New Guinea is in size the second largest island in the World, a huge area of 786.000 square kilometres. Situated east of the Moluccas (Indonesia) and north of Australia it is culturally and ethnically part of Melanesia. It was very much isolated from Southeast Asian and global events. The inaccessibility (high mountain ranges from west to east, tropical rain forest and mostly unnavigable rivers) and subsistence economy (hunting and gathering) of local tribes curtailed commercial opportunities.

In 1828 the Netherlands lay claim to the western part (420,000 square kilometres, ten times the size of the Netherlands) and placed it under nominal authority of the colonial government in Batavia (Jakarta). By 1900 a formal presence was established, but this was mostly restricted to the coastal regions. Change came with World War II, when it became a heavily contested island.

Following the Japanese surrender (1945) Indonesia was proclaimed an independent republic governing the entire territory of the former Netherlands East Indies, “from Sabang to Merauke”, thus including West New Guinea. In 1949 the Dutch withdrew from Indonesia, but refused to turn over West New Guinea. Dutch policy aimed at the establishment of an independent Papuan state. This meant a belated attempt, supported by missionaries, to invest in education and the fostering of an local Papuan elite. All in all, these efforts created expectations that couldn’t possibly be met.

Threatened by war with Indonesia and under severe pressure from the US and UN the Netherlands changed course. In October 1962 Netherlands New Guinea was placed under UN rule for a period of six months. From then on it was transferred to Indonesia, on the condition that the Papuans had the opportunity to vote for independence in an Act of Free Choice. In a contested plebiscite a selection of Papuans voted for joining Indonesia in 1969. The result was accepted by the UN. West New Guinea was integrated into Indonesia, renamed as “Irian Jaya” in 1973 and placed under direct rule from Jakarta. Direct rule, military repression and transmigration (immigration of non-Papuan Indonesians) already happening since 1963 became instruments for discouraging Papuan independence and ensuring Indonesian presence. Newly discovered minerals were mined and the proceeds went to the central government (and the Indonesian military). Ethnic, cultural and religious differences and a frustrated ambition for independence reinforced the notion of being second class citizens. Resistance to central policy was firmly met by the security forces.

Following the Suharto period of authoritarian rule a new wind prevailed. Papua was granted an autonomous status within Indonesia. To promote economic development more funds were placed at the disposal of the provincial government. Democratisation on all level of government have resulted in a call for greater transparency and accountability.

However, because Jakarta is far away, reformasi lags behind in Papua. Despite positive developments former practices prevail: the mining exploitation remains a central affair; development aid doesn’t reach grassroots level because of corruption and arbitrary administrative practices; police and military violence is still rife. Another unfavourable development was the administrative break up of the province into two new ones: the provinces of West Papua and Papua.

In absolute terms of the 2.6 million inhabitants of Papua, the Papuans are becoming a minority within their homeland. Transmigration during the Suharto era has turned into spontaneous migration from other islands. Coastal cities and towns expand and turn into Indonesian enclaves, whilst Papuans only represent a majority in the interior. With this demographic development a widening socio-economic gap between the market economy in the urban areas and the predominantly subsistence economy in the interior exists. And as a result an increasing disparity in income, in regional and ethnic terms. Papuan middleclass hardly exists. Reformasi was however favourable for the creation of a Papuan administrative elite.

The limited money circulation in the interior has an adverse effect on education and training. The costs involved and the necessity of boarding when attending higher level of education are impediments to Papuan social advancement. This reinforces the ethnic, cultural and religious differences. Permanent marginalisation is potentially threatening.