indonesians were forced to hold the “Act of Free Choice” in 1969, they forced people at gunpoint to vote for integration.  Of the 1,000 people on the councils all but four raised their hands for this.

Independence struggle

Prior to this there had been considerable messianic and cargo-cultist activity – spontaneous, popular expressions of discontent.  But after the “Act of Free Choice” more organised resistance began.  This was led largely by people who had been trained in the Indonesian army.  When these independence fighters finally agreed to lay down their arms they were slaughtered by the Indonesian military.

After this, the independence forces turned more vigorously to armed struggle and also began to seek a mass base for their movement.  In 1971, under the leadership of Seth Rumkorem, independence was declared and, in a guerrilla base area known as Markus Victoria, the Provisional Revolutionary Government was set up.

Since then armed resistance has grown and, particularly under the impact of the East Timor struggle beginnng in 1974, the West Irianese have taken new heart and redoubled their efforts to achieve independence.

Provisional Revolutionary Government

Today the PRG controls a number of liberated areas in which it is building schools and hospitals and organising co-operative agriculture.  It has about 3,000 regular full-time soldiers, plus organised irregular fighters who carry on much of the war outside the liberated zones.  Its support is widespread, as can be seen by the number of attacks and uprisings taking place right throughout the country.

In the liberated areas the PRG is attempting to preserve and build upon Melanesian traditions.  The villages are self-governing and largely autonomous.  The land is communally owned by tribal or clan groupings and farmed by families of subsistence agriculturalists.

As well as its armed forces, the PRG also operates an intelligence service to keep track of Indonesian and Australian troop movements.  Another wing of the government is concerned with resistance to Indonesian cultural domination.

While 90 percent of the two million population are Melanesian, the Indonesians have been bringing in 3-4,000 settlers a month under their transmigration scheme.  The PRG fears that the Indonesian government will bring in enough people to outnumber the Melanesian populations.  The Indonesians are already systematically destroying villages which they think support the freedom struggle.  And, along with mass extermination by paratroopers, there has been substantial aerial bombing and napalming.

Imperialist involvement

On top of fighting the Indonesian occupation, the freedom fighters have to deal with the American and Japanese companies which dominate the country’s economy.  As well as stealing the copper, timber, gold and oil resources, US and Japanese imperialism help prop up the Indonesian military dictatorship.

Another problem is the presence of about 150 Australian airforcemen and soldiers.  They have been carrying out aerial mapping surveys for the Indonesians who, up til now, have been handicapped by the impenetrable terrain of much of the country.  There have also been reports of Australian helicopters ferrying troops into combat and, on some occasions, participating in combat operations.

News service

The South Pacific News Service was established in February 1977 to inform people in the region about the struggle of the PRG and people of West Irian.  Information is a big problem as the Indonesian rulers operate a news blockade, and allow no journalists into West Irian.  The government of Papua-New Guinea has also stopped journalists from getting near the border.  Since it gained independence from Australia, the Papua-New Guinea regime of Michael Somare has become openly sympathetic to the Indonesian dictatorship’s control of West Irian.  They have even handed over refugees.  Somare has also made sure that the people of Papua-New Guinea know little about what is going on just across the border.

Support needed

There are a number of things which supporters of the West Irian freedom struggle can do in New Zealand.  We can publicise the West Irian cause and demand an end to Indonesian rule.  We can expose and protest against Australian involvement and call for the withdrawal of their troops.

We can also call for an end to New Zealand’s aid to Indonesia.  New Zealand currently gives more aid to the Suharto dictatorship than to any other country.  And we can demand an end to the training of Indonesian pilots here.  As well as being used in East Timor these pilots are used to ferry troops into combat areas in West Irian.


The article was accompanied by a small box with some material from the PRG edited by the article’s author:

Socialist Action has received a taped interview with Andreas, a representative of the Provisional Revolutionary Government of West Papua New Guinea.  The following are excerpts from that tape.

“Our struggle is a people’s struggle. . . .  Our people want to live in peace. . . as a free nation.  We don’t like to be dominated by imperialist or capitalist countries.

“Our enemy is imperialism, colonialism – all who try to dominate the common people economically, politically, socially. . .”

Talking of the attitude of the people of nominally independent Papua-New Guinea, he said: “I think they are very sympathetic.  The villagers along the border are our relatives, our people. . . Actually, we had no border before.  It’s a border made by the colonial countries – Holland and Australia.”  (The PRG stands for unity of the Melanesian people of the whole island.)

Andreas said that lack of money, weapons and medical supplies were the main problems facing the freedom fighters and appealed for outside help.  Solidarity actions are also important to put pressure on the Indonesian, Australian and Papua-New Guinea governments.

“Those helping FRETILIN in East Timor could also help us,” he said, pointing out that if people do not support the independence struggle in East Timor, “they make it very hard for us to fight the Indonesians.”


  1. Every aspect of the above narrative is slewed with Indonesian propaganda and the version of history sanctioned by Indonesia’s trade partners. The Dutch had been preparing the East Indies for independence since 1917, the first European colonial claim to New Guinea did not commence until over two hundred years after the colonisation of the neighbouring East Indies to the west of Papua and Australia. The first successful Dutch presence in West New Guinea were Dutch missionaries (1860s).
    Papua rallies against the Indonesian ambition of occupying West Papua began in 1961 a month before Indonesia launched it unsuccessful military invasion, armed Papuan resistance to the occupation has been on-going since 1965.
    The American plan for asking the United Nations to become a trustee and for the Dutch administration to be assumed by a third party that would then invite Indonesia to administrate the colony, was proposed in May 1959 by the US attorney at the US Embassy in Jakarta (John Henderson), it was later promoted by other friends (McGeorge Bundy & Ellsworth Bunker) of the Cold-war architect Robert Lovett who was a director of the Freeport mining company that could not get Papua’s gold and other minerals under a Papuan or a Dutch license.
    Neither President Eisenhower or Kennedy authorised operation of the proposed scheme or the murder of the UN Secretary General, but after Indonesia was told of the proposal the Secretary General was killed and replaced by Indonesia & India’s friend U Thant who enacted their joint fascist UN policies in the Congo, Goa (India), and West New Guinea.
    Under influence of U Thant, India’s UN Chef de Cabinet, and Pakistan’s President of the 1962 General Assembly, the Assembly was forced to vote WITHOUT debate on authorising the ‘New York Agreement’ which is a undeclared UN Trusteeship Agreement – – an agreement by current administrators asking the United Nation to become responsible for a colony, which this 1962 agreement does by also asking the United Nations itself to administrate the colony allegedly for benefit of the people of West New Guinea.
    The UN occupation is not illegal under articles 81 and 85 of the Charter of the United Nations, but it is illegal to with-hold news of the UN decision from the Trusteeship Council whose job under the Charter is to prepare yearly reports (articles 87, 88) about the welfare of the people & their territory. So long as the UN refuses to allow the Trusteeship Council to commence making its reports, the UN membership can enjoy impunity for looting, murder and rape of the colony and its people.

  2. “Every aspect of the above narrative is slewed with Indonesian propaganda and the version of history sanctioned by Indonesia’s trade partners.” Are you OK. Anyone can see that this article is in solidarity with the Papuan struggle and has nothing to do with Indonesian propaganda and history sanctioned by its imperialist supporters.

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