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Formerly known as Irian Jaya (West Irian), it is the western half of an island also known as New Guinea, inhabited by over 200 tribes with as many languages, numbering a total of just over one million inhabitants. It was claimed by the Dutch from 1875, in response to fears that the Australians would take possession of the whole of the island. It remained relatively unexplored by the Dutch, who used it mainly as the site for a penal colony.

Upon Indonesian independence in 1949, the Netherlands retained control over the territory because of Irian's tenuous links with Indonesia. This remained a contentious issue in relations between the Netherlands and Indonesia, which regarded continued Dutch presence in the area as an affront to its sovereignty. Under the nationalist ‘Guilded Democracy’ of President Sukarno, Indonesian forces invaded the country (1961–2), whereupon the Dutch, under pressure from the UN and the USA, conceded defeat.

Since then Irian Jaya has been subject to extensive Indonesian immigration and cultivation programmes. Indonesian dominance of government posts, and cultural and linguistic infringements on its indigenous peoples, have produced widespread resentment, expressed in the formation of the guerrilla Free Papua Movement. The demand for independence grew during the 1990s, emboldened by the weakness of the Indonesian government, and the independence granted to East Timor. However, Indonesia refused to grant independence. Instead, by 2001 it granted the province autonomy. Re‐named Papua, its people were granted a greater share of revenues from its mineral resources, and were allowed to fly their own flag.

Subjects: Contemporary History (Post 1945).

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