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West Papuan Aspirations

Alan M. Taylor

Struggles for Independence and Autonomy • Brigham Young University •

November 13, 2009
Geography 341 - Political Geography
All Right Reserved © 2010, Alan Taylor

West Papuan Aspirations: A Dream Deferred

In 1951, an American poet by the name of Langston Hughes published a poem in which

he contemplated the fate of a dream that was delayed and put off. Though expressed in a variety

of ways, the outcome was always an unpleasant one - that the dream, if left untended for long

enough, will eventually become rotten, shriveled, and useless. 50 years after the Civil Rights

movement in the United States was gathering support, we still find ourselves in a world that is

littered with minority groups whose aspirations (or ‘dreams,’ as Langston Hughes might say) are

varied, but the majority of which still share a common thread: the desire for a national identity -

a set of qualities that both unifies a people, and sets it apart from other groups. For these groups

to fulfill their aspirations, each will need to strike a careful balance between insurrection and

cooperation with their respective governing power, and while doing so, demonstrate to the

outside world that they can make better sustainable use of any territory in question than the state

which surrounds them. Like it or not, for minority groups to garner international support and

eventually attain their goal, they’ll find that it must be ‘bought,’ not earned. West Papuans will

eventually commiserate with the predecessors of the American Civil Rights movement when

they find they have to buy back the freedom that was taken from them by force.

Unfortunately for many of these minority groups, the approval they seek will have to be

bought on terms not of their own choosing. Ironically, the West Papuans find themselves in a

world where, although democracy is widely espoused as a noble cause, it will not be enough to

simply prove that they are the victim of a tyrannical oppressor. Nor should they expect to

immediately find a sympathetic ear to their plight among the fellowship of modern states. Even

the USA, with its history of globe-trotting in defense of government by the people, has a poor

track record in dealing with its own indigenous peoples seeking to forge a national identity. The

trend of globalization has permanently complicated the process through which minority groups

(especially those seeking independence) can take their place on the world stage; they can no

longer win their battles with ideological merits alone. The West Papuans will have to show

they’ve adopted the values of a world that is rapidly undergoing a rebirth of globalization (an

idea that traditional cultures often find unappealing), before the world will reciprocally value

their drive for autonomy or independence. It is in this predicament that the West Papuans find

themselves currently: eager to throw off the chains that bind them to Indonesian government, but

as of yet unable to make a convincing case on the world stage for their own independence.

Aspirations notwithstanding, it is still helpful to understand what will make the West

Papuan path to independence such a long and arduous one, if they and their supporters see it

through to the end. As both Mikesell and Murphy explain in their work regarding minority group

aspirations, independence is one facet of a diagnostic equation. Represented as a fraction with

“rap” as the numerator, and “SAI” as the denominator (Mikesell & Murphy, 2003), “rap”

represent a minority’s aspiration to attain recognition by, access to the benefits of, and

participation in the particular state they are part of. When it is clear that their aspirations are

more directed towards self-determination, then the S, A, and I (separation, autonomy, and

independence, respectively) of the denominating portion of the equation are used to indicate the

degree to which a minority group desires to steer its own course. This equation is designed to

make it easier to compare the aspirations of one group relative to another, not necessarily to

explain the intricacies of each particular case. However, in the case of the West Papuans, their

aspirations are almost entirely centered on severance from the Indonesian state - they would like

nothing more than to break their political bond with Indonesia. Their aspirations are most

accurately represented by the denominative side of the equation - Independence.

One significant obstacle to the success of independence movements is that each minority

group is highly likely to want to secede from a state, and take a sizable portion of land with it. To

date, no state has ever willingly or peacefully given up it’s own land to make way for the birth of

a new independent state. The almost purely geographical nature of this type of conflict has been

born out time and again in the movements for independence during the past 50 years in the

Balkan region, and in Africa. West Papuans will have to fight a somewhat unconventional war in

order for them to take any territory with them in a successful move towards independence -

they’ll have to prove their prowess not on the battlefield, but in the world market. To complicate

things further, the West Papuans claim as their own territory some of the best land and resources

that Indonesia currently has under its control. Indonesia’s self-interest as a state will likely

motivate it to stubbornly resist any split or secession at the behest of a minority group, if only to

prevent the loss of land and resources they now feel entitled to keep. However, as Nietschmann

points out in his work concerning the ‘fourth world,’ “Breakdown and breakup are natural parts

in the life cycle of a state” (Nietschmann, 1994). He further explains “As artificial creations,

most states are but fragile, centralized, and expansionist empires imposed on unconsenting

nations and held together by laws, force, and patriotic symbols. States break down when they

become stretched too far, both economically, and geographically” (Nietschmann, 2003). This

fragile nature of the Indonesian ‘state,’ compounded by Indonesia’s fragmented geography may

work to the West Papuan’s advantage, but the abundant resources that lie beneath West Papuan

soil - the same resources which would be able to sustain them in a globalizing world - remain

jealously guarded by Indonesia, almost as a matter of state security.

The world in which the West Papuans are trying to rally support, as mentioned before, is

a rapidly globalizing one, and increasingly motivated by profit and prosperity, not philanthropy.

Their petition for independence will likely fall on deaf ears until they can capture the

imagination of the rest of the world with a proposal of how they plan to improve on the

Indonesian style of administration. The globalizing world will be more interested in how they

can do better than the Indonesians at mobilizing the resources in their territory to benefit their

own nation, and the world community in turn. For most West Papuans, this will seem like an

“out of the frying pan, and into the fire” set of circumstances. It is, however, the reality that they

must face in seeking for independence, especially if they wish to survive in the economic climate

of southeast Asia. Thomas Friedman, in his book The Lexus and the Olive Tree, about

globalization, explains briefly why it is such a distasteful option for societies similar to that of

West Papua. Speaking of the ‘ideological appeal’ (such as civic nationalism) that many states

employ to achieve cohesiveness, he states:

. . . globalism totally lacks this. When you tell a traditional society that it has to

streamline, downsize and get with the Internet, it is a challenge that is devoid of

any redemptive or inspirational force. And that is why, for all of globalization’s

obvious power to elevate living standards, it is going to be a tough, tough sell to

all those millions who still say a prayer before they ride the elevator. (Friedman,


Globalization’s ability to lift a nation and state out of poverty is a definite boon, but it comes

with a hefty price tag. West Papuans will not be able to stay afloat in the globalized world unless

they have the recognition and cooperation of other nations who are already in that elite club.

They can almost be assured that any country that rallies to their cause will be just as interested in

striking up a profitable trade relationship as it would in establishing West Papua as its own

democratic state under the rule of law. Even as distasteful as the requirement to ‘globalize’

would be, the West Papuan’s should also recognize that there definite advantages to meeting the

world’s expectations. The globalized world expects resources to be shared, and efficiency to be

maintained - but more importantly it is becoming a recognized fact that sustainable development

is the desired outcome. In the past, states have approached the availability of natural resources in

their territory with a ‘take it while you can get it’ mentality (Minority Rights Group, 2008).

Neitschmann points out that more often than not, nations have developed around a particular

environment and found a way to keep it healthy and robust, whereas states (who acquire

resources only as they envelop the nations that have developed around those areas and resources

in question) are less environmentally responsible, and have a more destructive track record

(Nietschmann, 1994). Why, then, should the West Papuans want to become more state-like?

Theodore Panayotou, his writings on sustainable economic development, posits that:

The role of the state in the struggle for sustainable economic development is

critical and fundamental but is not one of direct management and control. The

state’s role is rather to establish new rules of the game and create an environment

that fosters competition, efficiency, and conservation. Only the state can remove

the distortions that the state has introduced in the first place. Only the state can

establish . . . institutions, mechanisms and instruments essential for the emergence

and efficient functioning of green markets, on which sustainable development

ultimately depends. (Panayotou, 1993)

If Panayatou is correct, then West Papuans will have to employ tactics available only to a state to

counteract the counter-productive trends of state expansion, such as the rapacious exploitation of

West Papua’s resources by Indonesia. Whether this was the outcome that West Papuan’s have

envisioned, they will likely have to adopt many, if not all of, the tenets of the globalized world

before any meaningful steps towards autonomy or independence can be taken. Only as a state

can they achieve in full measure the desired outcomes of their aspirations. They will have to

prove they are equipped to become a responsible, and a market-friendly state before other

influential states will rally around it, and pressure Indonesia to let West Papuan realize their

aspirations to become a self-determining nation-state. To do this, they will have to demonstrate a

mastery of autonomy, which has already been codified in Indonesian law, but has yet to be

implemented meaningfully.

Whether within the currently demarcated boundaries of a state, straddling borders, or in

disputed territories, minority groups crave the establishment (and perpetuation) of a cohesive

national identity. West Papuans in their aspirations for independence will find, along with the

rest, however that a nation does not a state make. Having your own territory in this world comes

with strings attached. To become a recognized member of the world community, you’ll be

expected to live by neighborhood norms and rules, including respecting the sovereignty of your

neighbors, and adopt the paradigm of globalization. West Papuans will have to remain as a

nation, until the world judges them ready for the independence of statehood.

This map marks the territorial claims of the West Papuan independence movement. Though
rather sparsely populated, it still represents a sizable portion of the territory currently under
Indonesian control. (retrieved from


Friedman, Thomas L. (2000). The Lexus and the Olive Tree. New York: Random House.

Mikesell, M. & Murphy, A. (2003). A Framework for Comparative Study of Minority-Group

Aspirations. Ipswich: EBSCO Publishing.

Panayotou, Theodore. (1993). Green Markets: The Economics of Sustainable Development. San

Francisco: ICS Press.

Nietschmann, B.1994. The Fourth World: Nations Versus States. Demko, G., & Wood, W. (Eds.)

Reordering the World (225-242). Boulder: Westview Press.

Minority Rights Group International. (2008). State of the World’s Minorities: 2008. London, UK:

Ishbel Matheson, ed. Retrieved from: