Women and Decolonisation Event

In West Papua and New Caledonia, the struggle for decolonisation is ongoing. Recently, however, independence movements in both of these territories have pushed referendums for independence onto the national agenda, though these initiatives are not well-known to outsiders. Women have played critical roles in these struggles. The Sydney Pacific Studies Network (USYD) along with the Oceania network (WSU) will be holding a public lecture with four women leaders from West Papua and New Caledonia. This lecture aims to draw attention to their work and, in particular, debate the constraints under which they labour and the possibilities they have created for themselves and others in pushing for independence.
The event
Please join us for a discussion about how events are progressing on the ground and across the world. This public lecture will feature Nancy Jouwe, Rosy Makalu, Florenda Nirkani, and Annette Boemara discussing their involvement in the campaign for decolonisation and the role of women in this struggle.
The event is from 5 pm Wednesday, 23 May 2018, in the Metcalfe Auditorium, State Library of NSW. The event is free; all you need to do is register on the Eventbrite page here. If you have any questions about the event or need more information, please email C.Webb-Gannon@westernsydney.edu.au or miranda.johnson@sydney.edu.au.
If you’re interested in learning more about these struggles continue reading for a brief history of the independence movements in both territories.
Historical background
West Papua
West Papua, a territory in the western Pacific, is in the midst of an ongoing, sometimes violent, and complex struggle for its independence. The territory occupies the western half of the island of New Guinea, bordering the independent country of Papua New Guinea and was held by the Dutch from the early 19th century as Netherlands New Guinea, alongside the Netherlands colony in Indonesia then known as the Dutch East Indies. After Indonesia officially gained its independence in 1949, it began a campaign to include for West Papua within its republic. West Papuan leaders gained access to education and positions within the Dutch colonial administration in the 1950s, and they used this platform to campaign for an independent West Papuan state which could take its place alongside other soon-to-be independent Pacific nations in Melanesia. Despite this campaign, the territory of West Papua was transferred from the control of the Dutch colonial administration to the Indonesian Republic in 1962 under United Nations supervision, without consultating the West Papuan peoples.
In 1969 the so-called ‘Act of Free Choice’ was conducted by Indonesia, as an act of self-determination to allow West Papuans to decide whether or not to remain within the Indonesian Republic. The referendum was to include a small portion of the Papuan population who were hand-picked by the Indonesian administration and conducted according to the musywarah consultative method of decision making. Indonesia claimed West Papuans were too primitive to take part in a democratic vote. West Papuans petitioned the UN to allow for all men and women to participate in the plebiscite, yet the United Nations calls ignored their calls, and the vote went ahead with only 1,022 participants. These participants voted in favour of becoming part of the Indonesian Republic. The vote was then ratified by the UN General Assembly despite concerns over its legitimacy.
Once Indonesia officially gained control of the territory, many West Papuans were forced out as refugees. These refugees continued the campaign for independence around the world, particularly in Papua New Guinea, Australia and the Netherlands. West Papuans within the territory continued to wage military and political struggles against the Indonesian Republic. Under President Suharto’s New Order regime, West Papuan nationalism was violently suppressed and the independence movement fractured. Human rights groups consistently recorded human rights abuses against indigenous West Papuans and West Papuan nationalist celebrations were regularly met with state-sponsored violence by the Indonesian administration.
After the fall of the New Order regime, the Indonesian administration loosened its approach towards West Papua and made promises of a special autonomy package for the region which would allow for greater self-government. While this led many West Papuans to hope for improved conditions the gains of this special autonomy package did not eventuate, human rights abuses continued, and therefore the independence movement continued its campaign for self-determination.
While factions of the West Papuan independence movement have made headway seeking official international recognition, none of the groups were able to make significant progress in gaining official recognition at the United Nations. After being urged by the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) to join together under one voice, many of the factions of the independence movement came together to form the United Movement for the Liberation for West Papua (ULMWP). The group gained observer status within the MSG and is campaigning to received official status within the group to establish a case at the United Nations for self-determination. The current generation of West Papuan leaders believe international recognition of their struggle is needed and that referendum is essential in gaining formal West Papuan independence. The opposition from Indonesia is still active, and West Papuan independence groups have not yet obtained official recognition at the United Nations. Therefore, leaders are seeking to gain a strong base of support from the Pacific to make a convincing case for self-determination and push for a new referendum to allow for West Papuans to vote to become independent from Indonesia.
Further reading:
Article on the early West Papuan independence movement, Indonesia and the United Nations, ‘Decolonization Interrupted’ by Emma Kluge: http://www.histecon.magd.cam.ac.uk/unhist-2017/image-of-the_month/image_of_the_month_Oct17.html
For a more indepth analysis of the conflict between West Papua and Indonesia see Cammellia Webb-Gannon’s work: https://www.academia.edu/25626271/A_Slow-Motion_Genocide_Indonesian_Rule_in_West_Papua
New Caledonia
Another struggle for independence is ongoing in the Melanesian state of New Caledonia. Annexed by the French in 1853, New Caledonia became a settler colony and site of convict transportation, entailing wide-spread mineral exploitation, the displacement of indigenous peoples, and conflicts over land and resources between settlers and the indigenous Kanak people that continues today.
However, in the twentieth century saw the Kanak population increased; settlers left their farms and moved to the cities; and Kanak inhabitants were able to regain control over some of their land. The French government shifted its colonial policy towards the indigenous population from managing a ‘dying race’ to attempts at integration. After World War II, the colonial administration liberalised its policies putting an end to forced labour and allowing the indigenous population to vote. As the Kanak population gained political power, they began to advocate for increased access to land and greater participation in government. These changes were resisted by the French government as it threatened the extensive land holdings of the European population. The inequality between the European and Kanak population was a constant source of conflict – calls for independence were soon added to the campaigns for land reform.
In the 1970s, Jean-Marie TJibaou, a former Kanak priest, entered the political arena and became a leader of the early independence movement. This led to a period of cultural and religious rediscovery but also to a period of conflict between independence advocates and loyalists. This activity led to the formation of the Front de Liberation National Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS). The French government made concessions to redress inequalities during the 1970s and 1980s, including a large-scale land redistribution scheme. The conservative party which took power in France in 1986 overturned many of these policies and launched immigration programs to the territory, reducing the Kanak inhabitants to a quarter of the population. This intensified fighting between partisans and loyalists leading to a period of violence and rebellion resulting in the deaths of many Kanak independence fighters.
In 1988, the Matignon Accords were signed between the anti-independence party Rassemblement pour la Caledonia dans la Republique (RPCR), the FLNKS and the French State. After talks between the three parties, they agreed to hold to a ten-year peace during which period the French government would attempt to redress socioeconomic inequalities in the territory, allow for greater participation of the indigenous Kanak population, and slowly transfer governance to the territory. At the end of this period, a referendum would take place to allow the citizens of the region to vote to become independent or remain a self-governing territory within the French Republic.
In 1998, when it became apparent a referendum for independence would be unsuccessful, a new agreement, the Noumea Accord, was signed between the New Caledonia parties and the French government to delay a referendum. The French government committed to progressively transfer political power to the government in New Caledonia over a period of 20 years. At the end of this period a series of referendum would take place to over whether the territory would become independent or remain autonomous but part of the French Republic.
In the lead up to the 2018 referendum independence advocates are campaigning to educate the population about independence and gain a majority vote for decolonisation. Indigenous Kanak people make up 45 percent of the population and Europeans born in the territory make up another third. The French government opposes independence in the region statin that if New Caledonia remains in the Republic the territory will have the best chance at development and peace. Within the territory, there is competition not only between anti-independence party RPCR and pro-independence party FLNKS but also between emerging centrist anti-independence and radical independence parties. On November 2018, New Caledonians will be asked to vote yes or no to the question: ‘Do you want New Caledonia to accede full sovereignty and become independent?’ If the no vote wins then the current situation will remain and a second referendum will be held in two years’ time. If the yes vote wins the territory will begin the process of gaining full sovereignty and negotiating a new relationship with France. Many citizens remain unsure over what an independent future would look like and therefore both independence advocates and loyalists are campaigning to explain the implications of the referendum and a yes or no vote.
Further reading:
A chapter from Alaine Chanter, ‘Parties and the New Political Logic in New Caledonia’, accessed here: http://press-files.anu.edu.au/downloads/press/p77961/pdf/ch0856.pdf
Article from Lowy Institute explaining the formulation of the referendum: https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/words-count-new-caledonia-s-referendum-question