Goes Un-Noted in the State Department's "Background Notes" on Indonesia
by West Papua Advocacy Team (WPAT) and East Timor and Indonesia
Action Network (ETAN)
The U.S. Department of State in October published the latest in its
"Background Notes" regarding Indonesia. The periodic series provides
a useful overview of the history, culture, geography, economy,
government and politics of foreign nations used by educators, businesses
and others. The October 2009 report on Indonesia in many sections is
both comprehensive and accurate.
In general, the presentation reflects an
historical narrative developed by the Indonesian
government of the dictator Suharto and
subsequently maintained by successor Indonesian
However, the latest report at several points
misrepresents key historical developments. In general, the
presentation reflects an historical narrative developed by
the Indonesian government of the dictator Suharto and
subsequently maintained by successor Indonesian
administrations. The "Background Notes" generally fail to
address accurately the problematic role of the Indonesian
military (TNI) either historically or currently. The "Notes"
fail to describe the central role of the military in the
killing of hundreds of thousands in the period immediately
following the seizure of power by Suharto and the mass
killings in East Timor and West Papua. The "Background
Notes" contend that civilian control of the military is
"strengthening," notwithstanding the continued powerful role
in Indonesian politics and the economy. The document also
fails to note that the military continues to enjoy impunity
for past and ongoing human rights violations, corruption and
other criminal activity.
The "Background Notes" inaccurately portray the electoral fraud
through which Indonesia annexed West Papua in 1969 and the killing of
tens of thousands of Papuans by Indonesian security forces from the
Indonesian assumption of administrative control in 1963 to the present.
The document ignores completely the Indonesian Government's illegal
invasion of East Timor in 1975 and the brutal policies adopted there in
the subsequent years of its occupation during which up to 200,000 East
Timorese perished. (Although the separate
on Timor-Leste addresses this, there is no link to it.)
The "Background Notes" also fail to acknowledge the role of the U.S.
Government in instigating and supporting insurrections in the late
1950's, referring only to "unsuccessful rebellions in Sumatra, Sulawesi,
West Java and other islands ... (which) weakened the parliamentary
The following specifically reviews and seeks to correct in detail
misrepresentations contained in the "Background Notes" with regard to
the annexation of West Papua and the 1965-68 period in which hundreds of
thousands of Indonesians were killed by the Indonesian military and
local groups which it armed and guided.
The following is based on contemporary documents. These include US
government documents published in Foreign Relations of the United States
series, as well as documents released to the National Security Archives
through the Freedom of Information Act as posted on the National
Security Archives website. The following also draws on UN and British
documents and in testimony from Indonesian and Papuan participants.
The "Notes" fail to recount the history of Indonesian annexation of
West Papua. Omission of key historical facts obscures concerns which
have generated long-standing grievances among Papuans. These concerns
have also been the subject of analysis by scholars and international
human rights advocates. The following analysis is drawn from the
published work of one of those scholars, Dr. John Saltford.
The "Notes" offer the following brief account of the "Act of Free
Choice," the means by which the Indonesian government annexed West
The Indonesian Government conducted an "Act of Free Choice" in
Irian Jaya under UN supervision in 1969 in which 1,025 Papuan
representatives of local councils agreed by consensus to remain a
part of Indonesia. A subsequent UN General Assembly resolution
confirmed the transfer of sovereignty to Indonesia.
The following provides historical background on the transfer of West
Papua to Indonesian control absent from the "Background Notes":
The Government of Indonesia and the Netherlands, since the
establishment of the Indonesian Government in 1949, had contested over
the fate and future of the western half of the island of New Guinea. The
Dutch position was that West Papua had only been administered as a part
of their East Indies Empire because their small presence there did not
warrant a separate colonial administration. They also argued that the
Melanesian West Papuans were ethnically and culturally completely
different to the Asian Indonesians. However, Indonesian President
Sukarno claimed, that as a former part of the Dutch East Indies, West
Papua belonged to the Republic of Indonesia.
In September 1961, under growing Indonesian diplomatic pressure, the
Netherlands Government presented a plan (the Luns Plan) to the UNGA. The
plan proposed to hand the territory over to a UN administration that
would remain until the population was ready to exercise its right to
self-determination. A subsequent plan (based on Luns) received majority
support in the UNGA, but not the required two-thirds majority to be
passed. Papuan leaders were active at the UN in support of this plan.
They unveiled a national flag soon afterwards as the first step towards
Until October 1962, West Papua was recognized by the UN as a
non-self-governing territory ruled by the Netherlands. From 1959,
elected regional councils were set up in the territory and official
Dutch policy by this stage was to prepare the territory for independence
by 1970. The Papua Council elected in 1961, also known as the West New
Guinea Council, resolved that the Netherlands was "no longer free to
transfer the territory without Papuan consent."
With political support and massive supplies of armaments from the
USSR, Indonesia threatened war and made a number of unsuccessful
military incursions into West Papua. (Many of the Indonesian personnel
involved were rounded up by Papuans and handed over to the Dutch.)
Alarmed at this growing Soviet influence in a Southeast Asian country,
the U.S. Government put pressure on The Hague to negotiate with Jakarta.
When it became clear to the Dutch that they would have to fight alone
in the event of a war, they reluctantly agreed to sign the UN-brokered
August 1962 New York Agreement with Jakarta. Despite its flaws this
agreement did guarantee the Papuans certain important rights.
New York Agreement and its implementation
Under Article 2, the Dutch handed over West Papua to a temporary UN
authority (UNTEA) on 1 October 1962. After seven months the UN then
transferred control to Jakarta, prior to any act of self-determination
(a major Dutch concession to Jakarta). During UNTEA one senior UN
official on the ground reported:
“I have yet to meet any thinking, sober, generally responsible
Papuan who sees any good in the coming link with Indonesia.
Unwelcome as the anxiety and resistance of thinking Papuans maybe it
is of course hardly surprising if one is not under pressure to close
one’s eyes to what is in fact happening to this people at the hands
of the three parties to the Agreement.”
Under Article 16, a number of UN experts were to remain in the
territory following the transfer to Indonesia to advise and assist the
Indonesians in their preparations for a promised Papuan act of
self-determination. But these experts were never deployed because
Under Article 22, The UN and Indonesia had to guarantee fully the
rights, including the rights of free speech, freedom of movement and of
assembly of the Papuans. These rights were systematically abused
throughout the entire period. Even the official 1969 UNGA report
concedes, “the [Indonesian] Administration exercised at all times a
tight political control over the population".
Under Article 17, the Secretary-General was to appoint by 1968 a
representative to lead a UN team in the territory, including the experts
specified under Article 16. Their task was to advise, assist and
participate in the Act’s implementation. A Bolivian diplomat, Ortiz Sanz,
was picked but, as noted in his UNGA report, without Article 16 he had
no experienced staff. Instead his newly arrived team of just 16 had to
operate in a territory the size of France.
Under Article 18, all adult Papuans had the right to participate in
an act of self-determination to be carried out in accordance with
international practice. This central tenet of the agreement was never
implemented. The UN effectively stood by as Indonesia hand picked and
intimidated 1022 West Papuans to vote publicly and unanimously in favor
of integration with Indonesia at a series of crudely staged "voting
Whatever Jakarta might argue, no one can
seriously claim that the "Act of Free Choice"
bore any relation whatsoever to this.
In 1960, the international community had already defined
the minimum standards required to meet international
practice when it passed UN General Assembly Resolution 1541,
which states that the integration of a non-self governing
territory (as West Papua officially was then) with an
independent state should be "the result of the freely
expressed wishes of the territory's peoples...their wishes
having been expressed through informed and democratic
processes, impartially conducted and based upon universal
Whatever Jakarta might argue, no one can seriously claim that the
"Act of Free Choice" bore any relation whatsoever to this.
Significantly, but unsurprising, the final wording of the UN report says
only that "Indonesian." not “international” practice was adopted -
another clear breach of the New York Agreement.
Western diplomats were well aware of the facts. A 1968 US Embassy
report states that Ortiz Sanz; "concedes that it would be inconceivable
from the point of view of the interests of the UN as well as Indonesia,
that a result other than the continuance of West [Papua] within
Indonesian sovereignty should emerge." Elsewhere a 1969 British FCO
document notes that the UN Secretariat in New York "appear only too
anxious to get shot of the problem as quickly and smoothly as possible."
Another de-classified British report from the time comments; “Privately,
however, we recognize that the people of West Irian have no desire to be
ruled by the Indonesians…and that the process of consultation did not a
allow a genuinely free choice to be made.”
The 1965-68 Mass Killings
General Suharto seized effective power from the elected president
Sukarno in September 1965 following the kidnapping and murder of senior
military leaders loyal to President Sukarno. The Suharto regime
consistently claimed that those killings were part of an attempted coup
orchestrated by the leaders of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI)
which it alleged acted in collusion with a small group of sympathetic
junior level military officers, censoring and sometimes jailing those
who offered alternative explanations. That rendering of history has been
disputed by scholars but no widely accepted history of that period has
yet emerged. The "Background Notes" presents essentially the version of
events that was developed by the Suharto dictatorship and largely
maintained by successor administrations. It perpetuates the key but
unproven contention that in the weeks leading up to the coup the PKI was
arming its supporters.
More blatantly, the "Notes" fail to acknowledge the undisputed,
central role of the military in the killing of hundreds of thousands of
Indonesians thought to be members or supporters of the PKI. The military
conducted killings and armed others to carry out these killings
throughout the archipelago in a massacre that continued for over two
years. The "Background Notes" also fail to acknowledge the role of the
U.S. Government in those killings. The U.S. Embassy furnished Indonesian
military leaders with thousands of names of Indonesians it believed were
affiliated with the Indonesian Communist Party. There is no record that
the U.S. Embassy ever sought to press the Suharto dictatorship or its
military from pursuing the slaughter of Indonesian civilians which
continued for over two years. Those responsible for this mass slaughter
enjoyed impunity, a fact that is also ignored in the "Background Notes."