Violence in E. Timor had parallel in 1969
By Joe Lauria, Globe Correspondent, 09/29/99
UNITED NATIONS - This was not the first UN-run vote on independence to bring violence in Indonesia after entrusting Jakarta's forces to provide security.
In 1969, the United Nations organized an ''act of free choice'' for the people of West Irian, today called Irian Jaya, that critics said was rigged by Jakarta and marred by torture and intimidation. The violence was similar to that experienced this month in East Timor, when foes of independence supporters went on a rampage after losing the vote, killing at least hundreds of people and driving many more from their homes. The Irian Jaya independence movement, spawned during the 1960s, is still active and has been encouraged by the East Timorese vote. Suppression of the Irian Jaya movement is one reason observers say the Indonesian military was so intent on crushing the hopes of the East Timorese. According to the 1969 vote, Irian Jaya unanimously wanted to join Indonesia. But the circumstances surrounding the vote threw that result into serious doubt.
New Guinea was divided in 1883 between Dutch control in the west and German and British control in the east along borders that today split Irian Jaya from the independent nation of Papua New Guinea. Rich in oil and copper deposits, much of the island remains inaccessible and many people still live a Stone Age existence. One quarter of the world's languages are spoken there. After Japanese forces were expelled from the island in the Second World War, the Netherlands prepared Irian Jaya for independence.
But Indonesian claims forced a military confrontation with the Dutch in 1962. According to Dutch Foreign Minister Jozies van Aarsten, then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy pressured the Netherlands to agree to a peace deal a year later that put the territory under a UN Temporary Executive Authority. Washington wanted to appease the Indonesian government because of the growing influence of communists there, said a UN official familiar with the region who asked not to be identified.
The United Nations was to run the territory for six years until the independence vote, but Jakarta took effective control immediately, according to a final report by the head of the UN mission, Fernando Oritz-Sanz. ''The issue of West Irian has not come up again in the Netherlands during the East Timor crisis, but there was definitely some embarrassment at the time'' with the way the vote was conducted, van Aarsten said.
As in East Timor, Indonesian authorities were given the task of handling security. Jakarta agreed to release political prisoners, allow exiles to return and permit freedom of assembly and speech. However, Oritz-Sanz said these provisions were not fully implemented and reports at the time indicated that Indonesia was not to be trusted.
Repression of political prisoners persisted, as documented by one journalist in the territory at the time, Michael Donald, whose reports and photographs of prison camps appeared in British, Australian, and US newspapers. ''Here was the UN wandering around at the bottom of the hill not realizing there was a prison camp on the top of the hill,'' Donald said in an interview. ''Everywhere I went in Irian Jaya I'd find secret notes pushed under my pillow from independence fighters telling me how they were being tortured.'' The United Nations agreed to an electoral system that undermined the vote. In East Timor, the United Nations spent months registering 435,000 voters, living in East Timor and abroad. ''We did not want to repeat the mistake in West Irian,'' the UN official said.
In Irian Jaya in 1969, the United Nations bowed to Indonesian pressure to use a traditional system of representative councils, handpicked by Jakarta, who spoke for 800,000 people. ''Those who wish to remain with Indonesia were to stand up and those who didn't should sit down,'' said the UN official. ''No one sat down.''
Despite protestations by 20 newly independent countries led by Ghana, the UN General Assembly endorsed the election in a resolution on Nov. 19, 1969. ''The feeling in the Netherlands and in the UN was that it was unfair to the people of West Irian but that is what the Big Powers wanted,'' said one Western diplomat familiar with the vote. ''It was eyewash, everyone knew that. Nobody cared about the West Irianese.''
The Australian Foreign Ministry recently released documents that show that the United States, the United Nations, and Australia were aware at the time that the ''act of free choice'' was a fraud and that officials secretly worked to ensure Indonesian sovereignty.
One secret US government document from the embassy in Jakarta shows the United Nations knew West Irianese wanted independence. ''Personal political views of the UN team''... indicate that ''95 percent of Irianese support the independence movement and that the Act of Free Choice is a mockery.'' A Dutch intelligence report said: ''The Act of Free Choice cannot be carried out honestly according to Western ideas.''
The Australian ambassador to Indonesia wrote at the time that Jakarta's ''traumatic fear of separatism ... has led them into repression which has in turn increased the spread of anti-Indonesian sentiment.''
The documents also show that Australian intelligence worked with Indonesia to ship independence supporters out of the territory. ''Thousands and thousands of people were rounded up and vanished,'' said Donald. He also said the Indonesian air force bombed villages and that hundreds of people were killed.
Determined not to make similar mistakes in East Timor, UN officials rebuffed an Indonesian proposal for a UN random canvassing of East Timorese, the UN official said. In the end the United Nations secured one-man one-vote rules.
But as in West Irian, the UN allowed Indonesia to run security, which, as is now clear, led to the atrocities in East Timor this month. The main difference between the two UN experiences is that the East Timorese did vote fairly for independence. This story ran on page A04 of the Boston Globe on 09/29/99. © Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.