On the 35th anniversary of the so-called “Act of Free Choice” (AFC) that resulted in West Papua’s annexation by Indonesia, newly declassified documents depict the administration of President Richard Nixon as unwilling to raise any objections to the process despite its assessment that the move was overwhelmingly opposed by the Papuan people.
The memos were released by the independent National Security Archive (NSA) Friday.
Washington’s Cold-War courtship of Gen. Suharto, who had come to power in a military coup d’etat in 1966 and ruled Indonesia with an iron fist until his ouster in 1998, was considered a much higher priority than a plebiscite on independence “which would be meaningless among the stone age cultures of New Guinea,” according to a memo by then-national security adviser Henry Kissinger to Nixon on the eve of a meeting with the Indonesian strongman in Jakarta in June, 1969.
“You should tell (Suharto) that we understand the problems they face in West Irian,” wrote Kissinger, who advised Nixon not to bring up the subject on his own lest Washington be more closely identified with a process that it knew was flawed.
The newly released documents, which consist of 11 diplomatic cables and memoranda concerning West Papua from February 1968, through the end of the AFC in August 1969, confirm that Washington was most concerned at the time about Indonesia’s support for U.S. policy in Vietnam and elsewhere in southeast Asia and saw in Suharto a key ally despite Jakarta’s official non-alignment policy.
He is described in the Kissinger cable as a “moderate military man who, although indecisive by outside standards, is committed to progress and reform.”
The cables are also remarkably similar in tone to another batch released by the NSA in 2001 on the reaction of Kissinger and President Gerald Ford to Indonesia’s planned 1975 invasion of East Timor.
When Suharto asked for Ford’s “understanding” for such a move, according to one secret memorandum cable, Ford replied, “We will understand and not press you on the issue. We understand the problem and the intentions you have.”
“It is important that whatever you do succeeds quickly,” Kissinger, who accompanied Ford on the December trip, is reported of having told Suharto, assuring him as well that if the invasion goes forward, “we will do our best to keep everyone quiet until the president returns home.”
Suharto launched the invasion of the former Portuguese colony immediately after Ford left Jakarta and annexed the territory the following year. Over the next several years, as many as one third of estimated 750,000 East Timorese died or were killed in counter-insurgency operations by Indonesian forces.
When Suharto was ousted almost a quarter of a century later, however, East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for independence in a 1999 referendum, and, despite retaliatory action by the Indonesian military, which destroyed much of the territory’s infrastructure, achieved formal independence last year after a transition period overseen by the UN.
Like the East Timorese, West Papuans have maintained a low-level insurgency against Indonesian rule since the territory’s annexation.
Unlike East Timor, however, West Papua, which was renamed Irian Jaya under Suharto, became a key focus of the regime’s transmigration schemes, so that Javanese living in West Papua currently outnumber the indigenous population.
In addition, the California-sized territory, which makes up half the island of New Guinea, holds important natural resources, particularly gold, other minerals, and timber, which have drawn considerable investment from both Indonesian and western, including U.S., companies that are used to dealing with the authorities in Jakarta.
The newly released documents, which consist of 11 diplomatic cables and memoranda on U.S. assessments of and policy towards the UN-sponsored AFC, show that Washington was well aware in 1969 that the vast majority of the estimated 800,000 Papuans opposed annexation by Indonesia, largely because of the violence and repression committed by Indonesian troops that had occupied the former Dutch territory since 1962.
Indeed, U.S. ambassador in Jakarta at the time, Frank Galbraith, wrote in one memo on July 9, 1969 that “possibly 85 to 90 percent” of the population “are in sympathy with the Free Papua cause.” He also noted that recent Indonesian military operations, which had resulted in the deaths of possibly thousands of civilians, “had stimulated fears and rumors of intended genocide among the Irianese.”
The Act, which was endorsed unanimously by 1,022 “representatives” of the Papuan population who were handpicked by Jakarta, was administered and controlled entirely by Jakarta.
The Act was carried out pursuant to a U.S.-brokered 1962 agreement between the Netherlands and Indonesia that awarded control of what was then called West New Guinea to Jakarta subject to its agreement to carry out an election on self-determination, in which all adult Papuans were to be eligible to vote, no later than 1969. Once in control, however, Jakarta quickly moved to repress the independence movement.
If Washington every intended to hold Jakarta to its pledges about the election process, however, that sentiment dissipated after Suharto took power in 1966 and initiated the killings of an estimated 500,000 suspected Communists, as well as economic reforms designed to promote foreign investments. Indeed, the first company to take advantage of a new foreign investment law was the U.S. mining company, Freeport Sulphur, which won concessions over vast tracts of West Papua. The company, which became Freeport-McMoRan, has been operating the world’s biggest open-pit gold mine in West Papua for some three decades.
Although the UN’s observer reported serious violations of the self-determination process and 15 countries strenuously contested the AFC’s validity the UN General Assembly “took note” of the AFC’s results, effectively recognizing Indonesia’s annexation.
Almost all of the secret U.S. cables assume, whether explicitly or implicitly, that Jakarta itself would never accept any outcome other than annexation. One telegram early on during the six-week APC compares the exercise to “a Greek tragedy, the conclusion preordained. The main protagonist, the (government), cannot and will not permit any resolution other than the continued inclusion of West Irian in Indonesia.”
“Dissident activity,” the author predicts, “is likely to increase but the Indonesian armed forces will be able to contain and, if necessary, suppress it.”
Kissinger himself appeared to understand the fraud, stressing to Nixon that ”you should not raise this issue” because ”we should avoid any U.S. identification with that act.”
At the same time, U.S. officials were always doubtful whether even a free plebiscite would make any sense in any case. One 1968 telegram from U.S. Ambassador Marshall Green in Jakarta stresses that “we are dealing here essentially with stone age illiterate tribal groups” and that “free elections among groups such as this would be more of a farce than any rigged mechanism Indonesia could devise.” At another point, Green expresses concern that UN special Representative for West Irian, Ortiz Sanz, may not be sufficiently aware of these “political realities” and should be “made aware” of them.
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