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Papuan self-determination - Historical roots X

The 'Bunker-Agreement'

by Arie Brand

On the fifteenth of August, two days before Indonesian Independence Day, Sukarno got his way. Adam Malik, the Indonesian negotiator, and his Dutch counterpart Van Roijen, helped along by the veteran American diplomat Ellsworth Bunker, had come to an agreement by which Papua was, conditionally, turned over to Indonesia. The American Ambassador to Indonesia, Howard Palfrey Jones, who figured in my previous post, was the first to notify Sukarno that the die had been cast. Jones wrote:

I received a telegram at 6:30 in the morning. Shortly thereafter, I took it to Sukarno, with whom I had a date for coffee. "Mr. President", I announced to Sukarno and the group of Cabinet members gathered on his veranda, "your revolution is complete. The transfer documents have just been signed in New York." I had anticipated an enthusiastic, even exuberant reaction. Not so. Sukarno nodded thoughtfully; spoke quietly to those who were with him. It was not an exultant moment. I had an odd feeling, as though I were witnessing a scene in which a beloved member of the family were (sic) leaving home. Sukarno would miss West Irian, I thought. He had won a victory, but he had lost an issue (op cit p214).

And a great deal of excitement. Though Sukarno only came to use the term 'tahun vivere pericoloso' (read: pericolosamente) - the 'year of living dangerously'- two years later, it would also have been an appropriate title for the year of his greatest victory (the "tahun kemenangan" as he called it in his Independence Day Address of that year). It had turned on a hair or the Dutch and the Indonesians had come to blows on the issue with, depending on how conciliatory the Dutch had been, the possibility of American interference.

Sukarno had in December 1961 declared his 'People's triple command for the liberation of West Papua' ('Trikora') - a call for total mobilisation.

The then Indonesian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr Subrandio, had declared that the Dutch effort to decolonize the region was a sham. This was not decolonization he said in a speech on the 24th of October 1961 (United Nations Day!) "but merely a tactic to strike at Indonesia". The Dutch were trying, he said, "to use the right of self-determination as a means to cut off a part of the territory of the Indonesian Republic". And then came the threat. West Irian, he said was being suppressed by force of arms and therefore Indonesia reserved the right "to liberate our brothers in West Irian, also by force" (quoted in Higgins, R. 1970, United Nations Peacekeeping 1946 - 1967- Documents and Commentary, Oxford UP p98).

In January 1961 a tentative Indonesian naval effort, an intrusion by three patrol boats, ended disastrously for the Indonesians. A Dutch cruiser, that had been alerted by a patrolling plane which gave the exact position of those boats, sank one, resulting in the death of Commodore Yosophat Soedarso, Deputy Chief of the Indonesian naval staff, and forced the other two to return. Two months later another Indonesian naval vessel was sunk. These were just preparatory skirmishes. Indonesia's preparations for a large-scale invasion went on but, according to Ambassador Jones, "Sukarno's ear, ever to the ground, informed him that despite the reluctance of officials in the Netherlands to appear to be giving in to him, the Dutch public would not support a war and therefore negotiations were possible" (op cit p198). Sukarno's ear served him well on this occasion.

Where it apparently served him less well was in his apparent expectation about popular Papuan support for Indonesian paratroopers who, in the first half of 1962, were being dropped in small numbers above the territory. After 12 years of frenetically holding forth about the necessity to liberate the Papuan brothers from their colonial yoke the fact that, by and large, these brothers assisted the Dutch in rounding up their liberators must have come as an unpleasant surprise (when during the UNTEA period I came to talk to a few of these paratroopers they claimed that they hadn't been told at the start of their flight that they were supposed to jump off above the jungle of Papua - the suggestion had been, they said, that this was just an ordinary training exercise - it was not a sinecure to be dropped on top of a dense canopy; as search patrols discovered during the UNTEA period some hadn't been able to get out of the trees and came to a miserable end).

The Dutch duly lodged a protest with the Security Council about these armed incursions but Indonesia reacted to that with the statement that they deemed this protest to be unacceptable for "Indonesians who have entered and who in future will continue to enter West Irian, are Indonesian nationals who move into Indonesia's own territory now dominated by the Dutch by force" (quoted in Higgins, op cit p100).

Those first Indonesian military failures were however neither a reliable indicator for Indonesia's ultimate military plans nor for its capacity to execute these. Soviet and American supplies of new weaponry and the training of Indonesian military personnel in the use of these seemed to turn the military balance in Indonesia's favour.

The US was intent on getting both the Netherlands and Indonesia to the negotiation table. Robert Komer, the man responsible for the New-Guinea file of the National Security Council was in favour of putting the hard word on the Netherlands by making it clear in advance that, if it refused to enter into negotiations with Indonesia, the US would not support it in case of an Indonesian attack.

According to Kersten, Kennedy didn't want to go that far. Neither did he commit the US to open out military support. Through the personal diplomacy of his brother Robert he wanted Dutch Foreign Minister Luns (who had been left solely in charge of the issue for the Netherlands) to accept the argument that stemming the tide of communism in Southeast Asia was more important than self-determination for Papua - an argument to which Luns finally yielded. In May 1962 the Netherlands accepted the plan Bunker as a basis for negotiations that then were initiated between Dutch ambassador Van Roijen and the Indonesian ambassador to the Soviet Union, Adam Malik. The Indonesian team was led by the Indonesian Foreign Minister, Subandrio, yes, him of the threat to "liberate our brothers in West Irian" by force.

This did, according to Kersten, whose account I am largely following here, not put an end to Washington's worries because it was still by no means sure that Sukarno would not prefer a military solution after all. CIA information had it that Indonesia was preparing for a large scale attack in August with six brigades of paratroopers, marines and infantrymen - 24,000 men in total.

When Subandrio announced, at the end of July, his departure for Jakarta without an accord having been reached, the US President decided to put the hard word on him:

President Kennedy summoned Subandrio on the 26th of July and spoke to him for 32 minutes in the presence of Rusk. No report was made but it is certain that Kennedy didn't use French with Subandrio. Rusk called the conversation 'frank and firm'. According to Subandrio he had during his career been addressed only once before in such threatening terms. Kennedy had argued that the US was on the Indonesian side in the conflict with New Guinea but the US would choose to support the Netherlands if Indonesia chose to walk away from the greatest diplomatic triumph of all times and use violence (Kersten, valedictory lecture, op cit p17 - my translation AB).

On the 15th of August 1962 Minister Subandrio for Indonesia and Ambassador Van Roijen for the Netherlands signed the Agreement that would deliver Papua to Indonesia. On the 21st of September the General Assembly of the United Nations authorized the Secretary General, the Burmese diplomat U Thant, to carry out the tasks entrusted to him in the Agreement.

The most crucial part of the Agreement was article XVIII that has to do with self-determination. The formulation of this article invited trouble.

It states sub (a) that Indonesia's arrangements for this act of free choice would include:

Consultations (musjawarah) with the representative councils on procedures and appropriate methods to be followed for ascertaining the freely expressed will of the population.

This seemed to give these councils a greater discretion than they actually had because it was limited by a number of following clauses especially clause (d) that specified:

The eligibility of all adults, male and female, not foreign nationals, to participate in the act of self-determination to be carried out in accordance with international practice, who are resident at the time of the signing of the present Agreement and at the time of the act of self determination, including those residents who departed after 1945 and who return to the territory to resume residence after the termination of Netherlands' administration (emphasis added - AB).

Disastrously, the article left the arrangements for this act of free choice to Indonesia "with the assistance and participation of the United Nations Representative and his staff".

It was left to an African nation, Dahomey (now Benin), to signal this flaw when the Agreement was discussed in the General Assembly of the UN. He declared, says Higgins, "quite frankly a thought that was in the minds of many Western nations, but which they had declined to allow to affect their vote: that the Agreement did not in fact promote self-determination" (op cit p114).

The representative of Dahomey said, inter alia:

The United Nations presence, which will doubtless be extremely effective during the transitional period in which it will be responsible for the administration of West New Guinea, will subsequently be very limited. It will be confined to advising on and assisting in preparations for carrying out the provisions for self-determination. In other words, the actual public expression of opinion will be organized entirely by the party which has the greatest interest in the yielding of results that are favourable to it." (quoted in Higgins, p115).

The representative of Dahomey hit the nail on the head here, except for his optimistic prediction on the effectiveness of UNTEA, the transitional UN administration - as I will argue in my next letter.

To be continued


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Sound points but violence is the issue

Erik, thanks for your post. It is very interesting and of course you make sound points.

Doesn't the problem arise however when a grouping, or number of groupings, are occupied by another grouping or collection of groupings which form a State and are treated badly? Or when the power group, the occupier or coloniser, treats the occupied or colonised as inferior? This was of course the case in Australia and the US, NZ and Canada, not to forget South Africa, and probably South Africa aside, those colonising nations have been successful because they have established legal and governmental structures which afford equal rights to all citizens and a capacity to challenge any discriminatory treatment.

This is not the case in Indonesia and therein lies the problem. In addition, early settlement aside, the western colonising nations have long given up the use of military violence against dissenters and therefore have more harmonious societies, give or take.

It is the application of discrimination and violence which prevents the assimiliation of peoples and religions into a cohesive mix. When that happens not only do people like the West Papuans have a right to fight for independence they can clearly see it is their only hope of survival.

The reality is that most nations in the world exist through colonising. The successful ones are relatively fair in their dealings with those they occupy and in fact give them full rights as citizens which equate with reality as well as on 'paper.'

There are always differences though when religion and clear racial distinctions enter the equation. The Indonesians may also be a collection of races but they are generally Moslem and their racial groupings are quite distinct from the West Papuans.

What it comes down to is the principle that if people believe they should have a right to self determination then they should have it. Violence never solves these problems it just entrenches division. Look at Switzerland which has managed to combine people speaking three languages ... although you would have to take into account that generally there are little or no racial differences and little religious difference.

But the thing is, if Western Australia, as it has long muttered, did opt to secede from Australia and set itself up as an independent nation, then it should be allowed to do so. I like to think we would not use war and occupation in order to  bring it into line as Indonesia tried to do with East Timor, Aceh and West Papua, Russia tries to do in Chechnya, China tries to do in Tibet and of course the Israelis try to do in Palestine. All disasters.

nations-in waiting?

I hope too much time hasn’t passed to comment on this thread (I haven’t been a member here for long – returned after being a regular reader some time ago).

I don’t have any real problem with the substantive historical picture Arie paints of such things as the conduct and manoeuvring surrounding the so-called ‘act of free choice’.

But I want to point to some assumptions related to justifications for self-determination.

In the case of West Papua, as with East Timor, it seems to me that a frequent part of rationales concerning the ‘right’ to self-determination involves insufficiently examined ideas of primordial ethnic difference that rely on notions of  the existence of distinct peoples as some form of organic ‘nation’-in-waiting – deserving of self-determination (or not).

It’s interesting that Arie often refers to the ‘Indonesians’, as if this were a homogenous grouping. (I realize this is mostly as shorthand for strategic interventions by particular political actors).  But it’s important to bear in mind that there are any number of linguistic, cultural, historical and political differences that cross-cut this view of Indonesia. It is, after all, an archipelago, and a fairly strung out one.

In many cases, on any vision of ethnicity, some of these groups confound geopolitical divisions. For example Dayak groups in the island of Borneo (an island that is partly Malaysian Sulawesi, partly Indonesian Kalimantan and partly Brunei) cut across a number of geopolitical boundaries (state frontiers).  So the Dayaks of Kalimantan are presumably subsumed in the notion of ‘Indonesians’, while their ‘cousins’ who happen to be in Sulawesi are ‘Malaysians’.

There is nothing 'organic' about the population bounded by the Indonesian state.

Of course, populations like this are historically not all that rare (though increasingly uncommon), and their mobility across state frontiers is often galling to the nation-states that administer them – if for no other reason than they mock the veracity of the ‘nation-state’ as a distinct community – a view that states understand is a critical aspect of their legitimacy as relatively arbitrary geopolitical constructs seeking the allegiance of their dominated populations.

I’m fine (on principle) with the idea that any group of folks wants to argue for autonomy from a state. But let’s get away from the idea that states are anything but arbitrary political-institutional entities, which all hanker for the hyphenated legitimacy of ‘nation-state’.

My point then is this: the idea that Papuans deserve self-determination because they are a ‘distinct’ people is a total furphy. Same as East Timor. There was (and remains) little to no difference between East Timorese and West Timorese. There are language and cultural groups (and families) that crossed this border and still do.

The much cited Catholicism and Portuguese language was originally limited to an educated elite in Dili, of the sort that have formed the main instigators of nationalist movements everywhere.

Ironically, it was the brutal conduct of the Indonesian state (through its army presence) in this territory that made the West-East frontier real, and was instrumental in sending local populations flocking to the Catholic Church.

East Timor was not a distinct ethnic population, with a ‘separate history to the ‘Indonesians’, an organic ‘nation-in-waiting’. The history of West Timor and East Timor was inextricably intertwined (unless you want to reduce history to the activities of the colonizers – the Dutch and Portuguese. But while they fought about borders and geopolitical division, the indigenous Timorese, West and East, got on with their mutually linked lives).

Same goes for the ‘Papuans’ of West Papua. Beyond arguments about the Netherlands East Indies as a framework for the decolonization of Indonesia (and, if we want to stay on geopolitical ground, the Indonesian state has a reasonable basis for a claim here), the historical reality is that people in West Papua were drawn into links with adjacent populations over thousands of years. There was no separate ‘Melanesian’ universe.

Indeed, this part of the world had globalization before the term was even a flicker in western consciousness, trading with the Chinese, the Arabs and linked to some of the most cosmopolitan city states on earth in its heyday, Melaka (on the Malay Peninsula). (Fiona: Not to mention northern Australia.) Links were particularly dense between West Papuans and Moluccans (now Maluku & North Maluku – two provinces of Indonesia). The Trans Fly Coast and the Aru Islands, the Bird’s Head and the Raja Empat Islands, Mimika and Seram Laut – relations of trade were dense and longstanding between West Papua and adjacent regions. And more frequently than not, trade was rooted in links of intermarriage and kinship.

So leaving aside arguments about the Netherlands Indies; leaving aside stories about the Majapahit Empire of 14th Century Java; there is no good reason to suggest that an innate or naturalistic boundedness exists with respect to ‘West Papua’ from Indonesia . And there are plenty of historically sound reasons (based in local activity, local lives) to suggest the idea of such a boundary is nonsense. In historical terms, West Papua can ‘fit’ just fine with the population of the Indonesian state.

Those who advocate or support the idea of self-determination for the region that has come to be labelled ‘West Papua’ are free to do so, of course. And there may well be some good reasons for this. But any arguments will always be political, and should be recognized as such. Let us not have specious claims about cultural incompatibility etc.

Fiona: Welcome back, Erik. As far as I'm concerned this is still a live topic and your contribution is most welcome.

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