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Indonesian imperialism is alive - and brutal - in West Papua

The Diplomat - April 26, 2024

David Hutt – Last month, videos emerged of 13 soldiers from an elite Indonesian battalion in West Java torturing a Papuan man, Definus Kogoya. According to Human Rights Watch, Kogoya "had his hands tied behind him and been placed inside a drum filled with water. The soldiers taunted Kogoya with racist slurs, kicking and hitting him.

In another video, a man used a bayonet to cut his back. The water turned red." The military, while apologizing for the incident, insisted that Kogoya was a member of the West Papua National Liberation Army and that he and two comrades – one of whom "died when he jumped from a military vehicle after arrest" – had burned down a clinic. Later, the police released the two alive men without charge.

At least 10 Papuan teenagers were killed by Indonesia's military last September alone, while the implications of the 2019 Papuan uprising, the largest pro-independence mobilization in decades, are still being felt. Douglas Gerrard produced an excellent article on the conflict ("Indonesia Is Stepping Up Its Repression of West Papua's Freedom Movement") last year.

When the rest of Indonesia won independence in the 1950s, West Papua remained part of Dutch New Guinea. Jakarta wanted the entire territory. Sukarno's first foreign minister demanded that Jakarta and its forces "get them down from the trees," a racist notion of West Papuans that aped the racism of the European colonizers and which continues today. In the 1950s, Indonesian troops led some incursions into the Dutch colonial holdout but they were rebuffed, in part because Washington was unsure of which side to take, not least because Sukarno was still flirting with the communists.

But by the end of the 1950s, as the Cold War became more intense and Indonesia was seen as a country that had to become an ally, by hook or crook, the Americans made it known to the Dutch that they could no longer count on U.S. support for the status quo. Knowing that its empire would soon end and motivated to maintain some influence in Southeast Asia once it did, the Dutch cautiously favored independence for the West Papuans and supported the formation in 1961 of the New Guinea Council, which drafted a manifesto for Independence and Self-Government and declared the territory Papua Barat – "West Papua."

Still, Washington wouldn't support the effort. Instead, it orchestrated talks that led to the August 1962 New York Agreement. Jakarta gained control of West Papua (renamed West Irian), and after a brief transitional period overseen by the U.N., things were supposed to climax in (and Indonesia was obligated to hold) a referendum on self-determination.

Starting in July 1969, U.N. officials oversaw the so-called "Act of Free Choice," an Orwellian term if there ever was one. The U.N. claimed it would be a fair election conducted under international scrutiny and by international norms. And all adults from West Papua were supposed to have a vote, per the U.N.'s rules. However, that wasn't the case. Jakarta upped its attacks on West Papuan separatists, especially after Suharto became dictator in 1965. Having already decimated much of the separatist movement, Jakarta then handpicked 1,022 West Papuans to vote on behalf of the region's 800,000 people in the plebiscite, despite committing to a universal ballot. Naturally, they voted unanimously in favor of integration with Indonesia.

In July 2004, on the 35th anniversary of this Act of Free Choice, the U.S. National Security Archive released declassified documents on U.S. policy deliberations, which I quote liberally from below. The violation of the Act of Free Choice was obvious long before the 1,000 or so Jakarta patsies were led forcibly into the polling booths. In 1968, U.S. embassy officials visiting the region noted that "Indonesia could not win an open election." The U.S. ambassador, Marshall Green, fretted at the time that U.N. officials might "hold out for free and direct elections," while Green stressed that all U.S. and Western officials should make known to their U.N. counterparts the "political realities," meaning that Washington needed the vote to go Jakarta's way because it was a committed anti-communist ally at the time.

By October 1968, months before the election, the U.S. Embassy wrote back to Washington in relief that U.N. officials had conceded "that it would be inconceivable from the point of view of the interest of the U.N., as well as the [Government of Indonesia], that a result other than the continuance of West Irian within Indonesian sovereignty should emerge." Even still, Green's successor as U.S. ambassador, Frank Galbraith, noted in 1969, the year of the "referendum," that "possibly 85 to 90%" of the West Papuan population "are in sympathy with the Free Papua cause."

Nonetheless, Nixon and Kissinger visited Jakarta in July 1969 while the referendum was underway. Kissinger instructed his boss, "You should not raise this issue" of West Papua, and advised that "we should avoid any U.S. identification with" the matter of independence or integration. This was from a man who described Suharto as a "moderate military man ... committed to progress and reform." (Or was that said by U.S. officials of Prabowo today?) In any case, Indonesia's control over the region was accepted by the international community, West Papua became a formal part of Indonesia, and six years later Kissinger masterminded, shadowing another U.S. president, America's support for Indonesia's colonization and occupation of Timor-Leste.

Why do I write all this? For starters, it's a story often forgotten. How many people have heard of West Irian or West Papua or know that there remains a separatist movement? And there remains the notion that Indonesian imperialism ended in the 1990s with the death of the Suharto regime. That's true for Timor-Leste, though Indonesians traipsed off only through pools of blood. Indonesia's imperialism is also back in the news as Prabowo Subianto, the incoming Indonesian president, is accused of war crimes during his time in occupied Timor-Leste as head of the Kopassus special forces. As I argued some months ago, it's not always healthy to pick at history's healing wounds, and Indonesia's relations with Timor-Leste, despite its barbaric past, had been healing for several years. But it's quite another thing for the majority of Indonesians to elect an alleged war criminal, which must surely re-open those wounds.

But, also, this history serves as a reminder that American foreign policy is at its most heinous and brutally hypocritical when it wants to appease dictators and tyrants for a greater cause. A few months ago, after the death of Henry Kissinger, I was asked by a newspaper to write an obituary. A family emergency meant I hadn't the time. But, for research and pleasure, which aren't mutually exclusive, I did re-read a number of biographies, including Niall Ferguson's sonorous first volume "Kissinger: 1923-1968: The Idealist," and its polar opposite, Christopher Hitchens' "The Trial of Henry Kissinger," a short pamphlet that dedicates a chapter to how Washington (and Kissinger) sold out East Timorese independence and permitted an Indonesian invasion in order to appease Suharto and to keep stoking anti-communism in Southeast Asia. Hitchens had no space, though, for West Papua. Yet he did write: "Those who willed the means and wished the ends are not absolved from guilt by the refusal of reality to match their schemes."

Realpolitik didn't die with Kissinger last November. It is found – although not to the same extremity as in the 1960s and 1970s – in U.S. policy in Southeast Asia today. It's quite obvious that Washington doesn't just tolerate but provokes the worst excesses of the Communist Party of Vietnam because of China's hostilities with Hanoi. Equally, Washington is now seeking to make friends with Phnom Penh because it has realized that it cannot condemn Cambodian authoritarianism at the same time as deterring Cambodia's friendship with Beijing, so support for Cambodian democracy has been ditched. Elsewhere, all effort is now on rivaling China. Liberation and liberty, not least in Myanmar, are the casualties.

Contributing Author

David Hutt is a journalist and commentator. He is a research fellow at the Central European Institute of Asian Studies (CEIAS), and a columnist at The Diplomat and Radio Free Asia.

Source: https://thediplomat.com/2024/04/indonesian-imperialism-is-alive-and-brutal-in-west-papua