How Indonesia Reclaimed West Papua through Military Operation

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Indonesia committed several strategies to reclaim West Papua from the clutch of Netherland, even after the declaration of independence on 17 August 1945. Since Netherland was adamant to keep West Papua as a colony, Indonesia launched various strategies, ranging from diplomatic to social and cultural. When everything failed, the new country decided to launch military operations.

First Talks of Indonesia’s Military Operations

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Indonesia’s first formal declaration of independence in August 1945 was not well-received by the Netherland Kingdom. Aside from the military aggression, Netherland also refused Indonesia’s request to claim West Papua, reasoning that West Papuans were from different ethnicities than most Indonesians. These caused Indonesia to keep their military forces on high alert.

At first, Indonesia still tried to avoid confrontations as best as possible. From 1950 to 1956, Indonesia was involved in various diplomatic efforts to reclaim West Papua, such as joining with Netherland in the union and bringing the problem to international stages. On 17 August 1956, Indonesian government even formed a new party based in West Papua, called Partai Persatuan Cenderawasih, to speed up the process of reclamation.

However, all the diplomatic efforts failed, and Netherland still refused to give up West Papua. Indonesia finally decided to switch from defensive to offensive tactics, starting with forceful halts of various Netherland consulate activities, followed by general assembly and labor strike. In 1958, Indonesia considered purchasing for foreign help to get military arsenals. This marked the first step of a military strategy to reclaim West Papua.

Arsenal Contracts with Soviet and the US

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Indonesia tried to buy weapons from the United States, but the latter rejected the request, particularly because it wanted to stay neutral in the conflict, and there were worries that the military plans would only lead to different type of colonization. In 1958, Indonesia finally signed purchase contracts with Soviet Union, Poland, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia.

Indonesia purchased several ships and weapons that cost around USD2.5 billion, with a long-term payment agreement. Seeing the purchases, the US finally relented and decided to help Indonesia, afraid with the effects of this partnership to the climate of Cold War. Afraid that Indonesia would have strong relation with communist countries, President John F. Kennedy finally signed agreement to provide Indonesia with weapons.

Indonesia managed to purchase various military vehicles from the US, such as 41 lightweight MI-4 choppers, 30 MiG-15 combat jets (plus 49 MiG-17), 20 supersonic jets MiG-21, 22 lightweight bombers Ilyushin, 12 TU-16 sea planes, 10 C-130 Hercules carrier planes, dozens of corvettes, 12 Whiskey submarines, one AS-1 Kennel air-to-surface submarine, and one Sverdlov ship, later renamed KRI Irian in the spirit of military operation.

Infrastructure Renovations and the Search of International Support

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Indonesia Air Force (AURI) and the government started renovating various infrastructures to support the upcoming military operations. Since the old airports and landing strips in Maluku and West Papua dated from 1945, they were in disrepair. The renovation projects finished at the end of 1961, and Indonesia finally had 14 airports in good conditions.

Indonesia also asked for diplomatic supports from various countries. Indonesia approached Pakistan, Thailand, India, Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom, Germany, and France. The goal was to persuade the countries to support Indonesia in reclaiming West Papua. The UN even brought West Papua matter in their 1961 General Assembly, with the goal of convincing Netherland to give up West Papua.

The Military Operations

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Indonesia finally launched its first military operation on 13 January 1962, starting with forming the Mandala Commando with General Major Soeharto (later Indonesia’s second president) as the commander. The whole operation was planned for two years, from the infiltrations and open attacks, to consolidations in 1964. Indonesia must face Netherland’s marine, army, and infantry battalions, which were placed in important areas such as Fakfak, Sorong, Kaimana, Merauke, and Teminabuan.

Indonesia started the operation by infiltrating several West Papua areas, using forces from the army, marine, and air force. The soldiers entered to Netherland’s infrastructures, forming bases in various islands, and sabotaging or damaging various important facilities. The most famous open battle happened on 15 January 1962 in Aru Sea, where KRI Macan Tutul ship sunk by Netherland’s marine forces, resulting in the deaths of Commodore Yos Sudarso and the soldiers in it.

In May 1962, Indonesia launched air raid in various remote areas in West Papua, involving 81 air force members that landed in Teminabuan to forcefully reclaim the town. The operation was successful because of the sudden elements; Major Soeharto sent his soldiers at night. Indonesia also prepared the final big operation called Jayawijaya Operation, but it did not manifest because of quick responses by international world.

Afraid that communist countries would take advantages, the US and UN finally pushed Netherland to discuss again with Indonesia. The UN later became temporary executive authority for West Papua, following New York Agreement in the UN Headquarter. The series of military operations ended up pushing more diplomatic efforts, resulting in Indonesia’s reclaim of West Papua in 1969.