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Sham Vote Thwarted West Papua's Self-Determination

Sham Vote Thwarted West Papua's Self-Determination Dream: Dutch Report

TAPOL - The Indonesian Human Rights Campaign (United Kingdom)

The 1969 Act of Free Choice, intended to be an act of self-determination by the people of Indonesian-occupied West Papua, was doomed to failure from the outset suggests a Dutch government-commissioned report released today.

The Papuans' fate was sealed when Indonesia's autocratic President, Suharto, whose army was in control of the territory, stipulated that no outcome 'other than a ruling in favour of Indonesia would be acceptable to him'.

According to Western observers and Papuans who have spoken out, 'the Act of Free Choice ended up as a sham where a press-ganged electorate acting under a great deal of pressure appeared to have unanimously declared itself in favour of Indonesia.'

This led to decades of harsh military rule and violence during which 'not a day went by...when no one died or no one was seriously mistreated.' 'Figures running into the tens of thousands have been mentioned' for the number of people who fell victim.

West Papua's abundant natural resources have been ruthlessly exploited for the benefit of the military, the Indonesian treasury, and the elite in Jakarta, leaving the Papuan population as 'one of the poorest groups in Indonesia'.

All this resulted from persistent and disastrous failures of policy by the Netherlands, Indonesia and the international community. The Papuans have since the 1960s suffered from the Netherlands' failure to oversee a successful decolonisation process, from Jakarta's spectacular failure to win hearts and minds and integrate the territory into Indonesia, and the international community's failure to protect the rights of the Papuan people. Above all, the Papuans have suffered from the failure of those in power to respect their right to determine their own future and control their own affairs.

But hope for the future lies in 'the possibilities of Papuan society itself, which has produced the necessary self-control, wisdom and resilience to ensure its survival' and in the 'dignified and insistent manner' in which leading Papuans in church and society have brought the voice of the Papuans to the world's attention. It also lies in the interest shown by the international community, which can be a driving force for change and may have unfulfilled responsibilities under international law.

These are the main findings and conclusions to be drawn from the report launched by the Institute of Dutch History in the Hague. The author, the eminent Dutch historian Professor Pieter Drooglever, was tasked by the Dutch government in 2000, following a request from the Dutch parliament, to conduct historical research into the events surrounding the Act of Free Choice. He completed that task despite a lack of co-operation from the Indonesian authorities who refused him access to its archives and permission to enter the country.

TAPOL, the Indonesia Human Rights Campaign, which has campaigned for human rights in West Papua for many years, welcomes the Drooglever report. It urges the interested parties, especially the Indonesian government and military, to avoid knee-jerk responses, to reflect carefully on and learn from the report's findings, and to seek peaceful ways, through dialogue and negotiation, to resolve the historical and contemporary injustices suffered by the Papuan people.

Drooglever cites with approval a statement by former Indonesian foreign minister, Adam Malik, that 'the army would first have to be withdrawn before Papuan society would be able to develop'. That remains true to this day, but, as Drooglever points out, since Malik spoke, the pressure exerted by the army and police on the population has only increased. A reversal of this trend due to accelerate in the immediate future with the planned deployment of large numbers of additional territorial and combat troops would be a start and a sign of Indonesia's commitment to a political solution to the conflict.

The surrounding events

In 1949, the territories of the former Dutch East Indies, apart from West Papua (then known as Dutch New Guinea), declared independence as the Republic of Indonesia. For strategic reasons and because of 'the entirely different national character and the virtual absence of Indonesian nationalistic sentiment among the population' - the Dutch, despite Indonesian objections, retained West Papua with a view to developing the territory and setting it on course for self-determination. Indonesia, however, persisted with its claim to sovereignty. This led to threats of military action and low-level incursions at the beginning of the 1960s.

Under pressure from the US, which was anxious to avoid Indonesia falling under Communist influence in the Cold War, the Dutch entered into the UN-brokered 'New York Agreement' with Indonesia on 15 August 1962. The agreement provided for an initial transfer of power of West Papua to the UN to be followed by a transfer to Indonesia. An Act of Free Choice would then take place before the end of 1969.

Drooglever notes that the New York Agreement was vaguely worded on a number of essential points, including the duration of the UN transition period and the guarantees for the implementation of an internationally acceptable referendum.

The Papuans were not a party to the Agreement and were not even consulted despite the fact that by 1961 there existed 'the unmistakable beginning of the formation of a Papuan state' with the adoption of a flag and national anthem and the establishment of a New Guinea Council.

'By the end of 1961 onwards, Jakarta's behaviour, both in word and deed, was outright threatening,' says Drooglever. After the end of Dutch rule in 1962, 'the UN administration lacked the necessary power, the will and the expertise to bring about a truly neutral interim phase,' he says. By then,
'Indonesian soldiers and officials were pouring into the country in far larger numbers than planned and quickly took control. They exerted heavy pressure on the Papuans to choose their side publicly and to give up the dream of self-determination. Furthermore, the first signs of the violent action taken by the Indonesian military, which would also characterise the new administration in the coming decades, soon appeared. Rapid impoverishment ensued, together with a substantial decline in legal certainty and a loss of civil rights across the board.' 'This led to increasingly negative reactions from the Papuans.' 'The number of victims quickly rose into the thousands.'

The process leading to the Act of Free Choice itself got underway in the summer of 1968 with arrival of the UN Secretary General's special representative, Ortiz Sanz. Indonesian pressure meant that his team was kept very small, 17 in total. Drooglever describes how Sanz was overrun with petitions from Papuans complaining about Indonesian mismanagement in all kinds of areas. His referral of the complaints to his Indonesian counterpart was regarded as inappropriate interference. Sanz' advice on the form of the referendum was disregarded and a traditional Indonesian system under which only collective decisions and perfect consensus was possible was chosen. Sanz' team was not allowed to play any part in putting together the electorate and was given the smallest possible role in the implementation of the referendum itself. In the event, only 1,022 Papuans out of a population of around 800,000 took part.

A member of Sanz' UN team, Michel Pelletier, said on Dutch TV yesterday 'Incidents occurred in various places of the territory in which people demonstrating against the Act of Free Choice were being maltreated, mistreated. I heard of reports of people being beaten, being killed.'

When the matter was considered by the UN in November 1969, the Secretary General, U Thant, was able to conclude only that an Act of Free Choice had been held. Drooglever says 'he was unable to use the definite article because the representative value of the operation had been far below the standards laid down in the Agreement of New York [italics added]' . The UN General Assembly failed to endorse the Secretary General's report, but simply 'took cognisance' of it. Regrettably, that was then considered sufficient to remove West Papua from the UN agenda.

© Scoop Media

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