Input to reg.westpapua mailing list,
19 December 1999.

Re: Name Change to West Papua

> > From AWPA
> Transcript from an ABC news report Sat. Dec 18
> Indonesia's House of Representatives ...[cut]... according to the state-run
> Antara newsagency ... has agreed to change the name of the province to West
> Papua, and the capital from Jayapura to Port Numbay, as demanded by locals.
> West Papua and Port Numbay were the names of the province and the capital
> before the Dutch colonized the territory.

perhaps [one] might inform [them] on this regretable blooper that undeservedly introduces an association of falseness in an actually fully legitimate right of the population of a country or territory to decide its own name.

The territory became a "province" for the first time in its history in 1962, when the Indonesian government, in anticipation of the transfer of the territory in 1963, decided to raise the geopolitical rank of the territory to that of a separate province. Before that, in the territorial division under Dutch administration up to WW II, and according to Indonesian administrative division after that, the territory had been part of the Moluccas (Maluku) with capital in Ambon.

Before colonization by the Netherlands, the territory had not formed a single geopolitical unit, the country being divided among the various autochthonous ethnic groups, who had no own name for either New Guinea or its Western half. Only some regions of the north coast, particularly in and around Cenderawasih Bay (formerly known as Geelvink Bay), were vassal territories of Tidore (a peoples closely related to the Papuans both racially and linguistically on an island of the same name in North Halmahera).

During Dutch rule before 1942 too, the island half was cut into subdivisions territorially subordinated to various centers in present North and Central Maluku. At one period, the south of the island half was united with island groups of present South Maluku in one subdivision. It was only separated from the rest of Indonesia in 1946 by the Dutch occupational administration, with a view of providing a place for resettlement of Indo Dutch and Eurasians wishing to remain under Dutch government after formal recognition of independent Indonesia.

Upon being established as province for the first time in 1962, the island half was given the name West Irian, in conformity with a request of Frans Kasiepo, speaking in the name of the autochthonous peoples at the Malino Conference in 1946, who protested against the use of the word Papua because it was allegedly a Tidorese word meaning slave. He suggested the name Irian for the island. The word seems to be the name by which the people of Biak (a small island in Cenderawasih Bay) refer to the New Guinean mainland, and hence the only known autochthonous name for the island [see here].

Under the rule of Soeharto's military regime, the population not only became victim of various forms of physical and moral repression of the most brutal and repulsive kind (I think we are sufficiently well informed on this in his list), but on top of that all, their own name for their island was taken from them. The regime spread the slanderous story, that Irian was an acronym for "Ikut Republik Indonesia Anti Nederland" ("join the Republic of Indonesia against the Netherlands").

On the other hand, the word Papua was popular in the Eastern half of the island, which had never historically either been in contact with Tidore to have negative associations with that word, or been in contact with Biak to be acquainted with the word Irian. Nothing prevented that word from symbolizing renovated Papuan consciousness there. Having suffered 33 long years from atrocities of the military regime, it is only natural that the population of the Western half of the island is inspired by that Papuan consciousness of the Eastern island half, having meanwhile -- no thanks to the scandalously ignorantist education policies of the regime -- lost touch with the memories of the past that still were present to the generation of the 1940s.

Therefore, if the people of the Western island half today want to be called Papuans rather than Irianese, it is their good right to do so, not because that might have been their name in some distant past (it wasn't, or rather, it was an insulting epithet for them then), but because that is what they want today. They don't need historical legitimations for the name they choose to be their name now, and one shouldn't, not even inadvertently, intimidate that right by inventing historically untenable pseudo-legitimations, I think.

The only reason I keep bringing this up is that I want to be sure that our Papuan friends in the Western island half don't get fooled once more, the way they had been with that acronym theory of the origin of Irian. I don't want the next generation to be again frustrated by the realisation that they had been stuck with a name that had once been felt by their forefathers to be insulting. So when they make the present choice which, I can't repeat often enough, is their good right not requiring of any additional historical legitimation, they must do this in knowledge of all the historical modalities. The kind of fancy pseudo-historical stories I keep taking exception against has the effect of obscuring the actual historical record. But one day they'll get to the truth themselves - those who don't already know it yet - and might not forgive us for having obscured the truth from them today.


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