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Masters Mind

Published by MAC on 2005-11-29

Masters Mind

The Netherlands and Indonesia are not happy with a study that questions their actions over West Papuan sovereignty, writes John Aglionby

29th November 2005

This Thursday, December 1, marks the 44th anniversary of the West Papuan people's declaration of independence from their Dutch colonial masters. The residents of the western half of New Guinea island have, however, never ruled themselves because nine months later, in August 1962, the Dutch, via the United Nations, handed over control of the resource-rich territory to Indonesia.

That move was given international legal sanctity following a referendum seven years later, called the Act of Free Choice, of 1,025 of the approximately 700,000 Papuans. Since then no major nation has ever questioned Jakarta's right to rule West Papua.

This may soon change following the publication this month of a study commissioned by the Dutch government into the history of the area. Written by Dr Pieter Drooglever of the Institute of Netherlands History, the 740-page Een Daad van Vrije Keuze (An Act of Free Choice), leaves little doubt that the vote was, as the UN under-secretary general in 1969, Chakravarthy Narasimhan, said in a 2001 interview, "a whitewash".

"[The UN representative] Ortiz Sanz was not allowed to play any part in putting together the electorate and was given the smallest possible role in the implementation of the referendum itself," Dr Drooglever wrote in an English summary of the Dutch-language book.

"In the opinion of the Western observers and the Papuans who have spoken out about this, the Act of Free Choice ended up as a sham, where a press-ganged electorate acting under a great deal of pressure appeared to have unanimously declared itself in favour of Indonesia," he continued. In an interview with Guardian Unlimited, Dr Drooglever said he found that in "the whole set up of the plebiscite there was no freedom of speech".

How close Dr Drooglever got to the truth can be guessed by the reaction in both the Hague and Jakarta. Dutch foreign minister Ben Bot refused to formally receive the report - it had been commissioned by his predecessor in 2000 - and reportedly described it as "superfluous". An Indonesian foreign ministry spokesman, Yuri Thamrin, viewed the study as "an academic work" but of no "significant substance". "The status of Papua as an integral part of Indonesia has already been recognised by the world, including the Netherlands itself," he said.

John Saltford, a British academic who wrote one of the last major studies of West Papua, said Dr Drooglever's book "will have a profound effect". "He could have been a lot more circumspect and tried to blur the issue," he told Guardian Unlimited. "The difference here [compared to other books] is that it was a Dutch foreign-ministry commissioned report."

Papuan independence campaigners, in contrast, rejoiced at its publication. A rally to mark the event in the West Papuan capital Jayapura was harshly suppressed.

Benny Wenda, an activist who has been granted political asylum in Britain, said the Drooglever report has "opened a door". "Now Papuans' actions have to be focused around keeping this door open and at on it till victory," he told Guardian Unlimited.

Jakarta's treatment of West Papua over the decades has been characterised more by brutal repression and rampant exploitation of the natural resources than developing the people's welfare.

Dr Drooglever estimates "tens of thousands" of Papuans have been killed in Jakarta's attempt to suppress opposition to Indonesian rule. Tens of thousands of troops are stationed in West Papua to contain a tiny armed separatist movement which the Dutch academic believes poses no threat to Jakarta.

Last week, the military announced that a new division of some 10,000-15,000 troops of the elite strategic reserves would be created specifically to be based in West Papua. Foreign journalists and most researchers and aid workers are banned from Papua but, ironically, tourists are not.

Dr Drooglever believes the military, which has to find some 60% of its own budget, has such a heavy presence there for ulterior motives. "There's a lot of money available in the territory and the troops go where the money is," he told Guardian Unlimited.

The territory is home to the world's largest gold and copper mine, run by a subsidiary of the American firm Freeport-McMoran, and the Anglo-American oil giant BP is developing a massive natural gas field which is expected to be generating revenues of around £55m a year.

In recent years government revenues to West Papua have more than tripled as a result of a massive nationwide decentralisation programme. But the World Bank reported in a study this month that despite this - and the fact that Papua (Jakarta does not use the word West in its official name) is the second wealthiest province in the nation - the poverty level, at 40%, is double the national average, one third of the children do not attend school and nine out of 10 villages do not have basic health service with a health centre, doctor or midwife.

The UN's Aids organisation, UN Aids, has identified it as having an HIV epidemic that is all-but out of control.

After the Indonesian dictator General Suharto fell in 1998, the government promised special autonomy to the region and a law was passed to that effect the following year. But it has still not been fully implemented and Jakarta has repeatedly violated its provisions, as recognised by the country's constitutional court.

No major governments or the UN have spoken out about the Drooglever report so the chances of the Papuans using it to generate international momentum remain very slim.

The author himself believes Papuans will have to set their sights lower than independence. "I think they will have to be happy when an administration is set up that's not dominated by the military," he said.

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