etmnlong.gif (2291 bytes) spacer
Flawed History

What Goes Un-Noted in the State Department's "Background Notes" on Indonesia

by West Papua Advocacy Team (WPAT) and East Timor and Indonesia Action Network (ETAN)

December 2009

The U.S. Department of State in October published the latest in its series of "Background Notes" regarding Indonesia. The periodic series provides a useful overview of the history, culture, geography, economy, government and politics of foreign nations used by educators, businesses and others. The October 2009 report on Indonesia in many sections is both comprehensive and accurate.


In general, the presentation reflects an historical narrative developed by the Indonesian government of the dictator Suharto and subsequently maintained by successor Indonesian administrations. 

However, the latest report at several points misrepresents key historical developments. In general, the presentation reflects an historical narrative developed by the Indonesian government of the dictator Suharto and subsequently maintained by successor Indonesian administrations. The "Background Notes" generally fail to address accurately the problematic role of the Indonesian military (TNI) either historically or currently. The "Notes" fail to describe the central role of the military in the killing of hundreds of thousands in the period immediately following the seizure of power by Suharto and the mass killings in East Timor and West Papua. The "Background Notes" contend that civilian control of the military is "strengthening," notwithstanding the continued powerful role in Indonesian politics and the economy. The document also fails to note that the military continues to enjoy impunity for past and ongoing human rights violations, corruption and other criminal activity.

The "Background Notes" inaccurately portray the electoral fraud through which Indonesia annexed West Papua in 1969 and the killing of tens of thousands of Papuans by Indonesian security forces from the Indonesian assumption of administrative control in 1963 to the present.

The document ignores completely the Indonesian Government's illegal invasion of East Timor in 1975 and the brutal policies adopted there in the subsequent years of its occupation during which up to 200,000 East Timorese perished. (Although the separate "Background Notes" on Timor-Leste addresses this, there is no link to it.)

The "Background Notes" also fail to acknowledge the role of the U.S. Government in instigating and supporting insurrections in the late 1950's, referring only to "unsuccessful rebellions in Sumatra, Sulawesi, West Java and other islands ... (which) weakened the parliamentary system."

The following specifically reviews and seeks to correct in detail misrepresentations contained in the "Background Notes" with regard to the annexation of West Papua and the 1965-68 period in which hundreds of thousands of Indonesians were killed by the Indonesian military and local groups which it armed and guided.

The following is based on contemporary documents. These include US government documents published in Foreign Relations of the United States series, as well as documents released to the National Security Archives through the Freedom of Information Act as posted on the National Security Archives website. The following also draws on UN and British documents and in testimony from Indonesian and Papuan participants.

West Papua

The "Notes" fail to recount the history of Indonesian annexation of West Papua. Omission of key historical facts obscures concerns which have generated long-standing grievances among Papuans. These concerns have also been the subject of analysis by scholars and international human rights advocates. The following analysis is drawn from the published work of one of those scholars, Dr. John Saltford.

The "Notes" offer the following brief account of the "Act of Free Choice," the means by which the Indonesian government annexed West Papua:

The Indonesian Government conducted an "Act of Free Choice" in Irian Jaya under UN supervision in 1969 in which 1,025 Papuan representatives of local councils agreed by consensus to remain a part of Indonesia. A subsequent UN General Assembly resolution confirmed the transfer of sovereignty to Indonesia.

The following provides historical background on the transfer of West Papua to Indonesian control absent from the "Background Notes":

The Government of Indonesia and the Netherlands, since the establishment of the Indonesian Government in 1949, had contested over the fate and future of the western half of the island of New Guinea. The Dutch position was that West Papua had only been administered as a part of their East Indies Empire because their small presence there did not warrant a separate colonial administration. They also argued that the Melanesian West Papuans were ethnically and culturally completely different to the Asian Indonesians. However, Indonesian President Sukarno claimed, that as a former part of the Dutch East Indies, West Papua belonged to the Republic of Indonesia.

In September 1961, under growing Indonesian diplomatic pressure, the Netherlands Government presented a plan (the Luns Plan) to the UNGA. The plan proposed to hand the territory over to a UN administration that would remain until the population was ready to exercise its right to self-determination. A subsequent plan (based on Luns) received majority support in the UNGA, but not the required two-thirds majority to be passed. Papuan leaders were active at the UN in support of this plan. They unveiled a national flag soon afterwards as the first step towards independence.

Until October 1962, West Papua was recognized by the UN as a non-self-governing territory ruled by the Netherlands. From 1959, elected regional councils were set up in the territory and official Dutch policy by this stage was to prepare the territory for independence by 1970. The Papua Council elected in 1961, also known as the West New Guinea Council, resolved that the Netherlands was "no longer free to transfer the territory without Papuan consent."

With political support and massive supplies of armaments from the USSR, Indonesia threatened war and made a number of unsuccessful military incursions into West Papua. (Many of the Indonesian personnel involved were rounded up by Papuans and handed over to the Dutch.) Alarmed at this growing Soviet influence in a Southeast Asian country, the U.S. Government put pressure on The Hague to negotiate with Jakarta.

When it became clear to the Dutch that they would have to fight alone in the event of a war, they reluctantly agreed to sign the UN-brokered August 1962 New York Agreement with Jakarta. Despite its flaws this agreement did guarantee the Papuans certain important rights.

New York Agreement and its implementation

Under Article 2, the Dutch handed over West Papua to a temporary UN authority (UNTEA) on 1 October 1962. After seven months the UN then transferred control to Jakarta, prior to any act of self-determination (a major Dutch concession to Jakarta). During UNTEA one senior UN official on the ground reported:

“I have yet to meet any thinking, sober, generally responsible Papuan who sees any good in the coming link with Indonesia. Unwelcome as the anxiety and resistance of thinking Papuans maybe it is of course hardly surprising if one is not under pressure to close one’s eyes to what is in fact happening to this people at the hands of the three parties to the Agreement.”

Under Article 16, a number of UN experts were to remain in the territory following the transfer to Indonesia to advise and assist the Indonesians in their preparations for a promised Papuan act of self-determination. But these experts were never deployed because Indonesia objected.

Under Article 22, The UN and Indonesia had to guarantee fully the rights, including the rights of free speech, freedom of movement and of assembly of the Papuans. These rights were systematically abused throughout the entire period. Even the official 1969 UNGA report concedes, “the [Indonesian] Administration exercised at all times a tight political control over the population".

Under Article 17, the Secretary-General was to appoint by 1968 a representative to lead a UN team in the territory, including the experts specified under Article 16. Their task was to advise, assist and participate in the Act’s implementation. A Bolivian diplomat, Ortiz Sanz, was picked but, as noted in his UNGA report, without Article 16 he had no experienced staff. Instead his newly arrived team of just 16 had to operate in a territory the size of France.

Under Article 18, all adult Papuans had the right to participate in an act of self-determination to be carried out in accordance with international practice. This central tenet of the agreement was never implemented. The UN effectively stood by as Indonesia hand picked and intimidated 1022 West Papuans to vote publicly and unanimously in favor of integration with Indonesia at a series of crudely staged "voting ceremonies"


Whatever Jakarta might argue, no one can seriously claim that the "Act of Free Choice" bore any relation whatsoever to this. 

In 1960, the international community had already defined the minimum standards required to meet international practice when it passed UN General Assembly Resolution 1541, which states that the integration of a non-self governing territory (as West Papua officially was then) with an independent state should be "the result of the freely expressed wishes of the territory's peoples...their wishes having been expressed through informed and democratic processes, impartially conducted and based upon universal suffrage."

Whatever Jakarta might argue, no one can seriously claim that the "Act of Free Choice" bore any relation whatsoever to this. Significantly, but unsurprising, the final wording of the UN report says only that "Indonesian." not “international” practice was adopted - another clear breach of the New York Agreement.

Western diplomats were well aware of the facts. A 1968 US Embassy report states that Ortiz Sanz; "concedes that it would be inconceivable from the point of view of the interests of the UN as well as Indonesia, that a result other than the continuance of West [Papua] within Indonesian sovereignty should emerge." Elsewhere a 1969 British FCO document notes that the UN Secretariat in New York "appear only too anxious to get shot of the problem as quickly and smoothly as possible." Another de-classified British report from the time comments; “Privately, however, we recognize that the people of West Irian have no desire to be ruled by the Indonesians…and that the process of consultation did not a allow a genuinely free choice to be made.”

The 1965-68 Mass Killings

General Suharto seized effective power from the elected president Sukarno in September 1965 following the kidnapping and murder of senior military leaders loyal to President Sukarno. The Suharto regime consistently claimed that those killings were part of an attempted coup orchestrated by the leaders of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) which it alleged acted in collusion with a small group of sympathetic junior level military officers, censoring and sometimes jailing those who offered alternative explanations. That rendering of history has been disputed by scholars but no widely accepted history of that period has yet emerged. The "Background Notes" presents essentially the version of events that was developed by the Suharto dictatorship and largely maintained by successor administrations. It perpetuates the key but unproven contention that in the weeks leading up to the coup the PKI was arming its supporters.

More blatantly, the "Notes" fail to acknowledge the undisputed, central role of the military in the killing of hundreds of thousands of Indonesians thought to be members or supporters of the PKI. The military conducted killings and armed others to carry out these killings throughout the archipelago in a massacre that continued for over two years. The "Background Notes" also fail to acknowledge the role of the U.S. Government in those killings. The U.S. Embassy furnished Indonesian military leaders with thousands of names of Indonesians it believed were affiliated with the Indonesian Communist Party. There is no record that the U.S. Embassy ever sought to press the Suharto dictatorship or its military from pursuing the slaughter of Indonesian civilians which continued for over two years. Those responsible for this mass slaughter enjoyed impunity, a fact that is also ignored in the "Background Notes."

see also


ETAN Cause on Facebook
ETAN Group on Facebook

ETAN Blog ETAN's Blog

ETAN listservs

Subscribe to ETAN's e-mail Listservs





make a pledge via credit card here

Bookmark and Share

Background | Take Action | News | Links | What You Can Do | Resources  | Contact

ETAN Store | Estafeta | ImagesHome | Timor Postings | Search | Site Index |