Claims on Irian

The Claims on Irian

(By a Correspondent in Australia)

[NOTE: This was written and submitted to The Economist some time prior to United Nations decisions on the issue.  In another piece, which I may find soon, advocated the creation of a “United States of Melanesia”, thinking of the islands from Irian to Vanuatu.]

The present deadlock in negotiations concerning the future of Dutch New Guinea focuses attention once again upon the rival claims and the possibility of armed conflict.

The basis of the Indonesian claim on Irian, as Dutch New Guinea is sometimes called, has received very little publicity in Australia. Holland was the first Western Power to establish an effective claim in New Guinea. Readers of Wallace and other early travellers may remember references to the weak and quarrelsome Sultanate of Ternate and Tidore in the Moluccas, the latter of whom claimed suzerainty over the coastline of New Guinea, which was then occasionally visited by traders, partic­ularly for slaves. The Dutch claim to this coastline arose when they established authority over the Sultanate and now, say the Indonesians, since the Sultanate has reverted to Indonesian control, so too should its original dominions

There has also been an ethnic claim, recently abandoned by the Indonesians themselves. There are of course linguistic and cultural affinities between the Indonesians and the peoples of Oceania; but these have become so modified over the centuries that it would take a very glib politician indeed to persuade  scientists of the validity of claims based upon them. Apart from one or two areas of close trading contact and the use of Malay as an official lingua franca they are weakest of all in Irian, where indigenous Malayo-Polynesian elements are hardly traceable.

At first sight, therefore, it would seem easy to rebut Indonesian claims. The Dutch do this principally on moral grounds. In effect they say to the Indonesians, “Your legal claim is no

stronger than ours. We can administer the country better. Therefore we have the moral duty to remain.” The question is, what grounds are there for believing that the Dutch will administer more effectively? To that question we can only give a partial answer. In Borneo and New Guinea Indonesian doctors, police, and other technical personnel have been an indispensable instrument of Dutch administration. Indonesians are now gaining experience in responsibility for indigenous peoples throughout their present territories. Meanwhile, the Dutch cannot be said to have developed New Guinea, which is commercially much more backward than the neighbouring Australian territories. Insecurity, which is likely to be permanent while Dutch and Indonesian claims conflict, prevents the attraction of Dutch capital thus placing them on the same level as the Indonesians, who are also said to lack capital. Apart from an occasional oil tanker and official plane, there is no communication with the territory. The strangest point in favour of Dutch administra­tion is that serious attempts are being planned in the field of native social development but even this owes much of its inspiration to the South Pacific Commission which presumably could inspire the Indonesians as well.

The attitudes of India and Australia to these claims are of some interest. India’s support of Indonesia is widely supposed to be based simply on friendship for a struggling neighbour. Indian writers, however, have long pointed to the huge sparsely-populated island as an outlet for Asian migrants and there is no doubt that Asian peasants, after some adaptation, could grow rice and other crops much more successfully than the present population. One wonders just what weight is given to migration in Indian and Indonesian opinion


This of course is the great fear of Australians, who see the possibility of Asians infiltrating into their own territories. bringing with them social problems and perhaps Communism. This fear has led to an intransigent attitude and the belief that Australians would take action against Indonesian control has no doubt contributed to recent softenings of Indonesian statements which at one time threatened armed invasion. Australian extremists have even advocated that Australia should administer Dutch New Guinea herself, though critics have pointed out that Australian resources are hardly adequate for the development and defence of  existing territories. The more recent Australian suggestion is that administration should be by Condominium government, with Indonesia, Australia and Holland probably leading to permanent frustration as in the New Hebrides. The Indonesians  themselves, perhaps realising their limitations when possession by Holland is nine points of the law, made the desperate suggestion that Holland should administer under Indonesian sovereignty.

 A review of these claims seems to indicate that none of them are strong enough to sway world opinion, and that the question will be decided rather in the darkness of balance of power, crowd hysteria, and the personal characters of those who sit around conference tables. Certainly the deadlock seems beyond peaceful solution except perhaps through United Nations mediation. In the meantime, despite Dutch allegations that the Papuan inhabitants of  the country would resist invasion by force , it is certain that all but the small elite are blissfully unaware of the issues as involved.