Self-Determination, East Asia and the Pacific

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Self-Determination, East Asia and the Pacific

While most of the former colonies of Asia achieved independence in the decade after 1945, only in the 1970s did the smaller, more remote and resource-poor colonies of Oceania gain sovereignty. Decolonization, however, did not satisfy all nationalist aspirations, and not all possessions have become independent states.

In Indonesia, for example, a secession movement in the Moluccas in 1949 proved unsuccessful; support for independence remains strong with both the local and diasporic populations. In the 1990s, pro-independence movements gained ground in Aceh (on the island of Sumatra) and in West Papua (on the island of New Guinea), although Indonesian authorities used military force to repress these contestatory movements. Only in East Timor did the campaign for independence succeed. The former Portuguese colony was annexed by Indonesia in 1975, but a long clandestine struggle finally secured a referendum favorable to independence. The Indonesian army and local anti-independence militias thereupon ravaged the territory, but intervention by United Nations troops allowed recognition of East Timor's sovereignty in 2002. The world's newest independent state faces formidable challenges of reconstruction, economic development, and the creation of a republican political culture.

Elsewhere in eastern Asia, the most prominent (and violent) movement for self-determination has occurred in the southern Philippines. In each of these cases, nationalist ideology has been based on ethnic, cultural, and regional differences between insurgent areas and the nation-state of which they sometimes unwillingly formed a part. Religious differences have pitted Christians in East Timor, the Moluccas, and West Papua against predominantly Muslim Indonesia, and stimulated Muslim sentiments in the largely Catholic Philippines. (Acehnese, who are Muslim, base their nationalism on the historical and cultural specificities of the region.)

Contemporary moves to self-determination in the Pacific islands have been most obvious in the French overseas territories, though there was a protracted, violent, and unsuccessful effort by Bougainville islanders to secede from Papua New Guinea. In New Caledonia, indigenous Melanesians undertook a campaign for independence that provoked strong "loyalist" reactions by descendants of settlers in the 1980s. Kidnapping, hostage taking, and assassination punctuated various attempts to solve the conflict, which ultimately resulted, in 1988, in the declaration of a moratorium on constitutional change for the next quarter century.

In French Polynesia, a similar but less intense and violent campaign brought together Polynesians in opposition to the French state and local elites. Both island groups remain integral parts of the French Republic with increased autonomy. Nationalist movements among Maoris in New Zealand and Polynesians in Hawaii have managed some political and cultural gains, but without major constitutional changes. West Papuans, who are Melanesian, see their efforts to win self-determination as part of a wider struggle by native populations of Oceania. Several island groups, particularly in Micronesia, have meanwhile opted for continuing formal ties with the United States, the former administering power. Throughout Oceania, rebel movements have based their ideologies on indigenous culture and heritage, Western-style nationalism and constitutionalism, and, in some cases, at least until the 1990s, vaguely Marxist analyses of economic exploitation. Christian ideals have been incorporated into the discourse of self-determination in a region where religion continues to play a strong role.

The boundaries of most Southeast Asian and island Pacific states are inherited from the colonial epoch, and populations seldom form homogeneous nations. The cohabitation of Europeans and indigenous peoples in New Zealand, New Caledonia, and Hawaii, of islanders and Indians in Fiji, of Malays and Chinese in Malaysia, and of a plethora of ethnic groups in such countries as Indonesia has inevitably created deep and abiding tensions. Political circumstances—most evident in the ideological and military clashes of the Korean War of the 1950s and Vietnam War of the 1960s and 1970s—are also linked with self-determination, state formation, and big-power intervention. The rise of a militantly political Islam and the resurgence of nationalism in such areas as West Papua, suggest renewed campaigns for self-determination, even while globalization continues to effect changes throughout the region.

see also Decolonization, East Asia and Pacific; French Polynesia; Moluccas.


Aldrich, Robert. France and the South Pacific since 1940. Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 1993.

Dunn, James. East Timor: A Rough Passage to Independence, 3rd ed. Double Bay, New South Wales: Longville Books, 2003.

King, Peter. West Papua and Indonesia since Suharto: Independence, Autonomy or Chaos? Kensington: University of New South Wales, 2004.