The Papua New Guinea-Indonesia Border and its Effect on Relations Between Papua New Guinea and Indonesia

In October 1986 the foreign ministers of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea signed a Treaty of Mutual Respect, Friendship and Cooperation. Under the terms of this treaty the two countries agreed not to threaten or use force against one another and not to cooperate with others in hostile or unlawful acts against each other or allow their territory to be used by others for such purposes. Provision was made also for consultation and negotiation in the event of any dispute. The treaty was hailed by President Suharto as ‘another milestone in the history of both countries,’ while Papua New Guinea’s prime minister and foreign affairs secretary said it would give direction for the future and inspire confidence in Papua New Guinea and its regional neighbours (Niugini Nius 28 October 1986).

More sceptical opinion, however, observed that there was nothing in the new treaty which either had not been the subject of earlier and repeated verbal assurances, or was not already adequately provided for in the existing agreement on border administration. Some opposition politicians in Papua New Guinea went further, describing the treaty as ‘naive and misconstrued,’ ‘sinister,’ and ‘an exercise in hypocrisy’ (Post-Courier 29 October 1986; Times of Papua New Guinea 31 October– 6 November 1986).

In an attempt to throw some light on these conflicting viewpoints, and to promote a better understanding of the nature of relations between Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, this paper looks at the problems that have arisen over the common border between Indonesia and Papua New Guinea and at the effects of these problems on relations between them.

The border

The land boundary between Indonesia and Papua New Guinea stretches for some 750 kilometres. In the south it passes through dry savannah and swampy rain forest before ascending into the precipitous limestone ridges of the rain-soaked Star Mountains. North of the Star Mountains it traverses the Sepik floodplain, another series of formidable limestone ridges and raging mountain streams, and a thickly forested swampy plain before rising again into the Bougainville Mountains, which ultimately fall, in a succession of limestone cliffs, into the sea at Wutung. The border itself is poorly defined. Until the 1980s there were only fourteen markers along the entire length of the border.

Except for parts of the border area roughly from the Fly River bulge to 100 kilometres north of it, the region is sparsely populated by people who are shifting cultivators with small groups of predominantly hunter-gatherers. In the north and south respectively taro and yam provide the main staples, and in the higher altitudes some depend on sweet potato; for the rest sago is the main staple, supplemented by hunting. As in other countries whose borders are the product of arbitrary decisions by past colonial regimes, language groups and traditional rights to land as well as relations of kin and of trade extend across the border. Indeed, border surveys during the 1960s established that the border ran right through the middle of at least one village and that several villages which had been administered by the Dutch were in fact in the Australian territory. As recently as 1980 a village included in Papua New Guinea’s National Census was found to be inside the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya [which in 2000 President Wahid renamed Papua]. The situation is made more complex for administering authorities by the tendency, amongst these shifting cultivators, for whole villages to shift, re-form and disappear over time.

The land border is defined by an Australian-Indonesian border agreement of 1973, and is the subject of an agreement between Indonesia and Papua New Guinea concerning administrative border arrangements. The latter was originally drawn up in 1973 (when Australia was the administering authority in Papua New Guinea, though the agreement was signed by Michael Somare as chief minister), and was renegotiated, with minor but significant amendments, in 1979 and 1984. The agreement contains provisions relating to definition of the border area, the establishment of a joint border committee and consultation and liaison arrangements, border crossings for traditional and customary purposes and by non-traditional inhabitants, customary border trade and the exercise of traditional rights to land and waters in the border area, border security, quarantine, navigation, exchange of information on major construction, major development of natural resources, environmental protection, and compensation for damages. There is, however, no provision for hot pursuit across the border, and Papua New Guinea has repeatedly resisted proposals for joint military patrolling of the border.

Border problems

Since earliest colonial times New Guinea’s borders have been an occasional source of friction between the neighbouring administrations. In recent years problems between Papua New Guinea and Indonesia over the border area have arisen from four sources.

Border crossers

In principle, one can distinguish four broad classes of border crossers. First, there are villagers from the border area who cross from time to time, as they have always crossed, to make sago, to hunt, or to visit kin. As mentioned above, provisions are specifically made for such traditional movement in the border agreement. Traditionally, such movement was two-way and sometimes, in response to drought or disputes, for example, was more or less permanent. Within comparatively recent times there has been continuous substantial movement across the border. During the Dutch period many Papua New Guinean villagers from the border area travelled across into what was then Dutch New Guinea, attracted by the superior facilities available, especially at centres such as Hollandia (now Jayapura), Mindiptanah, and Merauke. Lately, it seems, movement has tended to be in the opposite direction, though greater formality of border administration and the existence of different lingua franca has inhibited such movement. The IASER survey referred to above (footnote 1) has documented extensive cross-border ties for the people of Western Province: in the North Ok Tedi and Moian census divisions, for example, 47.8 and 30.3 per cent respectively of adults surveyed were born in Irian Jaya (Pula and Jackson 1984:35). In view of the frequency of movement in the past, the IASER report ventured the opinion that ‘a good proportion of these border crossers [i.e. those who crossed in Papua New Guinea in 1984] could have good claim to Papua New Guinea citizenship’ (ibid.:33). Much the same situation exists in Papua New Guinea’s northern Sandaun Province. In 1984 the Sandaun premier, Andrew Komboni, accused the Australian, Indonesian, and Papua New Guinean governments of ignoring the ‘family aspects’ of the situation created by border crossing: ‘The traditional ties amongst the border villages in the northern sector have not changed since the white man declared an invisible border line’, he said: ‘A good number of the current refugees … have run this way with the natural inclination to seek family refuge. It must be shocking … to see blood relatives being jailed or being held at camps’ (Post-Courier 12 April 1984). As the IASER report observed: ‘As time has passed and as the rule of national laws has reluctantly spread to the border area so people going about their business as they have done for centuries are slowly being made into law-breakers at worst or “problems” at best’ (ibid.:32).

Second, there has been a comparatively small number of Irianese nationalists seeking political asylum in Papua New Guinea. Some of them have been allowed to resettle in Papua New Guinea but increasingly in the 1980s those granted refugee status were passed on, with the assistance of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), mostly with considerable difficulty, to third countries such as Sweden and Greece.
Third, from time to time, as a result of military activity in Irian Jaya, groups of Irianese villagers have crossed over into Papua New Guinea seeking temporary refuge often with kin or wantoks.

Fourth, the OPM [Organisasi Papua Merdeka, or Free Papua Movement] guerrillas operating in the border area have on occasion crossed over into Papua New Guinea seeking refuge from Indonesian military patrols; this, however, is a special class of border crosser and will be considered in more detail below.

Papua New Guinea policy on border crossers was established during the colonial period. As I described it some years ago:

People crossing the border are required to report to one of the several patrol posts along the border and state their reason for crossing. If their purpose is ‘traditional’ (the most common is sago making) they are normally allowed to stay until they have finished what they came to do and are then expected to return across the border. If they apply for political asylum they are held until a decision is taken and then either granted permissive residence or told to return. In all other cases they are told to return. If they refuse, they are arrested and charged as illegal immigrants, after which they may be deported. [May 1979:98-9]

The essential features of this policy have not changed since the 1960s, though in early 1984, in an apparent effort to discourage movement across the border, the Papua New Guinean government charged all adult male border crossers as illegal immigrants. In practice, as I noted in 1979, the stringency with which this policy has been applied has varied since 1962. However there is nothing to support the claim that while Papua New Guinea was a colony Australia kept the border pretty well sealed but that since 1975 administration of the border has been relatively lax. In fact a close look at the available evidence suggests that from about 1972, when the first Somare government came to office, Papua New Guinea has taken an increasingly hard line against border crossers in all of the above categories (ibid., also see May 1986).

With regard to numbers: before 1984 the best estimate of Irian-born residents in Papua New Guinea was around 2000 to 3000; many of these must have slipped across the border prior to 1962, and taken up residence in villages or towns, without acquiring formal residential status. Of this number, by 1986 217 had been granted citizenship in Papua New Guinea – 157 in 1976 and another 60 in 1977. No Irian-born person had been granted citizenship after 1977.

But while, ‘in principle’, border crossers may be classified in four categories, in practice, of course, border crossers are not always so easily distinguishable. Until 1984 the number of border crossers was sufficiently small that this was not a major problem. In 1984 this changed. Following an abortive local uprising by Irianese nationalists in Jayapura in February, and a subsequent military crackdown, hundreds and eventually thousands of Irianese began to pour across the border into Papua New Guinea. By 1986 there were between 10 000 and 12 000 border crossers in camps along the border, few of whom showed any inclination to return in the foreseeable future, and many of whom claimed traditional land rights. Most of these people were ‘refugees’ in the broad sense that they crossed the border to take refuge from conditions they found threatening. The Papua New Guinea government was reluctant to refer to them as refugees, however, because of what this implied with regard to the UN 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, and preferred to see them as Indonesian citizens who would soon return to their own side of the border. In fact, the Papua New Guinea government has tried to persuade groups to return, and even forcibly repatriated some, in the face of ongoing domestic reaction. Border crossers themselves, especially those from the border area, were also reluctant to have themselves classified as refugees, for fear that they too might be sentenced to resettlement in Sweden.

The handling of the refugee problem during 1984-85 has been documented elsewhere. It is a story that does not reflect well on either Indonesia or Papua New Guinea, nor on regional neighbours who have shown no willingness to help resettle those who are eventually granted refugee status. Indonesia, having initially refused to acknowledge that an influx of border crossers had occurred, hampered efforts at repatriation by its reluctance to formally guarantee the safety of returnees, its refusal for some time to agree to UNHCR involvement in repatriation, and its insistence that Papua New Guinea provide a list of names of the border crossers. Indonesia’s foreign minister Mochtar subsequently made it quite clear that he had little interest in the return of the border crossers. In an interview with Peter Hastings (Sydney Morning Herald 16 August 1986) Mochtar is reported to have said: ‘The biggest problem of these Irianese … is … they want to go through life doing nothing at all. We don’t need people like that’. On the other hand it is clear that, having failed to force a large number of border crossers to return by withholding assistance, during 1984-85 the Papua New Guinea government made little effort to screen the refugee camp inmates with a view to sorting out ‘genuine refugees’ from potential returnees. The government of Paias Wingti, which came to office in Papua New Guinea in late 1985, elaborated a new policy on border crossers, which included greater UNHCR involvement, greater commitment to the screening of border crossers, and the possibility of some resettlement of refugees within Papua New Guinea.


Since the early 1960s groups of Irianese nationalist rebels have operated in the border area of Irian Jaya, in the name of the Organisasi Papua Merdeka, and have occasionally crossed over into Papua New Guinea for ‘R & R’ (rest and recreation) or to escape Indonesian military patrols. There have also been isolated instances of OPM sympathisers within Papua New Guinea seeking to materially assist the OPM, but usually without effect. Two notable cases were a rather naive letter of 1981 seeking arms from the USSR, which was returned – and intercepted – because the address (‘Mr George, c/o Poste Restante, Turkey’) was insufficient, and an unsuccessful attempt in 1984 to obtain weapons through an Australian mercenary soldier.

Successive Papua New Guinea governments, however, have consistently reiterated their denial of Papua New Guinea soil to OPM rebels, and Papua New Guinean police and military and administrative personnel patrol the border area in an effort to discourage movement across the border in general and to deny the use of the border area to OPM guerrillas in particular. In 1983 and again in 1984 budgetary allocations for police and military border patrols were increased, and it was announced that an infantry company would be stationed at Kiunga. In addition several Irianese granted permissive residence in Papua New Guinea were deported for violating their promise, as a condition of their residence in Papua New Guinea, not to engage in political activity relative to their nationalist sentiments. Indeed since the late 1970s the Papua New Guinea government’s actions against OPM supporters have brought retaliatory threats from the OPM. For example, in 1984, in protest against planned repatriation of border crossers, specific threats were made against the Ok Tedi mining project and against individual Papua New Guinean politicians and bureaucrats, and in 1985 government officers were pulled out of refugee camps in the Western Province following threats from the OPM’s regional commander, Gerardus Thomy.

Notwithstanding this, Papua New Guinea has been accused of not devoting adequate resources to the task of ‘sanitising’ the border. Whether or not Papua New Guinea should spend more on border patrolling depends on judgements about priorities. Personally, given the nature of the terrain and the small number of OPM guerrillas involved, I see little reason why a country whose main concerns are with the economic and social development of its people should divert scarce resources away from development in an attempt to deal with a problem of internal security that a large, militaristic neighbour has been unable to resolve – especially when that neighbour has in turn denied that there is conflict in Irian Jaya, told Papua New Guinea that affairs in Irian Jaya are none of its business, and denied the existence of the OPM itself. But whatever one feels on this issue, it is simply not accurate to accuse Papua New Guinea, as some have, of not taking firm action against the OPM.

Border violations

Although it has occasionally been proposed by Indonesia, Papua New Guinea has stopped short of the sort of border agreement that Indonesia has with Malaysia, which allows ‘hot pursuit’ across the border, and on a number of occasions Papua New Guinea has indicated its unwillingness to enter into joint military patrols along the border. On several occasions since the late 1960s, however, Indonesian troops or aircraft have crossed the border, intentionally or unintentionally. In mid 1982, for example, Indonesian military patrols crossed into Papua New Guinea on seven occasions, despite Papua New Guinea protests, and a helicopter flying the regional military commander to Wamena, 240 kilometres southwest of Jayapura, landed ‘off course’ at a mission station 10 kilometres southeast. In March 1984, two Indonesian aircraft appear to have violated Papua New Guinea’s air space over the Green River station, and the following month there were three border violations, during one of which Indonesian troops destroyed houses and gardens in a hamlet on the Papua New Guinea side of the border.

Such incursions are perhaps inevitable given the nature of the terrain, the poor demarcation of the border, and the circumstances of a guerilla campaign. But such ‘incidents’ have been magnified rather than minimised by the refusal of the Indonesian government, or the inability of its civil and military elements, to deal credibly with Papua New Guinea’s diplomatic protests or requests for explanation. In the instance of the 1982 border violations, for example, the Indonesian government denied that the incursion had occurred, saying that some Indonesian hostages taken in an OPM raid had been recovered from the Papua New Guinea side of the border by Irianese villagers, and accusing Papua New Guinea of not honouring its obligations under the border agreement; in fact, the hostages – who had been held on the Indonesian side of the border – were subsequently released to Irianese villagers, who escorted them across to Papua New Guinea for repatriation. In the case of the 1984 air violations the Indonesian ambassador in Papua New Guinea initially denied that the planes were Indonesian (despite the fact that the Antara News Agency had already reported an exercise by the Indonesian air force in the vicinity of Jayapura); and though the possibility of an unintentional incursion appears to have been admitted privately in Jakarta (Far Eastern Economic Review 12 August 1984; Niugini Nius 30 March 1984) a belated official response to Papua New Guinea’s diplomatic protests again denied that an incursion had taken place. And with respect to the military incursions of mid-1984 (which occurred during military exercises in the border area, of which – despite earlier Indonesian assurances – Papua New Guinea had not been informed), in the face of all evidence Armed Forces Commander Benny Murdani denied the violation, suggesting that perhaps the offenders were OPM guerillas in Indonesian army uniforms. About the same time the governor of Irian Jaya was reported as saying, ‘There have never been any clashes between the Indonesian defence forces and the OPM rebels. There have been no clashes, never’ (Times of Papua New Guinea 31 May 1984).

Such response to legitimate concerns of the Papua New Guinea government have created tensions in the relations between the two countries which might easily have been avoided by a more honest response. In mid-1984, Papua New Guinea’s foreign minister stated that while Papua New Guinea did not want to interfere in Indonesia’s internal affairs the border crossers were not simply an internal affair. Since they had a direct effect on Papua New Guinea, the means by which lrian Jaya was governed and developed was of immediate interest to Papua New Guinea (Times of Papua New Guinea 24 May 1984; Post-Courier 24 July 1984). In late 1984, frustrated and ‘bloody angry’, the Papua New Guinea foreign minister expressed his dissatisfaction with the border situation in a speech to the UN General Assembly. The Indonesian ambassador in Washington, it was reported, was ‘painfully surprised’.

Border development

Except perhaps at its northern extremity, the border area is poorly endowed and poorly developed. On the Papua New Guinea side, apart from the fortuitously placed Ok Tedi mine, what development there has been – a little basic infrastructure (schools, aid posts, minor roads) – is largely the result of the attention the border area has received during periods of OPM-Indonesian military confrontation. Agricultural development has been inhibited by the government’s policy on quarantine. A modest border programme was included in Papua New Guinea’s 1980-83 National Public Expenditure Plan, but the allocation for border development was cut in 1983 as a consequence of declining revenue from domestic sources and Australian aid.

On the Irian Jaya side, the construction of the trans-Irian Jaya highway and the transmigration programme are seen as major contributions to development, and there have been announcements of plans to improve communications in the border area (including, according to one report, colour TV sets) in the hopes of persuading Irianese border dwellers to stay on their side of the border. More recently it has been reported that under a three-year plan for development in the border area, commencing in 1986, Indonesia will spend about $US66 million on highway construction, airstrips, health and education services, industrial and agricultural developments, and the establishment of trading centres to improve living conditions in the border area. A further $US2 million is to be spent on border security, including an army base.

From time to time joint border development has been proposed as the solution to problems of Irianese separatism and of border crossers. Indeed in 1983, before thousands of Irianese began flooding over the border into Papua New Guinea, Peter Hastings observed that Papua New Guineans from the Vanimo area were visiting Jayapura and suggested that greater development efforts on the Irian Jaya side could soon produce a situation where the predominant flow of border crossers was from Papua New Guinea to Irian Jaya (Sydney Morning Herald 2 May 1983). In fact, however, border development programmes on the Papua New Guinea side, and it seems on the Irian Jaya side, have not made much progress, and since 1984 the Papua New Guinea government has been more concerned with sustaining (and eventually getting rid of) border crossers than with providing the improved conditions along the border that might attract more crossers. In the longer term there is some concern in Papua New Guinea that if large-scale transmigration to Irian Jaya takes place, and unless it proves more successful than it has to date in Irian Jaya, the resultant tensions could aggravate the problems of border crossing.

Relations between Indonesia and Papua New Guinea

In the 1980s there was some discussion of the broad defence and security aspects of Indonesia-Papua New Guinea relations. The informed consensus seemed to be that Indonesia does not have expansionist ambitions towards Papua New Guinea (past expansionist ventures being the product of particular historical circumstances that cannot be projected onto the Papua New Guinea case), but that there might be other imaginable circumstances that would worry Indonesia and perhaps lead to intervention in one form or another, specifically the emergence of a hostile (communist-sympathetic) regime in Papua New Guinea or some kind of breakdown in Papua New Guinea’s political system, perhaps caused by regional dissidence.

I have no fundamental quarrel with this analysis, except perhaps a logical quibble about the ‘particular-historical-circumstances’ argument: granted that the particular historical circumstances of Indonesia’s original claim to West Papua, of konfrontasi over Malaysia, and of East Timor do not apply to independent Papua New Guinea, can Papua New Guineans be blamed for sometimes wondering whether another set of particular circumstances, domestic and/or external, might be seen by Indonesia as justifying another expansionist venture? It is in this context (and perhaps also in view of recurring Indonesian claims that it has acted with ‘restraint’) that some of us find the discussion of possible Indonesian ‘intervention’ in the event of a ‘hostile’ or ‘unstable’ regime in Papua New Guinea disquieting. I hope we may assume that those who present such scenarios agree that the emergence of an ‘unstable’ regime (whatever that means) in Papua New Guinea, or even one hostile to Indonesia, would provide no justification for Indonesian intervention. Having said that, I suggest that the more immediate concerns in Indonesia-Papua New Guinea relations have to do not with possible invasion or intervention but with the problems arising over administration of the common border. Administration of the border takes place within the framework of the border agreement and in the context of a mutual commitment to good relations. Since 1981 there have been annual Joint Border Committee meetings, irregular meetings of a Border Liaison Committee, and a number of meetings of technical subcommittees.

In fact, however, relations between the two governments over the border have been marked by short cycles of tension followed by self-conscious cordiality. When ‘incidents’ have occurred, the machinery of border liaison has generally proved ineffective. For example, when in 1983 it was discovered that Indonesia’s trans-lrian Jaya highway crossed into Papua New Guinea at three points, it took more than three months to secure an acknowledgement that the incursion had taken place and 16 months before the offending sections of road were closed off. (Incidentally, the incursion might have been established several months earlier had Indonesia not withdrawn from a joint survey exercise, because of inadequate funds.) Again, in February 1984, with refugees flooding across the border, Indonesian officials told the Papua New Guinea foreign minister that they knew nothing of reported events and assured him that things in Jayapura were ‘normal’, even though residents on the Papua New Guinea side of the border confirmed that Jayapura was in darkness and its government radio station silent. At this time there had not been a border liaison meeting for over a year – allegedly because of lack of funds – and the Vanimo-Jayapura ‘hot-line’ had been out of service for several months. And when in April 1984 Papua New Guinea sought a meeting of the Joint Border Committee to attempt to achieve some resolution of the situation, its foreign secretary found himself sitting down with a local bupati who was apparently uninformed on the subject of the border crossings and had no authority to make decisions. A scheduled meeting the following month was cancelled at short notice when the Irian Jaya governor withdrew from the Indonesian delegation due to ‘over commitment’. This sort of situation, combined with evasive responses to Papua New Guinea’s protests over border violations as described above, did much to generate the strains that characterised Indonesia-Papua New Guinea relations throughout most of 1984-85.

There has been a tendency amongst distant commentators on Indonesia-Papua New Guinea relations to refer to the problems, and to urge greater ‘understanding’, as though the Indonesia-Papua New Guinea relationship is symmetrical. Obviously it is not: border crossing has been essentially one way; border violations have been entirely at Papua New Guinea’s expense; Papua New Guinea does not have a domestic insurgency problem overflowing its border; it has been Papua New Guinea rather than Indonesia that has had to seek explanations for external disturbances, and responsibility for the frequent ineffectiveness of liaison machinery has been largely on the Indonesian side. Moreover, the huge disparities in size and military capacity between the two countries create an obvious imbalance in the relations between them. One might be excused for wondering too, when Indonesia’s foreign minister defends transmigrasi on the grounds that Indonesia does not intend to preserve Irian Jaya as ‘a human zoo’, if there are not also imbalances in cultural attitudes. Any sensible discussion of possible improvements in Indonesia-Papua New Guinean relations must begin by recognising this imbalance.


In view of this analysis, it is difficult to see what the Treaty of Mutual Respect, Friendship and Cooperation can hope to achieve that could not be achieved just as easily without it. It is, as one Papua New Guinean described it, ‘bilas tasol’ (‘just ornament’). At the most, it might give an assurance of goodwill on both sides that will help ease the tensions that emerged during 1984-85. Ultimately, however, relations between the two countries are likely to be determined less by the rhetoric of diplomats than by the day-to-day problems of administering a border that divides an independent Melanesian nation from an Indonesian province in which a Melanesian liberation movement remains active after some two decades of Indonesian rule. In this context it is perhaps worth noting that in the same week as the much-heralded Treaty of Mutual Respect, Friendship and Cooperation was signed, a Joint Border Committee meeting in Bandung broke up after four days, having failed to reach agreement on proposals for joint search-and-rescue operation in the border area.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *