QUARTERLY ESSAY 7 Paradise Betrayed



James Griffin

What is he whose grief Bears such an emphasis?...

Dost thou come here...

To outface me with leaping in her grave?

– Hamlet, Act V, Scene ii

Paradise’? Such a soggy cliché. I’m surprised at Peter Craven. ‘Paradise’ should have gone out with Dorothy Lamour, or at least post-war with Michener, Rodgers and Hammerstein. To recall a soggy song1, pre-colonial evenings in ‘West Papua’ were more likely to be ensorcelled rather than enchanted. ‘Paradise’ can also make for sardonic comment not just on the long-term rapine of imperialism but on the frailties of post- and neo-colonial so-called ‘inheritance elites’.

And ‘Betrayed’? Perfidy? A sell-out of some firm obligation? I seem to remember radicals of the fifties rejoicing that Melanesians in West New Guinea might escape the sort of white man’s bondage imposed in the East, in the Territory of Papua and New Guinea, TPNG as it was known.2 Arguments from ethnology, cartographical rationality and even bio-diversity that West New Guineans were a distinctive people with a non-Indonesian destiny did not persuade those who told us how they would be accommodated by the shibboleths of Unity in Diversity and Panca Sila. Were the Dyaks of central Borneo, they asked, complaining of their slower ride to modernity? What was good enough for them was surely good enough for West New Guineans.

However, Craven suggests there ought to have been something almost proprietorial in the relationship between Australia and New Guinea in its whole cartographical sense. ‘This is our back door, what should be our sphere of influence, on which the severed body parts fall,’ he says, without a blush of chauvinism at this recap of our nineteenth-century pseudo-Monroe Doctrine. In reality West New Guinea looks more like Indonesia’s back door than a site for an Australian jerry-built outhouse. In historical terms it clearly had a plausible claim. A little history can also help with such gung-ho analogies as

... West Papua is another East Timor waiting to happen ... in fact it is happening with the collusion of Australia [sic] and American indifference.

Here I take it that ‘Australia’ is not an epithet and that it has been its government and the abstract noun that have somehow ‘colluded’ and that therefore it may have been even worse than indifferent. In haste to apportion guilt Craven has muddled his syntax.


While I would not question the veracity of John Martinkus, it is a pity he is not more precise about his itinerary and the amount of actual time he spent in what, optimistically, he chooses to call ‘West Papua’ rather than its present official name, Papua. I also wonder if he spoke only in English in his interviews and how well his interlocutors replied. This is not carping when a journalist claims to know that ‘the general community is cynical’ about Jakarta’s offer of autonomy to the province. Not that anything that Martinkus writes lacks credibility; in fact, even his self-conscious intrepidity is rather déjà vu. His credulity, however, is untested. Unfortunately there is no sense of any of this in Craven’s ‘beat-up’ introduction with its unwarranted hyperboles (e.g. ‘absolutely level and absolutely convincing’) and that fatuous adjective ‘riveting’ which do no service to the subject nor credit to a distinguished literary critic. Neither Martinkus nor his editor prepared himself thoroughly for his task. A journalist who believes that Australia ‘made the border’ between Papua New Guinea and ‘Papua’ or, to be more instructive, between Papua New Guinea and Indonesia or, to be portentous, between the Southwest Pacific and Asia, is hardly fluent in the history of the great ‘bird-reptile island’. Nor is one who thinks Sukarno first ‘laid claim to West Papua’ in 1954 instead of at least 1945, before Merdeka. And any one who locates Kiunga as a ‘village south of Vanimo’ is hardly precise about its geography.

The Commonwealth of Australia did not exist when the tri-partition of New Guinea between the Netherlands, Great Britain and Germany took place. The Dutch had claimed territory on the north coast up to the 141st meridian as early as 1828.3 Extending this line southwards (notably excluding the westward bulge of the Fly River) conveniently divided the island into roughly equal parts and was accepted by Great Britain and Germany which, drawing a couple of straight lines through the unknown eastern Highlands, acquired a quarter each. Australia in 1906 took over in sovereignty British New Guinea as the Territory of Papua and in 1921, following conquest in 1914 by our ‘Coconut Lancers’, acquired a C-class mandate over (formerly German) New Guinea from the League of Nations. Pre-war the Dutch took little interest in their New Guinea possession, setting up remote administrative posts at Manokwari and Fak Fak only in 1898 and at Merauke in 1902. Perhaps 200,000 were under control in 1937, less than 30 per cent of the population. There was some contact between West New Guineans and other inhabitants of the Netherlands East Indies (NEI): outside the major centres minor official and missionary posts were filled by the latter while Indonesian political prisoners, who from 1927–8 were marooned 500 kilometres up river from Merauke, acquired a sense that West New Guinea was an intrinsic part of the state they hoped to inherit. There were intimations that it could be rich in oil and other minerals but not such as to generate dreams of El Dorado.4

Prior to the end of World War Two serious discussions took place among Indonesian leaders as to whether the borders of their new state should be NEI minus West New Guinea (a position taken by future Vice-President Hatta) or NEI including West New Guinea, or Indonesia Raya including Malaya, all territories of Borneo and even East New Guinea and the Solomons (based on fantasies of the medieval Srivijaya and Madjapahit empires). A clear majority opted for the borders of the colonial state, a principle generally observed elsewhere at decolonisation. In 1949–50 the Netherlands appeared to agree to this but for domestic political reasons and, in the hope of protecting investments in Indonesia, changed course.

A review of Australian policy of the time is depressing because we imagined we were free to act in our ‘strategic perimeter’ without subordination to the UK or the USA. Assuming that we had become some regional ‘middle power’, the ANZAC pact of 1944 had asserted a right to be consulted in any final settlement there. When External Affairs Minister Percy Spender in August 1950 rejected Indonesian claims in a major statement at The Hague, he stressed the strategic importance of West New Guinea to Australia, and expressed fears that other claims would not end there, and that Communism was spreading. (China had become Communist in 1949, the Korean War had just begun and falling dominoes were the current fantasy.) Little consideration was given to the political rights of ‘West Papuans’. Labor’s Dr Evatt at one stage suggested that Australia might purchase West New Guinea from the Dutch. (Ironically, years later in Papua New Guinea vociferous anti-colonial students expostulated that that was what should have been done!) When R.G. Casey succeeded Spender in 1951, he put the issue into ‘cold storage’, as he said. He hoped to lull popular feeling and direct attention to what he thought were more urgent problems of stability and development.5 All very gentlemanly, but unrealistic. President Sukarno was already using the issue as a rallying point for national solidarity and would go on to make West New Guinea a focus for revolutionary goals and a scapegoat for even self-inflicted economic ills.

In 1954 when Indonesia submitted the issue to the United Nations, the Dutch were still relying on legal arguments for the basis of their sovereignty instead of on the right to be prepared for self-determination. That a ‘primitive’ people should be rushed into independence within ten to fifteen years was still considered absurd. Meanwhile for Australia our security was paramount; self-determination was mentioned but only as a secondary consideration. By the 1955 UN session Indonesia’s sense of moral right had been fortified by the anti-colonialist manifesto of the epoch-making Bandung conference where all twenty-nine Third World nations supported Indonesia’s claim. New Afro-Asian nations admitted to the UN, like the Communist bloc, were unimpressed by Australia’s security fears. When in 1956 Casey emphasised that the ‘fundamental issue’ was the welfare of West New Guineans, and the Dutch now belatedly called for self-determination, other nations had good reason to doubt their motives. TPNG was showing little sign of devolution. In 1951 when Paul Hasluck took the portfolio of Territories he said it might be a hundred years before TPNG was self-governing. Even the idea of future seventh statehood was being canvassed. A suspicion was unavoidable that Australia had the same designs on its UN mandate as apartheid South Africa had on Southwest Africa (Namibia). In 1959 the future Governor-General, John Kerr, an enlightened analyst for his time, advocated a Melanesian Federation, joining both halves of the New Guinea island, its eastern islands and even the British Solomon Islands Protectorate.6 It was a tidy and humane scheme but – much too late. If there had ever been a time for some such solution under a UN Trusteeship involving Indonesia, Australia, NEI and the UK, it would have been 1949–50 before Indonesian nationalism gathered momentum.

Two statements in November 1958 expose the unreality of Australia’s position. J.F. Dulles, the formidable US Secretary of State, reassured us that, if Indonesia attacked West New Guinea, it ‘would have the US to deal with’. The distinguished Australian commentator W. Macmahon Ball could say that our stand on West New Guinea was ‘not obscured or compromised by our relations with our powerful friends’.7 But within three years Indonesia had acquired it with full American, Dutch and British concurrence. There is no need to recall here President Kennedy’s justifiable fear that Sukarno would recklessly move closer to the Communist bloc (which would not have benefited ‘West Papuans’) unless he triumphed in West New Guinea; or the ostensibly high-minded Bunker Plan which brought it about by mid-1963. In protest, the Australian Leader of the Opposition, Arthur Calwell, foolishly rattled a blunt sabre. Ironically, 1961 was the year of our lowest defence expenditure of the decade and at a level which Labor had still thought too high. Australia now knew it was not even a middle power. It had been shadow boxing well above its weight. To ratify Indonesia’s takeover only the Act of Free Choice of 1969 (the ‘Act of No Choice’) was needed. Under the musjarawah consultation 1,025 carefully selected representatives voted on behalf of 800,000 people. It was dubbed All Men One Vote. The UN’s Bolivian supervisor, Ortiz-Sans, became so elusive as to be called ‘Slippery Sans’; he put in a mildly contrite report that a legitimate plebiscite had taken place. Australia’s then minister, Gordon Freeth, like most other representatives, approved while maintaining he only acquiesced.

Martinkus, as a result of experience with drunken soldiers at Vanimo, implies that Papua New Guineans are uninterested in the plight of their Melanesian brothers. This is untrue although officials are obliged to recognise Indonesia’s sovereignty. One excellent example of ambivalence always comes to my mind even though it happened twenty years ago. When he was in office successively as Secretary for Defence and then Minister for Foreign Affairs (1980–2), the current retiring Secretary of the South Pacific Commission, Noel Levi, upheld Indonesia’s sovereignty over then Irian Jaya, as he was required to do, and explored the possibility of full membership of ASEAN for his country. Out of office Levi wrote that PNG ‘was not complete without the western half of the island and that accepting the ASEAN charter would endorse Indonesia’s claims over West New Guinea, the worst kind of legacy we will leave to future generations’.8 In mid-1998 the Governor (i.e. Provincial MP) of Sandaun (West Sepik border province) pleaded for the recognition of West Papuan independence. In December 1998 a World Council of Churches office in Port Moresby was shut down by police after an Indonesian embassy protest but the nation’s daily newspaper editorialised soon after, ‘Listen to the cries of our Melanesian Brothers’.9 However, Port Moresby is properly in awe of Indonesia’s size comparative to its own and has been wary of popular sentiment in this matter. In 1984 some 11,000 refugees (over 1 per cent of the indigenous population) crossed the border into the Fly and Sepik regions overtaxing local resources. Many are still there. There is always a menace of more to come. The Papuan rebels (OPM) can expect only border havens in Papua New Guinea. But pan-Melanesian sentiment is widespread and unlikely to wither.

Many more people are aware of the barbarities committed in Papua than Martinkus and Craven seem to realise. But what can be done? Suggesting that East Timor is a precedent will not be helpful. The difference in pre-independence status may seem minor but will remain crucial for support in the UN. The Act of No Choice will not be reversed. In the fanciful event that a genuine referendum will ever be sanctioned in Papua, transmigrants who today number some 40 per cent of the population will have to have a vote. The logistics will be almost insuperable and any result probably contested in a civil war. Relinquishing Papua after fifty years of nationalistic ‘struggle’ would flatten Jakarta’s morale and lead to separatism in the provinces with unpredictable results for the region. There is also the resource value of Papua to Indonesia. Conceivably, with a supply of arms from somewhere (but where?) the OPM could immobilise the Freeport mine and other projects, but Papua is not Bougainville. Short of some breakdown of the state, Freeport will hardly ally itself with destructive rebels.

East Timor’s foreign minister, J.R. Horta, who has witnessed the cost to his people of achieving independence, even with UN support, has advised Papuans to accept Jakarta’s current offer of autonomy to which is attached the allocation of 70–80 per cent of provincial resource revenue. How sincere Jakarta will be when it comes to implementation is for conjecture – one can only be pessimistic – but in principle it must be seen as a step in an ameliorating direction, even one that could lead non-violently to virtual internal self-government. However, to Craven and Martinkus autonomy is merely ‘a sop’. So what are they recommending aside from guilt? For the historical record, perhaps they can tell us how Australia should have acted and in what way we could have ‘liberated’ Papua but in what decisive way Australia ‘sold out’. The Martinkus essay is an appreciable if limited piece of elevating reportage, but will not, as Craven believes, ‘alter the picture of West Papua’. Those of us who have always impotently thought that Papua was potentially a rational political entity, amalgamated with Papua New Guinea or not, and has been denied natural justice, may be none the wiser.10


James Griffin’s interest in what was originally called the West New Guinea problem goes back to the 1950s. He taught at the University of Papua New Guinea for fifteen years from 1968 and 1990 and is the author of Papua New Guinea: A Political History.

1. A younger generation may need to know that the popular song was 'One Enchanted Evening' from the famous post-war musical, South Pacific (1949).

2. An extreme case as late as the 1980s was Papua New Guinea’s naturalised novelist Dr John Kolia (Collier) who, after visiting Irian Jaya, wrote: ‘I can compare Irian Jaya with PNG and am able to say that it is a happy, peaceful place with the economy in the hands of its citizens, not of foreigners’. J. Kolia, Irian Jaya, 1980s: A Writer’s Diary, Aklat Publications, Hong Kong, 1980.

3. P.W. van der Veur, Search for New Guinea’s Boundaries, Australian National University Press, Canberra, 1966, passim.

4. R. Garnaut and C. Manning, Irian Jaya, Australian National University Press, Canberra, 1974, 9–12.

5. G. Greenwood and N. Harper, Australia in World Affairs 1950–1955, F.W. Cheshire, Melbourne, 1957, 204–5, and Australia in World Affairs 1956–1960, F.W. Cheshire, Melbourne, 1963, 283–9.

6. ‘The Political Future’ in J. Wilkes ed., New Guinea and Australia, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1958, 138–75.

7. Quotations in J. Griffin, ‘Suppression of West Papuans’, Catholic Worker, June 1969, 6–8.

8. N. Levi, Times of PNG, 8 February 1984.

9. Post-Courier, 25 June, 14 December 1998, 5 January 1999.

10. The most recent and highly recommended book on this subject is C.L.M. Penders, The West New Guinea Debacle: Dutch Decolonisation and Indonesia, 1945–62, Crawford House, Adelaide, 2002; also recommended is S.R. Doran, ‘Western Friends and Eastern Neighbours: West New Guinea and Australian Self-Perception in Relation to the United States, Britain and Southeast Asia, 1950–1962’, PhD thesis, Australian National University, July 1999.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 7, Paradise Betrayed. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 8, Groundswell.


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