ON December 1 1961, Dutch troops lowered the Netherlands flag for the last time over its New Guinea territories.
As the flag descended from poles across the territory, a new standard rose in its place – the Morning Star of the independent nation of West Papua.
That independence would be short-lived, however, as a resource-hungry and recently independent Republic of Indonesia vied to take hold of every possession of the departing Dutch.
Aided and abetted by the United States and Australia, Indonesia would annex West Papua in 1962 with the world feigning ignorance of the blatant rape of democracy.
The Netherlands took possession of what it named the Dutch East Indies – what is now Indonesia and the western portion of the island of New Guinea - in 1660 and held the territory through two world wars.
But an independence struggle led by General Sukarno saw the Dutch agree to relinquish control of all its possessions excluding Dutch New Guinea.
Instead it agreed to grant independence to the ethnic Melanesians who lived in Dutch New Guinea separately from its deal with Sukarno. This was supported by Australia who controlled Papua and New Guinea to the east.
In January 1961 after territorial elections, the Dutch governor swore in the New Guinea Council comprising 28 members and the council’s inauguration on April 1 of the same year was attended by Australia, Britain, France the Netherlands, New Zealand and other Pacific Forum nations.
The Council appointed a committee to draft a manifesto showing their desire for independence, design a flag and compose an anthem.
On October 31 the first Morning Star flag was presented to the Dutch governor and West Papua was allowed to use this, the anthem and coat of arms.
The official raising of the flag took place on December 1 1961 and Indonesia invaded the territory one month later.
Papuan fighters – trained by the Dutch to provide internal security for the new nation – captured 296 of the 1429 invading paratroopers and handed them over to their colonial rulers. A further 216 of the invading force were killed or never found.
The Dutch feared heavy casualties would eventuate from a protracted jungle conflict and sought the help of the United States as a mediator to prevent a drawn out war with Indonesia.
President John Kennedy – fully aware of the Dutch desire that the Papuans retain independence – decided that it would be best for the US to make Indonesia an ally.
The world’s newest independent state at that point became a pawn to be sacrificed for the geo-political needs of the US.
Of course, the “threat” of communism was invoked as justification for the US agreeing to allow Indonesia control of the territory and to oversee an act of self determination which would eventually be doctored while the United Nations looked on in silence.
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AS the strains of the banned anthem Oh, My Land Papua faded away and tears streamed down the cheeks of the members of the Papuan delegation at the World Council of Churches 10th Assembly, the audience was left emotionally drained.
The reality had finally dawned.
Here stood a people, strangers for 52 years in the land of their ancestors, stopped from singing their hymn of praise of tanah – their vanua, brutally punished by the Indonesian security forces for daring to suggest that they wanted self-determination.
Here stood a people who had attempted for more than half a century to bring justice into their homes in the face of an international and church community which conveniently turns a blind eye to their struggle.
Two months earlier, then Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr claimed the international community had no interest in the situation of the indigenous people of West Papua.
Australia and the United States may not be interested in the people but they have a definite interest in the gold and timber in the forests of West Papua, along with the potential gas and oil off the coast.
The United Nations – which shirked its responsibility in 1961 and failed to block Indonesia’s annexing of the former Dutch colony – has done nothing, possibly out of shame.
So they have remained blind and silent to the plight of these people who finally claimed a place on the international stage.
The world’s churches, complicit with the UN and the global powers through their silence – were forced to open that space by the Pacific delegation to the WCC 10th Assembly.
At this religious forum representative of more than 500 million Christians the irony of this forgotten people making a political statement was not lost.
That was what brought tears to the eyes of people who did not know the words of the West Papuan anthem.
Here stood a people singing their song in a strange land.
Psalm 137 tells of the lament of the Israelites being forced by their Babylonian captors to sing songs of praise to God while the captors laughed until their sides hurt and tears rolled down their faces.
“How can we sing in a strange land?” the Israelites asked.
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By Netani Rika