WASHINGTON, DC - On the 35th anniversary of the
so-called "Act of Free Choice" (AFC) that resulted in
West Papua's annexation by Indonesia, newly declassified
documents revealed that the administration of the late
US president Richard Nixon was unwilling to raise any
objections to the process despite its assessment that
the move was overwhelmingly opposed by the Papuan
The documents, released by the
independent Washington-based National Security Archive
(NSA) on Friday, show that Washington's Cold War
courtship of General Suharto, who had come to power in a
military coup d'etat in 1966 and ruled Indonesia with an
iron fist until his ouster in 1998, was considered a
much higher priority than a plebiscite on independence,
"which would be meaningless among the Stone Age cultures
of New Guinea", according to a memo sent by
then-national security adviser Henry Kissinger to Nixon
on the eve of a meeting with the Indonesian strongman in
Jakarta in June 1969. The presidential trip coincided
with the AFC voting by which Indonesia legitimized its
annexation of the territory of West Irian, now known as
West Papua - the western half of the South Pacific
island of New Guinea.
The province was annexed
from the Dutch in 1969 and renamed Irian Jaya (West
Irian) under Suharto. The area was granted limited
autonomy in 2001, and in 2002 the provincial government
adopted the name West Papua for the province. The
eastern half of the island comprises the independent
nation of Papua New Guinea.
"You should tell
[Suharto] that we understand the problems they face in
West Irian," wrote Kissinger, who advised Nixon not to
bring up the subject on his own lest Washington be more
closely identified with a process it knew to be flawed.
The newly released documents, which consist of
11 diplomatic cables and memoranda concerning West Papua
from February 1968 through the end of the United
Nations-sponsored AFC in August 1969, confirm that
Washington was most concerned at the time about
Indonesia's support for US policy in Vietnam and
elsewhere in Southeast Asia and saw in Suharto a key
ally, despite Jakarta's official non-alignment policy.
Suharto is described in the Kissinger cable as a
"moderate military man ... who, although indecisive by
outside standards, is committed to progress and reform".
The cables related to West Papua, now
Indonesia's largest province, are also remarkably
similar in tone to another batch released by the NSA in
2001 on the reaction of Kissinger and former president
Gerald Ford to Indonesia's planned 1975 invasion of East
Timor, a Portuguese colony in the Malay Archipelago that
had recently declared itself independent.
Suharto asked for Ford's "understanding" for the East
Timor invasion, according to one secret memorandum
cable, Ford replied, "We will understand and not press
you on the issue. We understand the problem and the
intentions you have."
Kissinger, who accompanied
Ford on his trip to Indonesia in December 1975, prior to
the invasion, is reported to have told Suharto, "It is
important that whatever you do succeeds quickly,"
assuring him that if the East Timor invasion went
forward, "we will do our best to keep everyone quiet
until the president returns home".
launched the invasion immediately after Ford left
Jakarta and annexed the territory the following year.
Over the next several years, as many as one-third of the
estimated 750,000 East Timorese died or were killed in
counter-insurgency operations by Indonesian forces.
When Suharto was ousted almost a quarter of a
century later, however, East Timorese voted
overwhelmingly for independence in a 1999 referendum,
and, despite retaliatory action by the Indonesian
military, which destroyed much of the territory's
infrastructure, achieved formal independence last year
after a transition period overseen by the United
Like the East Timorese, West Papuans
have maintained a low-level insurgency against
Indonesian rule since the territory's annexation. Unlike
East Timor, however, West Papua became a key focus of
the regime's transmigration schemes, so that Javanese
living in West Papua currently outnumber the indigenous
In addition, the California-sized
territory holds important natural resources,
particularly gold, other minerals and timber, which have
drawn considerable investment from both Indonesian and
Western, including US, companies that are used to
dealing with authorities in Jakarta.
released documents show that Washington was well aware
in 1969 that the vast majority of the estimated 800,000
Papuans opposed annexation by Indonesia, largely because
of the violence and repression committed by Indonesian
troops that had occupied the former Dutch territory
Indeed, the US ambassador in Jakarta
at the time, Frank Galbraith, wrote in one memo on July
9, 1969, that "possibly 85-90%" of the population "are
in sympathy with the Free Papua cause". He also noted
that Indonesian military operations, which had resulted
in the deaths of possibly thousands of civilians, "had
stimulated fears and rumors of intended genocide among
The AFC, which was endorsed
unanimously by 1,022 "representatives" of the Papuan
population who were hand-picked by Jakarta, was
administered and controlled entirely by Jakarta.
The Act was carried out pursuant to a
US-brokered 1962 agreement between the Netherlands and
Indonesia that awarded control of what was then called
West New Guinea to Jakarta subject to its agreement to
carry out an election on self-determination, in which
all adult Papuans were to be eligible to vote, no later
than 1969. Once in control, however, Jakarta quickly
moved to repress the independence movement.
if Washington ever intended to hold Jakarta to its
pledges about the election process, that sentiment
dissipated after Suharto took power in 1966, initiating
the killings of an estimated 500,000 suspected
communists, and installing economic reforms designed to
promote foreign investment. Indeed, the first company to
take advantage of a new foreign investment law was the
US mining company Freeport Sulphur, which won
concessions over vast tracts of land in West Papua. The
company, which became Freeport-McMoRan, has been
operating the world's biggest open-pit gold mine in West
Papua for some three decades.
Although the UN's
observer at the time reported serious violations of the
self-determination process - and 15 countries
strenuously contested the AFC's validity - the UN
General Assembly "took note" of the AFC's results, in
effect recognizing Indonesia's annexation.
Almost all of the secret US cables assumed,
whether explicitly or implicitly, that Jakarta itself
would never accept any outcome other than annexation.
One telegram sent early in the six-week AFC period
compares the exercise to "a Greek tragedy, the
conclusion preordained. The main protagonist, the
[government], cannot and will not permit any resolution
other than the continued inclusion of West Irian in
"Dissident activity," the author
predicts, "is likely to increase, but the Indonesian
armed forces will be able to contain and, if necessary,
Kissinger himself appeared to
understand the fraud, stressing to Nixon that "you
should not raise this issue" because "we should avoid
any US identification with that act".
same time, US officials were doubtful whether even a
free plebiscite would make any sense. One 1968 telegram
from US Admiral Marshall Green in Jakarta stresses that
"we are dealing here essentially with Stone Age
illiterate tribal groups" and that "free elections among
groups such as this would be more of a farce than any
rigged mechanism Indonesia could devise". At another
point Green expresses concern that the UN special
representative for West Irian, Ortiz Sanz, might not be
sufficiently aware of these "political realities" and
should be "made aware" of them.