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West Papua's 30-year struggle for self-determination from Indonesia is attracting international attention, as John Saltford writes.

SYDNEY, Australia (September 25, 2000 – Sydney Morning Herald/Kabar-Irian)---The presence of Vanuatu's Prime Minister, Barak Sope Mautamate, at the recent UN General Assembly summit was especially significant to the people of Indonesian West Papua.

Along with Nauru, Vanuatu has recently declared its support for West Papuan self-determination, thereby breaking the international consensus that the territory is indisputably Indonesian.

In a summit speech made on September 8, Prime Minister Sope referred to Vanuatu's Papuan Melanesian "brothers and sisters" and condemned the UN's actions over the territory in the 1960s as "a mockery to the fundamental principles on human rights and self-determination. The United Nations cannot and must not, in this new millennium, continue to turn a blind eye on its own past failures which has led to three long, agonizing decades of injustice, tragedy and guerilla warfare in West Papua."

It was the first time the subject had been raised at the Assembly since 1969 when it voted to take note of a UN-monitored act of self-determination in the territory.

Known as the Act of Free Choice, this bizarre exercise in theatrical manipulation resulted in a unanimous decision by just over 1,000 Indonesian-selected Papuan "representatives" to call for West Papua's integration into the Indonesian Republic.

Despite Sope's efforts, West Papua was only a peripheral subject at an Assembly preoccupied with more pressing issues. Nonetheless, for the UN at least, the matter is not just another post-colonial separatist dispute. Whether it likes it or not, the UN was a key player in the territory's transfer from Dutch to Indonesian rule and therefore bears a continuing responsibility.

It oversaw the implementation of the 1962 Dutch/Indonesian New York Agreement on West Papua's future, a process which was supposed to ensure that once the Dutch withdrew, the people would eventually be free to choose independence or integration with Indonesia.

As a first step, following the Netherlands' departure in October 1962, the organization took over administration of the territory. During this period, the population and the UN administrators were intimidated by the Indonesian military and by local pro-Indonesian militias who were free to operate under Jakarta's protection.

In response, the UN chose to leave as soon as it could, transferring power to Indonesia after only seven months. As one of its senior officials predicted in December 1962, "That there will ultimately be quite serious resistance to the Indonesians is, I think, certain. Therefore from the point of view of expediency, it behooves the UNTEA [UN administration] to depart as soon as the Indonesians are in fact thick enough on the ground."

The Indonesian takeover in 1963 did not mark the end of official UN involvement. Under the agreement, UN officials were to remain in the territory to assist with Indonesian preparations for Papuan self-determination. In the event, it was not until August 1968 that a small UN team led by Ortiz Sanz finally arrived to advise, assist and participate in the Act of Free Choice planned by Jakarta for the following year.

However, declassified British and Australian documents suggest that five years before Sanz's arrival, the UN Secretariat had already decided with Indonesia and the Netherlands that there would be no referendum. Instead, they privately agreed that the Act of Free Choice would involve only a small number of Papuans acting on behalf of the whole population.

Six years later, the Secretary-General was to claim that the UN had neither agreed nor disagreed to this. In contrast, as early as 1962 the UN had urged Australia to establish a national parliament for Australian New Guinea "on the basis of direct election and by adult suffrage."

This was not the only time the UN had made misleading statements about West Papua. In the Secretary-General's 1969 General Assembly report, it was noted that the majority of Papuan petitions delivered to Sanz favored integration with Indonesia. Recently released UN documents now show the opposite to be true.

That the UN was prepared to collaborate so closely with Jakarta was a reflection of the lack of international interest in West Papuan self-determination following the Dutch departure. In the case of Canberra, one British diplomat commented at the time: "Australia's attitude in Jakarta is one of extreme caution verging on embarrassment. Their main concern is not to get involved, since this is the one issue which could seriously jeopardize Indonesian/Australian relations." Some might say that history is beginning to repeat itself.

With no intention of getting involved, an internal 1969 British Foreign Office paper nonetheless conceded: "Privately, however, we recognize that the people of West [Papua] have no desire to be ruled by the Indonesians who are of an alien (Javanese) race, and that the process of consultation did not allow a genuinely free choice to be made. On the other hand, no country seems prepared to antagonize Indonesia by criticizing the conduct of the act."

As another British diplomat accurately concluded: "I cannot imagine the U.S., Japanese, Dutch, or Australian governments putting at risk their economic and political relations with Indonesia on a matter of principle involving a relatively small number of very primitive peoples."

For more than 30 years the UN and its member states have assumed that the West Papuans' dream of freedom could be consigned to history. That it is still alive is a tribute to Papuan courage and determination.

Now, with the Cold War over and Indonesia's future uncertain, the issue is again drawing international attention.

I hope that the General Assembly took note of Vanuatu's call. But whatever happens, West Papua is not simply going to go away.

-- Dr John Saltford, a researcher at the Public Record Office, London, recently completed a Ph.D. at Hull University on the transfer of Western New Guinea to Indonesia.

For additional reports from The Sydney Morning Herald, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald.

KABAR-IRIAN ("Irian News") Websites: http://www.irja.org/index2.shtml  and http://www.kabar-irian.com 

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