Divided Islands

The Divided Islands: New Guinea

This series of articles focuses on a territorial quirk I find very interesting because cases are more numerous than I first thought and because it is the source of disparities; I will write about those islands that are split into several countries (mostly two, sometimes more). Of course, some cases are more famous than others. You might have thought of Cyprus and Ireland. I will attempt to write about as many as possible, so come back every week to read about a new place.

The two halves of New Guinea are faced with two very different situations. The Eastern part is ethnically homogeneous but is struggling with political instability due to corruption, separatist movements, and weak infrastructures. The Western part is still being affected by colonialism as Indonesia tries to control the local inhabitants by mixing them with other ethnicities coming from other parts of the country, which has pushed the Papuans to demand self-determination.

The island of New Guinea is split into two almost equal halves by the 141st Meridian east which acts as the border between Indonesia to the West and Papua New Guinea to the East. It is also the commonly accepted demarcation between Asia and Oceania – New Guinea thus overlaps two continents.

Papua map

New Guinea, cut in half by the 141 Meridian east (Image: The New York Times)

Located North of Australia, New Guinea was not colonized until 1890 due to its impenetrability. Mainly covered by rainforest, the Dutch managed to build a settlement in the Western part but failed to expand eastward. The other half was separated between the United Kingdom (south) and Germany (north) upon an agreement of 1885, and both used their foothold on the island to protect their trading interests in the region. The German part was handed over to Australia to administer following the First World War, while the British portion had already been outsourced in 1902.

Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea (PNG) gained its Independence from Australia in 1975. The country possesses large natural resources but due to high costs of infrastructure, they make up for two thirds of national exports while 85% still depend on agriculture for survival. The lack of infrastructure, weak government and the absence of security guarantees have driven away foreign investors. Poor governance and poor financial investments have continuously jeopardized the funding of schools and other public services. The current government has been repeatedly accused of perpetrating unconstitutional practices and failing to meet any of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals.

PNG is increasingly affected by climate change, especially drought and frost, which has impoverished and killed up to a million inhabitants over the past years due to the lack of relief supplies in certain regions. pest and tuberculosis are also recurring issues.

Corruption is endemic in PNG. As illustrated by the latest Corruption Index which analyzes corruption in the public sector, Papua New Guinea’s score is dramatic as it is at the bottom of the scale (ranked 139 out of 168 countries).

papua corruption

Corruption in Papua New Guinea

From 1989 to 1997, the island of Bougainville, located North East of the mainland, was torn by a civil war. It started “when villagers in the south protested against Rio Tinto, an international mining company that destroyed a mountainside of pristine rainforest to build one of the largest copper mines in the world.” The protests were met with military repression from the central government as well as the blockade of the island. It is estimated that 20,000 inhabitants of Bougainville lost their lives during the period and hundreds are still missing. The island has, however, enjoyed autonomy since the end of the war, and a referendum on the potential independence of Bougainville ought to be held by mid-2020.


Indonesia became independent in 1949 while the Netherlands New Guinea (or Irian Jaya), along with all Dutch Indies, ceased to be Dutch in 1969.

The first free and fair democratic elections took place in 1999, after President Suharto who had ruled the country since 1967 and following his ‘New Order’ was removed from power. Indonesia is the world’s third most populated democracy in the world and the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation. It is also the largest archipelago in the world with 17,000 islands.

First put in place by the Dutch in 1903, a policy of resettlement has been aiming at evening out the population between several regions of the country: people from densely populated areas, like Java where 100 out of 185 million people lived on 7% of the country’s surface, were incentivized to resettle in regions such as New Papua, the Indonesia part of the island of New Guinea. Although this was done to alleviate the pressure on the inner land, it also has a political purpose. The strategy of Transmigrasi is comparable to the Chinese’s strategy of territorial occupation which encouraged the Han, the ruling ethnicity, to move to regions like Tibet and Xinjian to dilute the local populations and their separatist movements. In Indonesia, this policy has disposed many Papuan aboriginals of their lands to the benefit of the Indonesia newcomers. It is estimated that 40% of the Indonesian half of New Guinea comprises of non-Papuan residents today. The movements of populations created many internal refugees, and many of Papua’s indigenous people fled, especially from 1984, to Papua New Guinea to escape from Indonesia’s repression against them. Transmigrasi has thus exacerbated New Guinea’s separatist movements which has been harshly suppressed by the Indonesian’s central government in fear seeing another of its islands seize its independence just like East Timor did in 2002.

Papua freedom

Papuan students demanding freedom for West Papua province.

Border as a conflict zone

The border between Papua New Guinea and Indonesia has been a source of discord especially when it comes to respecting each other’s sovereignty. As mentioned before, there has been large movements of populations coming from the West and seeking refuge in the Eastern part of the island due to Indonesia’s resettlement policies. The separatist movement of Western Papua, the Free Papua Movement (Organisasi Papua Merdeka in Indonesian – OPM) has grown in intensity and so has the Indonesian repression. The dissidents continue to lead a guerilla-like war against the Indonesian administration and do not hesitate to defy the police to raise their flag high.

The border between the two countries is porous and man-made, and has been separating tribes between two entities. Although special arrangements for those communities have been put in place so that they do not need visas to go from one country to the other, this is not enough for the Papuans of Western Papua who still demand self-determination from Indonesia. Members of the OPM have been using the weak borders to escape from Indonesian police; but the inefficiency of the PNG’s police forces has pushed Indonesian security services to chase them on the PNG side of the border.

Beyond the struggle of Western Papua’s aboriginal populations for self-determination which increases violence in the Indonesian half, the OPM has also increased the risk of instability in PNG as they have been smuggling arms and drugs there. Combined with PNG’s unstable and weak governmental institutions, this could potentially lead to a disastrous uprising in PNG. Both Australia and New Zealand, the great regional powers, fear for the instability of the region.

 It appears from studying the case of New Guinea that the effects of colonialism are still visible today. On the one hand, we see PNG, which was colonized by the UK and Germany and then passed on to Australia in the early twentieth century, who administered the territory from a far and let it go without too much trouble. On the other hand, the Netherlands refused to part with its possessions, and finally passed it on to Indonesia after years of violence and struggle. Combined with Indonesia’s fear of separatism, Western Papua has been under strict scrutiny from its central government and the population’s traditions and lands taken away from them.

Two sides of an island, two different stories. This situation is, however, not unique: the case of Hispaniola seems very similar to that.

Could both sides of the island ever be reunited? Maybe, as they have maintained very close relations due to their common ethnicity; but the more influence Indonesia has on its province, the less likely it is that it will happen. In any case, the international community should probably take a look at the situation of the island, especially in regards to self-determination as Indonesia seems to have been turning a blind eye on what the population they rule over desires. To me, it sounds very much like Western Guinea should be added to the list of the UN’s list of Non-Self-Governing Territories.



One thought on “The Divided Islands: New Guinea

  1. Pingback: The divided islands: Saint Martin | florafranca

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