The Australian left is known for backing Papuan independence – but it wasn’t always this way

Greens MP Adam Bandt wore a Morning Star flag pin in his lapel when he met President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo in February. Photo by Adam Bandt (Twitter).

 

For nearly 60 years, successive Australian governments have supported Indonesia’s territorial claim to West Papua, while the Australian left has strongly backed the Papuan independence movement.

 

The Greens, Australia’s largest left-wing political party, strongly supports West Papuan self-determination. The party has condemned the actions of Indonesian authorities in the territory, including the 2019 crackdown in which more than 30 people were killed.

 

In February, the party’s leader, Adam Bandt, and former leader Richard Di Natale, wore Morning Star flags on their lapels during President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s address to the Australian federal parliament in a display of solidarity with Papuans.

 

These contemporary acts of solidarity, however, are not representative of the Australian political left’s historic position on West Papua. During the 1950s and most of the 1960s, the Australian left, then led by the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), categorically supported Indonesia’s claims to the territory.

 

Indonesia and West Papua were both part of the former Dutch East Indies. In 1949, the Dutch acknowledged Indonesian independence, but they continued to rule West Papua. Under the leadership of left-wing President Soekarno, Indonesia sought to annex West Papua.

 

From the early 1950s onwards, the Indonesian government claimed that the ongoing Dutch presence in West Papua constituted the continuation of colonialism. The Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), the then largest non-governing communist party in the world, supported Soekarno’s policy regarding what it described as the “liberation” of West Papua. The anti-imperialist rhetoric of both President Soekarno and the PKI resonated with the Australian left.

 

The CPA staunchly opposed Western colonialism and imperialism. In 1954, future Australian communist leader Laurie Aarons led the CPA’s first delegation to Indonesia, which was hosted by the PKI. After this trip, Australian communists began to closely follow the West Papua issue.

 

From December 1954, the CPA began to publicly express its support for Indonesia’s position, and, in so doing, the party adopted Indonesian government and PKI policy on West Papua. Tribune, the CPA’s national newspaper, even published material from a Soekarno government propaganda pamphlet, issued by the Indonesian Embassy in Canberra, which articulated Indonesia’s claim to the territory.

 

The CPA consequently began to urge the government of Robert Menzies and the federal opposition to adopt the Indonesian policy on West Papua. The party asserted that the Dutch were ruthless imperialists and emphasised the need to maintain strong relations with Australia’s enormous neighbour to the north.

 

The CPA’s policy on West Papua reflected the position of the Soekarno government, the PKI and 1950s Indonesian anti-imperialist activists more broadly, as opposed to the outlook of pro-independence Papuans, who considered Indonesia’s absorption of the territory to itself be neo-colonialism.

 

The CPA’s policy also indicated that the party believed that the Menzies government should not alienate Indonesia over West Papua because of the need for a strong relationship with Australia’s largest neighbour. This attitude has also been shared by both Coalition and Labor Australian governments over recent years, much to the frustration of hard-line sections of the left. The CPA adopted this stance as it sought to strengthen its relationship with the PKI, which was a significant political force inside and outside Indonesia.

 

But the Australian government position, and indeed that of the federal opposition, was to support continued Dutch rule over West Papua because of concerns that Indonesia would attempt to annex the Australian colony of Eastern New Guinea, now known as Papua New Guinea.

 

In 1962, the Dutch relinquished their claims over West Papua and the Australian government consequently changed its policy regarding the territory. In 1963, Indonesia formally gained control of West Papua and many Papuans immediately resisted Indonesian rule. This was demonstrated by the creation of guerrilla organisation the Free Papua Movement (OPM) in 1965, although the Morning Star flag was banned by Soekarno’s government as early as 1963.

 

The Australian left, however, prioritised its desire to strengthen relations with the PKI, the third largest communist party in the world, over Papuans’ right to self-determination. The CPA even described West Papua as an “integral” and “inalienable” part of Indonesia. The CPA’s policy on West Papua did not go unnoticed by the PKI leadership and significantly contributed to the development of rapport between the Australian and Indonesian left.

 

The CPA-PKI relationship was underpinned by a shared political agenda. Documents signed between the parties repeatedly detail their opposition to colonialism. This colonialism, however, only referred to Western imperialism, rather than Indonesia’s policy towards West Papua, which could arguably be described as neo-colonialism.

 

The parties were thus united in their support of Indonesia’s claims to West Papua. However, the Australian left’s position on West Papua shifted dramatically soon after the fall of President Soekarno.

 

On 30 September 1965, seven senior members of the Indonesian military were killed. Under the leadership of General Soeharto, the Indonesian army blamed the PKI for the soldiers’ deaths and used the killings as a pretext to crush the Indonesian left. From October 1965 to mid-1966, approximately 500,000 to one million Indonesians were killed. The PKI was destroyed.

 

By early 1966, Soekarno’s leftist regime had collapsed and was replaced by the anti-communist, authoritarian New Order regime. Soeharto’s violent intolerance of the left influenced a major change in CPA policy on West Papua. By 1969, the CPA was claiming that Soekarno’s demise forced Papuans and Indonesians into a struggle against Soeharto.

 

The distinction between Papuans and Indonesians was a notable reversal of the CPA’s earlier position. The party also recognised the anti-democratic nature of the so-called “Act of Free Choice”, the 1969 UN supervised ballot in which about 1,000 Papuans handpicked by Soeharto’s government were coerced to vote in favour of West Papua’s integration into Indonesia.

 

In a significant policy reversal, the CPA then begun to label Indonesia’s actions in West Papua as “neo-imperialist” and demanded that Australian anti-colonialists support Papuan independence activists. By the 1970s, the CPA began to support Papuan claims to self-determination.

 

The CPA’s actions indicate that the Australian leftist movement has had a problematic and contradictory position towards West Papua.

 

The left ignored the oppressive acts of the Soekarno regime in West Papua and only begun to express concern about the treatment of Papuans following the emergence of the anti-communist Soeharto regime.

 

Although the Greens are not the CPA’s direct ideological successor, they are the largest leftist party in Australia, and can thus be considered representative of the contemporary left’s general position on West Papua.

 

The position of the modern Australian political left, encapsulated by the displays of solidarity by Bandt and Di Natale earlier this year, contrasts starkly with the position of the CPA some 60 years earlier.

 

Dominique Tasevski completed her Bachelor of Arts (Honours) at the University of Melbourne. Her honours thesis examined CPA-PKI relations during the 1950s and 1960s and was awarded the Brian Fitzpatrick Prize for Best Honours Thesis in Australian History. She specialises in Australia-Indonesia relations and Indonesian history and politics.