Papuan is a cover term for the various indigenous peoples of New Guinea and neighboring islands, speakers of the so-called Papuan languages. There are well over one thousand indigenous languages throughout the island region.
Even though “New Guinea” has been divided into two separate jurisdictions–the independent nation of Papua New Guinea and the Indonesian province of West Papua–all Papuan People are related ethnically and culturally.
West Papua became the twenty-sixth province of Indonesia in 1969 after the so-called “Act of Free Choice”, sponsored by the UN, saw the transfer of official administration from The Netherlands, the colonial power, to Indonesia. The province was in 1973 re-named Irian Jaya, “Victorious Irian”, by the Indonesian President, General Soeharto. The indigenous movement rejects this name and identify themselves as West Papuan. Resistance to Indonesia had begun in 1962 when temporary authority was first given to Jakarta, and continues to the present.
Over the twenty six years that Indonesia has held official control of West Papua, the indigenous population has endured one of the twentieth century’s most repressive and unjust systems of colonial occupation. An on-going war has been fought against a popularly supported indigenous movement opposed to Jakarta’s rule, and against members of the civilian population who stand in the way of Indonesian “development”.
Under the Indonesian government’s Transmigration program, the indigenous West Papuans are being reduced to a minority population due to an annual influx of over 10,000 families of sponsored migrants from Java and Sulawesi and an unknown number of “spontaneous” migrants. The widespread appropriation of land for new settlements, forestry concessions, mining projects and farming has led to numerous large-scale conflicts between the Indonesian military and dispossessed tribespeople, particularly in the late 1970s, 1984, and again in 1990-92 and 1994-95.
Indonesia does not regard the West Papuan people (or other communities) as indigenous and subordinates adat (traditional) law to the national interest. This denies a fundamental feature of West Papuan life and identity, viz relationship with the land, leaves the West Papuan people fundamentally defenceless in the face of development and transmigration policies, and absolves Indonesia of any obligations under international instruments and mechanisms.
Papua New Guinea was also established in the 1960s, when Australia moved toward establishing self-government and a House of Assembly and building institutions to train an “educated elite” to serve the country.
Before European settlement, there were no towns in New Guinea. Rather, there were thousands of villages and hamlets connected by narrow paths, customs, and networks of marriage and trade partners.