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Listening to Papuan voices

Listening to Papuan voices
Published: Jan 09, 2010

Writing the history of the Act of Free Choice was a controversial endeavour

Pieter Drooglever

       The English translation of Professor Drooglever’s book
       OneWorld Publications, Oxford, 2009

In November 2000, the Dutch Foreign Minister Josias van Aartsen commissioned the Institute of Netherlands History (ING) to write a study on West New Guinea leading up to and including the Act of Free Choice of 1969. The request came in the slipstream of renewed international interest in West Papua generated by the downfall of Indonesia’s President Suharto in 1998. Papuan people were finally able to speak out about their aspirations for greater autonomy or independence. Many of them expressed these aspirations with reference to promises allegedly made in Dutch colonial times. The past proved to be an active force in the present.

The Netherlands has played a large and controversial role in West Papua’s history. In the post-Suharto context many people in the Netherlands felt that an independent account of that role was required. This report was intended to be an independent academic study, rather than an endeavour to re-open a political discussion that had, according to both the Netherlands and Indonesia, been concluded many decades earlier. Instead, Minister van Aartsen and his supporters from the right-wing Protestant parties felt that the public – in the Netherlands, in Papua, in Indonesia and elsewhere – had a right to know what had happened.

The contract between the Institute of Netherlands History and the government explicitly stated that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would provide all necessary assistance and information, but could not influence the outcome of the study. As a historian and specialist on decolonisation and Dutch-Indonesian relations between 1945 and 1963, I was commissioned to conduct the study, which involved archival research and analysis in the Netherlands, Australia and the United Nations.

The result

The book, entitled Een Daad van Vrije Keuze. De Papoea’s van westelijk Nieuw-Guinea en de grenzen van het zelfbeschikkingsrecht (An Act of Free Choice. The Papuans of western New Guinea and the limits of the right to self-determination), was completed in November 2005. It contains a study on political and cultural developments in West New Guinea covering the period before and after the Second World War, as well as the position of New Guinea in the context of Indonesia’s decolonisation and during the Cold War. In particular, it reviews how the Dutch continued their rule in New Guinea after the transfer of sovereignty to Indonesia over the rest of the archipelago in 1950, but were subsequently forced to hand over the territory to Indonesia in 1962. In this context, it also pays attention to the roles of the United States, its antagonists in the Cold War and the United Nations.

The book also outlines the developments within Papuan society, that society’s complicated entry into the ways and means of the modern world and the processes by which this generated a new Papuan identity. It considers the ‘New York Agreement’ reached between the Indonesian and Netherlands government and the surrounding negotiations which laid down the rules for the transfer of the administration to the UN in 1962 and to Indonesia in 1963, as well as events in and around West New Guinea during both the UN interim administration and Indonesian rule in the 1960s. The final chapters discuss the 1969 Act of Free Choice, which confirmed the inclusion of the territory into the Indonesian state, including the problems and flaws in this process.

On the whole, the book attempts to give a balanced view of the policies and actions of each of the parties concerned. It was not geared towards defending or rejecting any particular view, but rather traces the interaction between them. But in assessing these policies, the underlying questions remained the same: on what grounds did the outside world take charge of matters for the Papuans, one of the most underdeveloped people on Earth? What advantages did the international community seek for itself? And what benefits or misery did it bring for the Papuans? For the United Nations, it led to a testing of its principles and its capacity to translate them into policies. As such, it is a book for politicians, historians, legal experts and, above all, for those who want to know about the weight of the weak in the events of the modern world.

An academic study, not a government report

The book was, and had to be, an academic study. Both the author and the Institute of Netherlands History took this requirement very seriously. However, the study’s origins were in politics, and so inevitably it was drawn into the political context from the outset. Academics and politicians alike were suspicious that political intentions lay behind the project and would influence the result. The Indonesian government certainly held this view. Many prominent Indonesians felt that the Netherlands, by initiating this project, was planning to meddle in the controversial New Guinea affair all over again or, even worse, reopen a debate that was closed in 1962. Even some Indonesians who knew this was not the case believed that the book could be interpreted in this way, thereby adding to the unrest already existing in West Papua.

Many prominent Indonesians felt that the Netherlands, by initiating this project, were planning to meddle in the controversial New Guinea affair all over again

Despite Dutch government explanations and assurances that the study was without political motivation and designed only to provide a public record of events, Indonesia was never convinced. I was refused further access to Indonesia, either to do research in the archives in Jakarta, to interview Indonesian administrators and politicians, or to talk to the people in Papua. This was a major setback for the study, but it was no surprise.

I was able to continue my research without the assistance of Indonesia, as I had ample experience with Indonesia before and I was able to interview many of the relevant people outside of the country. Moreover, the richest archival sources were outside Indonesia. For the administration of Netherlands New Guinea and the dispute with Indonesia, the Netherlands archives contain abundant information, now laid fully open in the process of preparing for the documentary editions. For the later episodes, significant information is found in the Australian and US archives. For the Act of Free Choice, valuable information is available from the United Nations in New York. Nevertheless, a more open insight into Indonesia’s positions would have been welcome and it is hoped Indonesia’s views will be better heard in future publications. The Indonesian Institute of Sciences offers the best opportunity for this purpose.

The ramifications

The book was launched in The Hague on 15 November 2005. It did not go unnoticed in Indonesia. In Jayapura and Makassar, Papuans held large demonstrations calling for a new referendum. Many interested groups attended the launch in The Hague, including a strong delegation of the Papua Presidium, members of dissident groups from the Moluccas and Indonesian representatives. Among them was Dr. Astrid Sustanto, an Indonesian academic and parliamentarian, who sought to highlight the positive impacts of the Indonesian administration in Papua.

Dr Sustanto’s presence was certainly needed because in general most of the comments made at the event regarding Indonesia’s past and present administration of Papua were critical and Papuans used this opportunity to bring forward their concerns. The question remained: now that so much time had passed, was there still a right for the Papuans to ask for independence or are they better accommodated within Indonesia? No easy answer was available and opinions differed sharply.

The political reality, tensions and difficulties inherent in this question were reflected by the notable absence of the Netherlands Minister for Foreign Affairs, Ben Bot, who had not shown up to accept the book that had been written upon the request of his own ministry. In his stead, his predecessor Josias van Aartsen attended, together with the MP Eimert van Middelkoop, who had first requested the study in parliament. The Dutch government was not prepared to put relations with Indonesia at further risk. The minister’s position was heavily criticised in the Dutch media and in Congress, where it was felt that this was an excellent occasion for the Dutch government to show its continuing interest in the fate of its former colonial subjects. Meanwhile, it must be noted that Minister Bot had, notwithstanding his political aloofness in the matter, continued to facilitate the project until its conclusion, as had been decided by his predecessor in 2000.

Whatever the ensuing discussions, the book was not written to answer the political questions of the moment, though it may help defining the options. First and foremost it was meant as a record of historical fact regarding the transfer of sovereignty from the Netherlands to Indonesia and the incorporation of West New Guinea in Indonesia. The book will continue to serve as an important resource to aid understanding of the underlying historical context, which continues to drive conflict in West Papua. Previous accounts of this period had focused upon the views of the Netherlands, Indonesia, the US and the UN, and more often than not only upon one of these. Importantly, this book focuses upon Papuan sentiments on the transfer, as well as those of Indonesia and the international community. In this book the voices of Papuans are heard, for a change.

Pieter Drooglever ( is author of the Dutch government commissioned study on the Act of Free Choice, Een Daad van Vrije Keuze. De Papoea’s van westelijk Nieuw-Guinea en de grenzen van het zelfbeschikkingsrecht (ING-Boom, The Hague-Amsterdam 2005). The English translation is now available: An Act of Free Choice. Decolonization and the Right to Self-Determination in West Papua (Oneworld Publications, Oxford, 2009).

This article is part of our series on the fortieth anniversary of the Act of Free Choice.


Inside Indonesia 98: Oct-Dec 2009{jcomments on}


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