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West Papua - Back on agenda, 30 years later

Sydney Morning Herald - World Section
Friday, 19 November 99

Back on agenda, 30 years later


Rex Rumakiek knew the ballot would be rigged when the Indonesian administrators abolished the local parliament after it had approved a one man, one vote system.

It wasn't only the Indonesians. It appeared that the rest of the world was also prepared to sacrifice the rights of the West Papuan people for its own geostrategic interests.

Thirty years ago today, the United Nations took note of a critical report from its chief poll observer and, without debate, handed over the western half of New Guinea island to Indonesia.

But now, as the winds of democracy blow through Indonesia, hope is growing that the issue that slipped off the international agenda on November 19, 1969, can be forced back into the spotlight.

In the wake of the completely different outcome of another UN-supervised independence ballot in an Indonesian-annexed territory, East Timor, the Dutch-based Foundation for Papuan People's Study and Information has called for an international campaign to ensure the governments of the world re-examine the facts surrounding the 1969 Act of Free Choice - the widely criticised UN-supervised process by which 1,025 West Papuans unanimously opted to integrate with Indonesia.

''At least, the governments should declare that the 1969 Act of Free Choice was a farce,'' the foundation says. Mr Rumakiek, then a 21-year-old independence activist in Jayapura, the capital of the territory now called Irian Jaya, said the Indonesian administrators there at the time knew that 95 per cent of the people wanted an independent state. As the 1962 agreement Indonesia had made with the former Dutch colonial masters stipulated an act of self-determination, they held a poll.

But they limited voters to 1,025 men, at times apparently chosen at random, and ensured the outcome would be just what they wanted.

''It was nothing like East Timor,'' Mr Rumakiek said. ''In the early 1960s, hundreds of leaders were brought to Jakarta and they signed documents swearing allegiance to the Republic of Indonesia. So, in 1969 they were shown the documents by the military and told not to forget they had already made their choice.''

At the time, the UN General Assembly simply took note of the report of the UN Secretary-General's representative for the vote, Mr Fernando Ortiz-Sanz, which contained reservations over how the terms of the 1962 agreement enabling the poll had been fulfilled, so it had never endorsed the report.

But an Australian law professor, Sam Blay, argues that although there were legal flaws and quite clear breaches of the agreement, it would be very difficult now to challenge Indonesia, The Netherlands or the UN over the act.

Irian Jaya is not a state, so it would have to get another state to take the legal action on its behalf. Professor Blay said: ''What perhaps the West Papuans need is not so much legal adversaries but political allies to make the Dutch understand that they really failed, just like the Portuguese were persuaded to take up the cause of East Timor in the UN.''

Professor Blay believes the West Papuans should lobby to get Australia to take up the cause, as secret documents released this year showed Australia had known what would happen and had worked to discourage nationalism among the West Papuans.

Mr Rumakiek now lives in Australia. He left Jayapura in 1970, but he believes his homeland will achieve independence, and will one day return.

Australian Associated Press

*** NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. ***

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