Pacific Scoop

Leading advocate for West Papuan self-determination dies

Viktor Kaisiepo at the United Nations in New York for a meeting of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Photo: Human Rights Film Festival 2009

Pacific Scoop:
Obituary – By Dirk Vlasblom in Amsterdam

Papuan human rights campaigner Viktor Kaisiepo has died at the age of 61 in Amersfoort, the Dutch town where he resided in exile from the land he loved.

He was an internationally renowned fighter for the right to self-determination of the people of West Papua, where he was born. Kaisiepo had been seriously ill for some time, his wife said.

In May 2000, Kaisiepo set foot on his native soil for the first time in 38 years.

In Indonesia, the political tide had turned, and then President Wahid gave Western New Guinea its old name back: Papua.

The indigenous people held a conference on the political future of the region and Viktor, then aged 51, could not afford to be absent.

Before flying from Jakarta to the provincial capital of Jayapura, he made a stopover on the island of Biak, off the coast of Papua. That is where the Kaisiepos come from and he could not ignore his ancestors’ request by failing to first tread on the land where their bones rested

Viktor was one of the sons of Markus Wonggor Kaisiepo (1913-2000), former mission teacher, former government official in Dutch New Guinea and a leading member of the Kaisiepo clan.

Last piece
Markus Kaisiepo was elected as member of the colonial parliament, the New Guinea Council in April 1961.

The government of New Guinea was the last piece of “the Indies” that was still under Dutch rule. The Netherlands had excluded the western half of this large island in the Pacific Ocean from the transfer of sovereignty to Indonesia in 1949.

The Dutch government in The Hague had gradually come to the realisation that the Melanesian Papuans did not belong to the predominantly Malay Indonesia and that they would eventually be entitled to an independent political existence.

However, in 1962, under American pressure, the Netherlands decided to hand over the area to Indonesia.

That is when Markus and his family moved to the Netherlands where he continued to strive for an independent West Papua, something which the Dutch had once promised him and his associates.

Over the years, his son Viktor came to realise that many roads could lead to the desired freedom and that political independence was not the only way to do justice to the Papuans.

He became the spokesman for Papuan organisations in the Netherlands which had joined forces and lobbied at the United Nations for the rights of the Papuans and other indigenous peoples.

Opportunities opened
When President Wahid came to power, Viktor saw opportunities for an autonomous Papua.

Shortly before his departure for Indonesia, in April 2000, he had a conversation with the old Markus whose views had not changed.

When Viktor told him that he went to Papua, he just said: “That’s good, but act only when the time is ripe.”

Markus died at the age of 87 when Viktor was still in Papua.

In Jayapura, Viktor said in his speech before the Papuan Congress: “I dream not of the UN, I work there. The Decolonisation Committee of the UN has a list with seventeen regions eligible for independence.”

Hopeful cheer.

“West Papua is not on that list.” Groans.

“But the outcome of our struggle does not depend on a UN list. We can ensure that West Papua gets on that list and I can help you accomplish that.”

‘Free Papua’ parliamentarian
The Congress chose him as a member of the Papuan Presidium, the executive body of the Movement for a Free Papua, and he returned to the Netherlands.

Viktor Kaisiepo maintained contacts with his people in Papua and remained open to a critical dialogue with Indonesia. Last year an incurable disease manifested itself and he died in Amersfoort, the town where he had settled.

Dirk Vlasblom is editor of the Dutch newspaper NRC. This is a translation from the Dutch language article.