Tue, 08 Feb 2000

The UN's former role in Irian Jaya

By John Saltford

LONDON (JP): Recently declassified United Nations documents shed new light on an episode from the 1960s which should serve as a warning to the organization today.

The UN's recent monitoring exercise in East Timor took place exactly 30 years after a similar exercise in Indonesian- controlled West New Guinea (which became Irian Jaya in 1963) ended in violence and controversy.

The people of West New Guinea -- which President Abdurrahman Wahid has now proposed to be renamed Papua -- were promised independence by their Dutch rulers, but Indonesia claimed the territory and threatened to invade.

To avoid this, the Netherlands signed an agreement in 1962 transferring control to the UN on condition that the people would have self-determination within six years. In reality, this was little more then a face-saving device for the Dutch. Within seven months, without any consultation with the habitants, the UN had pulled out leaving Indonesia in charge.

Even during the brief UN administration, Indonesian troops were permitted to operate as part of the international security force. As a consequence, the international administrators could only function with the cooperation of Jakarta.

In a situation echoed recently in East Timor, the Indonesian military was then free to intimidate the population and organize pro-Jakarta militias throughout the whole UN period.

In confidential reports, senior UN administrators expressed cynicism and despondency about their mission. One remarked that the Irianese had a misplaced and "pathetic trust" in the UN to safeguard their rights.

A second observed, "I have yet to meet any thinking, sober, generally responsible Irianese who sees any good in the coming link with Indonesia." Another advised that in the event of local unrest; "we have sufficient forces to control the situation -- a whiff of grapeshot can easily control things if that is what the UN wants".

With regard to their long-term commitment to the Irianese people, one newly arrived senior UN official predicted; "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 UN to depart as soon as the Indonesians are in fact thick enough on the ground".

By the time the UN returned in 1968 to prepare for the promised "act of free choice," the Irianese had already experienced five years of Indonesian rule.

Economic mismanagement and military brutality ensured that opposition to Jakarta was widespread. In 1969 Gen. Sarwo Edhie, Irian Jaya's military commander, remarked to a British official that the Irianese had been spoiled by the Dutch and "badly need civilizing". They were also "lazy and half were naked".

At the same time an American diplomat visiting the territory noted that; "The Indonesians have tried everything from bombing them with B 26's, to shelling and mortaring them, but a continuous state of semi-rebellion persists".

Jakarta, however, was determined that this opposition would play no part in the "act of free choice". To ensure this, they declared that a referendum was impractical because of the "primitiveness" of the people.

Ortiz Sanz, head of the UN mission, agreed with them. Instead, he proposed a "mixed" system which would allow direct voting in towns, while other areas relied on some form of "collective consultation". This, he advised the authorities, "represents the minimum requirement to satisfy world public opinion".

Jakarta was unimpressed and replied that "collective consultation" would be adopted throughout the whole territory. Although UN Secretary-General U Thant refused to condone such an undemocratic system, the UN and the Dutch had secretly endorsed this method in 1963.

At this point, the UN should have pulled out, declaring that they could no longer be associated with such an openly undemocratic process. This might have encouraged Soeharto to think again. At the very least it would have denied him the legitimacy that UN participation gave.

Instead, Sanz and his team remained while the Indonesians began selecting "people's representatives" for the "collective consultation." At the same time, Soeharto warned publicly that any vote against Indonesia would be "treason".

During their stay, the UN team received numerous petitions from Irianese denouncing the whole exercise and calling for a proper referendum, but Sanz was unimpressed.

In a confidential report to his superiors, he questioned the relevance of such views; "as you are very well aware, only a very insignificant percentage of the population is capable or has interest in any political actions or even thoughts".

His attitude seemed to reflect a deliberate ploy by the UN leadership to justify their collaboration with Jakarta. In support of it, they were even prepared to mislead the UN General Assembly, claiming in the official secretary-general's report that most petitions received were pro-Indonesian. UN documents now prove that the opposite was true.

As the vote drew closer, Sanz realized that Indonesia was not going to permit even the appearance of a democratic process. In May 1969, he cabled the UN secretary-general to plead for a postponement of the vote until the political freedoms and human rights situation improved -- he was told no.

In June, he tried to arrange a meeting with Soeharto, in what he described would be a "last chance" to create democratic conditions in the territory. Soeharto, however, was too busy to see him. Meanwhile, an armed rebellion continued as thousands of Irianese tribesmen rose up in an attempt to drive the Indonesians out.

Finally, in July and August, Indonesia assembled about 1,000 carefully selected "representatives" for a series of voting ceremonies. Foreign diplomats and a few journalists were then invited and food and music was laid on. Once everyone was in place, Indonesian generals and officials were paraded shoulder high by Irianese in a carefully rehearsed display of loyalty and obedience.

Then one by one, a selection of the "representatives" came forward to declare their love for Indonesia. It says something about the arrogance of Soeharto that he saw no need to permit even one dissenting voice. Instead, the authorities announced that the final result was an unanimous decision by the Irianese to remain with Indonesia.

In November of that year, Sanz's report to the UN General Assembly concluded that an act of free choice had taken place; "in accordance with Indonesian practice," despite Jakarta's failure to protect the rights and freedoms of the Irianese. The Assembly passed a resolution "taking note" of the result by 84 votes to none, with 30 abstentions. An African-backed amendment, calling for a second act of Irianese self-determination was rejected.

A secret British document at the time commented that UN members wanted the issue "cleared out of the way with the minimum of fuss." The UN Secretariat, it added; "is only too anxious to get shot of the problem as quickly as possible". The organization then got on with other business and West New Guinea disappeared from the international stage.

It is inconceivable that the present secretary-general would allow the organization to be associated with such a crudely orchestrated denial of political and human rights. In East Timor, about 1,000 UN officials were in place for the vote, compared with a purely token 16 who were present in West New Guinea.

One can argue that Indonesia, like all states, was simply pursuing what it considered to be its own national interest. The UN, however, is supposed to have higher standards of behavior. Thirty years later, it is time for a re-examination of U Thant's role in the denial of Irianese self-determination.

The writer is a Ph.D student at the Department of Politics and Asian Studies, University of Hull in the United Kingdom, and a RISD Southeast Asian specialist at the Public Record Office in Kew Surrey.