In memoriam George Aditjondro

20161220_204557_resized“Academics are too caught up in comfort and too often afraid,” George Aditjondro told me in Vancouver back in 1997. It’s not a trap he fell into.

Friends are marking the death of George Aditjondro this month. The Indonesian professor and activist taught many people formally and, I imagine, even more people informally. I didn’t study with him, except on a rather makeshift course in Portugal one summer in which he tried to free a group of human rights activists of some of our illusions about Indonesia. But in remembering him this month, I’m recalling some informal lessons.

George Aditjondro taught me that Canada and Indonesia were more enmeshed than I’d imagined on the level of daily life. He grabbed a package of instant noodles and showed how the noodles tied Saskatchewan wheat farmers to Javanese farm labourers through a chain running from the prarie farm, through the Canadian government’s wheat marketing board, to buyers in Indonesia dominated by one of President Suharto’s cronies, to Indonesian labourers needing a quick and cheap snack while they worked the rice fields. The result? Indomie, or Indonoodles, easy to make and cheap to buy, and owned by PT Indofood Sukses Makmur, itself part of the Salim Group controlled by Indonesia’s Liem family, one of the world’s richest families – which got its start when Fujianese migrant Liem Sioe Liong became quartermaster to an Indonesian soldier named Suharto, who in 1965 led a slow coup and plunged Indonesia into three decades of dictatorship.

As George Aditjondro told this story, it was 1997 and we were getting ready to protest the arrival of Suharto in Vancouver for the APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit. I thought noodles were just about noodles. In a few minutes, George Aditjondro taught me they were also about global capitalism and how trade linked the everyday to global politics, and farmers across oceans to each other, and economics to human rights. I was just trying to finish off a B.A. and doing a bit of East Timor support work on the side. “Have you read Gramsci?” he asked. It’s not a name I knew. “Antonio Gramsci,” he explained. “Read some Gramsci, and then maybe we can talk about this again one day.”

“George was known as a passionate critic of what he saw as corrupt power,” reads his obituary in the Jakarta Post. “During the Soeharto regime he researched the business empire of the ‘Cendana family’, referring to Soeharto’s family that resided on Jl. Cendana in Central Jakarta.” Earlier, and the obituary is quieter on this, it meant he spoke up for human rights in East Timor and Papua (then officially called Irian Jaya). That cost him a safe academic postings, though (through the work of some supporters in the academic world) it also brought him a new post in Australia. For me he was an example of solid research connected to his “research subjects,” and of the sort of teaching outside the classroom that’s an all too rare skill.

Two offerings from the files of George Aditjondro’s work: a piece he wrote in the 1980s on Indonesian NGO collaboration with indigenous Papuan communities, and a table laying out the details of Indonesian monopolies in East Timor that he produced in the 1990s.

George Aditjondro, Non-governmental organizations’ collaboration with indigenous communities in Irian Jaya…” (1988)

George Adijondro, Indonesian monopolies in East Timor, TAPOL occasional report 24

 

25 years after the Santa Cruz massacre: did corporations influence Western government policy?

Digging into the archival records isn’t purely academic. It can tell us why governments make the decisions they did – and suggest ways to influence future government decisions.

The Santa Cruz massacre, when Indonesian troops shot a crowd of unarmed pro-independence protesters in East Timor (now independent Timor-Leste) serves as an example. Film footage captured by British journalist Max Stahl, along with reports from US journalists Allan Nairn and Amy Goodman, led to a wave of outrage and activism in Western countries which had supported Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor for years. As Timor-Leste president Taur Matan Ruak noted in his speech commemorating the 25 anniversary of the Santa Cruz massacre: “The images recorded by those journalists and the articles they wrote travelled the world and spread news of the crime committed in Santa Cruz on 12 November 1991.”

Archival records show that governments were sensitive to this pressure and wanted to give the appearance of responding to it in some fashion.

But there was another, much more hidden lobby. Western corporations that were doing business – highly profitable business – in Indonesia also lobbied governments. Much of this was visible. The East Timor Action Network/US pointed to the role of US business lobbies and public relations firms, for instance. But it is difficult to track this lobbying and determine how intense it was.

Archives can help here. The Canadian government archives give one example. Other countries are likely to have a similar pattern of corporate lobbying visible. After the Santa Cruz massacre, as pressure for sanctions against the Indonesian military regime grew, business lobbied to prevent any effective action being taken by the government, calling instead for verbal pressure only.

Canadian companies lobbied hard for “business as usual” with Indonesia in the month after the massacre, the archival record indicates. There are many more letters on the Canadian government’s East Timor file from companies than is normal on foreign policy files. A few examples from November and December 1991 follow.

Power generation company Babcock and Wilcox wrote to Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney, who had just declared Canada would do more on human rights. Saying they were expecting nearly a billion US dollars in business in the coming year, the company pleased for the government to do nothing that could harm these anticipated profits. The letter: babcock-1991-11-28.

That letter led to a stiff note from the Ontario International Corporation to the Canadian government’s Department of International Trade. The OIC was an agency of the government of Ontario, Canada’s largest province and home to Babcock and the largest number of corporate head offices in Canada. At the time, Ontario was governed by the New Democratic Party led by Premier Bob Rae. The OIC letter said that any reduction of Canadian aid would cause Indonesia to “invoke punitive counter measures which will severely threaten Canada’s (in large part, Ontario’s) commercial interests.” OIC letter: oic-1991-12-09

The Canadian ambassador to Indonesia invited Canadian business representatives in Jakarta to breakfast at her residence, to brief them on Canada’s plans to review aid to Indonesia as a means of human rights pressure over East Timor. This drew lobbying letters from the associations and representatives of Canadian companies operating in Indonesia. “If Canada chooses to be one of the first countries to cut off aid to Indonesia [it] will set back Canada’s position in Indonesia [and] have very serious economic consequences on Canadian companies,” wrote the Canadian Investment Advisor in Indonesia. (This letter is dated December 7, the 16th anniversary of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor.) The Advisor’s letter: investment-advisor-1991-12-07

The Canadian Business Association in Jakarta sent a similar letter to Brian Mulroney. If Canada suspended aid without waiting for the findings of an internal Indonesian government inquiry into the Santa Cruz massacre, the Association wrote, “then Canada is guilty of meddling in the internal affairs of this country.” This was an odd conclusion, given that very few countries recognized Indonesia’s annexation of East Timor (certainly the United Nations did not). It was odder still in arguing that reducing or even reviewing Canadian aid programmes was a function of Indonesian sovereignty. The association argued that Canadian business in Indonesia was booming and that helped to advance human rights, and asked Ottawa to do nothing until the Indonesian internal inquiry was complete. CBA letter: cba-1991-12-06

Meanwhile in Ottawa, foreign minister Barbara McDougall met with the Canadian Exporters Association, the umbrella group for Canadian companies selling products to other countries. The influential CEA repeated its stance that political pressure for human rights overseas not interfere with Canadian trade. Nothing should be done to harm the “innocent” in Indonesia -a  group within which the CEA included Canadian companies there. Cutting Canadian aid to Indonesia, the CEA said, “would irreparably damage Canada’s long term dedicated and committed efforts to penetrate Indonesian-ASEAN markets.” In other words, for the CEA promoting human rights was fine, but protecting Canadian trade was more important. CEA letter: cea-1991-12-06

Another Canadian company, CAL, joined the lobby with letters to the ministers of foreign affairs, international trade, and international development. CAL expressed support for the idea of human rights but said cutting aid would risk $500-million of business the company expected in Indonesia in the coming five years. Instead, it called for a round table conversation among Canadians, with no concrete action taken for the moment. CAL letter: cal-1991-12-06

As the Canadian government prepared to review its aid programme to Indonesia, Canadian business interests mobilized to lobby against this plan. They had no objection to verbal expressions of concern to the Indonesian government, but they wanted to make sure that the Canadian government did not reduce its aid to Indonesia, for fear this would affect potential profit.

It would be surprising if the same was not happening in other Western countries with business interests in Indonesia. At the time, activists claimed that Western governments were putting trade ahead of human rights. A slice of the Canadian archival records, for one month in 1991, shows that yes, business was certainly lobbying hard to prevent strong pressure on Indonesia, and using arguments about profit to make their case.

25 years since the Santa Cruz massacre

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Monument to Sebastiao Gomes, killed in 1991, Dili, Timor-Leste (2015 photo)

This sentence has been written a thousand times: On 12 November 1991, Indonesian soldiers opened fire on unarmed protesters at the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili, East Timor, killing more than 250 people and injuring many more. The massacre was neither the first nor the last in the period of Indonesian military occupation, which lasted from 1975 to 1999, but one thing was different: it was the first time international journalists were present as witnesses, the first time a massacre in East Timor was captured on film, the first time that foreign citizens were among those killed and beaten. The film footage screened around the world, leading to a wave of outrage and activism. The fuller story has been told many times – Clinton Fernandes’ Companion to East Timor being one of the most accessible.

25 years later, East Timor is independent as the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste (first declared days before the Indonesian invasion in 1975). In the final days of Indonesian rule, some outside governments started to support Timorese self-determination (Canada did so in 1998, for instance).

At the time of the Santa Cruz massacre, however, those governments did not. Documentary evidence continues to emerge and much is still hidden. But what there is shows that Western governments knew very well what had happened; that it was a cold-blooded act of revenge (in the words of one US State department official days later, speaking to a Canadian counterpart) by Indonesian soldiers; and that many more were killed than the Indonesian government would admit. Some outside governments raised concerns with the Indonesian government, but none shifted to support the Timorese right to self-determination. In the days following the Santa Cruz massacre, only one G7 country – Canada – suspended any aid. Denmark and the Netherlands were the only other Western countries to link aid to human rights. No country linked trade or went further than raising concerns on human rights grounds.

As documents continue to emerge, I share here two new documents from the days immediately after the Santa Cruz massacre, from Canadian government archives. The first is an initial report on what happened that day, from the Canadian embassy in Jakarta. The story was much worse than had been thought, the embassy reported. The army’s story was false, people in Timor were “terrified,” and it seemed that army officers had decided deliberately to shoot protesters in cold blood. The document indicates that Western governments knew, almost immediately, that the massacre was deliberate and that the Indonesian army was being dishonest.

Canadian embassy report on Santa Cruz massacre, dated 14 Nov. 1991: cej-massacre-report-1991-11-14

Despite this knowledge, few Western governments planned anything more than verbal protest to the Indonesian government. A second report from the Canadian embassy one week after the massacre indicates that no Western embassy in Jakarta had received any instructions to take any concrete action, other than words of concern. After a meeting of 12 Western and ASEAN embassy political counsellors, “general impression was business as usual.” Only Canada had decided to review its aid to Indonesia. Only 4 of the 12 countries (Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States) had made official protests over the massacre. No country had altered plans for official visits to Indonesia or East Timor, including military visits.

Canadian embassy report on meeting of embassy political counsellors, Jakarta, dated 20 Nov. 1991: cej-embassies-meeting-report-1991-10-20

International support for Timorese self-determination began to increase after the Santa Cruz massacre,  but the inclination of most governments in the days that immediately followed the massacre was, in the words of the Canadian embassy in Jakarta, to carry on with “business as usual.” It is only as Timorese resistance continued and public protest in the Western countries mounted that any Western government started to look at taking action any stronger than words.

1965 killings in Indonesia: evidence from Canadian documents

Originally published by the East Timor and Indonesia Action Network at http://etanaction.blogspot.ca/  as “1965: Evidence from Canadian documents” by David Webster

At a time when the Indonesian government seems to be clamping down on discussion of the mass killings of 1965, it’s more important than ever to share documentary evidence about the wave of violence that swept Indonesia 50 years ago and brought the Suharto military dictatorship to power.

The events of 1965 are not just an Indonesian story. In the words of a recent book co-edited by Indonesian scholar Baskara Wardaya SJ and international scholar Bernd Schaefer: “So far the international dimension of those events is hardly explored. Although they were domestic by execution, they were also firmly embedded into the global Cold War.”

Fifty years ago an army-led campaign of brutality targeted hundreds of thousands of Indonesians accused of being left-wingers in sympathy with the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). The killings started with a coup and counter-coup, and were encouraged by the US embassy’s provision of names to the army. As American government documents published in 2001 reveal, the Johnson administration had severed most American ties to President Sukarno’s government, preferring to work with the Indonesian army.

The true extent of American involvement in the Indonesian regime change and mass killings of 1965 is a story still to be written. Increasingly, there seems to be evidence that those once accused of being “conspiracy theorists” were right on many scores. Peter Dale Scott, a former Canadian diplomat who became a professor of English in California, is one of the most prominent of those figures, and has recently written a retrospective on his seminal article on US complicity in the events of 1965, forty years after its first publication.

Many State Department documents have been released. But many more remain hidden. American government documents are normally declassified on a fixed cycle and the key documents published in the series Foreign Relations of the United States. When the time came to release the FRUS volume dealing with Indonesia in 1965, the government stalled on releasing of the volume.

That’s why ETAN/US has launched a campaign for a full declassification of all the United States government documents and a US government acknowledgement of the American role in aiding and abetting the 1965 killings.

In the face of this withholding of information, it may be worth checking the files of more distant and less involved governments. Below I share some documents declassified by the Library and Archives Canada, part of the files of Canada’s Department of External Affairs. They reveal that Western governments had been aware of coup planning by the Indonesian army months before the actual coup; that Western governments did not initially believe the PKI was involved, but encouraged the army to attack the PKI regardless; that Canada’s government was one of those that did nothing to deter the mass killings – even with an estimate by the Indonesian ambassador in early 1966 that half a million people were already dead; and that the restoration of foreign aid to the new military regime of General Suharto was designed to anchor Indonesia into the Western side in the Cold War rather than aiming at humanitarian relief. Canada was a minor but well-informed player. Like other Western governments, it was pleased to see the Indonesian army take power, and indifferent to the enormous death toll that aided that path to power.

Many accounts depict the coup attempt of October 1, 1965, as a surprise that caught Western governments unaware. But in fact, coup talk had been around for some time. In June 1965, for instance, the prime minister of Malaysia informed diplomats from Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand that that Indonesia’s ambassador, a noted anti-communist, had told him that the army planned to get Sukarno out of the country and have him held hostage while it destroyed the PKI. PM Tunku Abdul Rahman said his information was that the Indonesian army “had decided time had come for drastic action to save country from Communist take-over. Army leaders were plotting to get Soekarno out of country and to hold him ‘if necessary at pistol point’ while army suppressed Communists and established pro-Western Govt.” The Tunku thought that the story might be fabricated, but also suspected the hand of the United States behind the army’s alleged plans.

2.KL 380.PDF

When, as September turned to October, soldiers led by Lt.-Col. Untung struck at the army command, capturing and killing top generals, General Suharto was quick to blame the PKI. Army-orchestrated massacres began soon after. The evidence shows that the “Old Commonwealth countries” put little faith in the claim that Untung’s coup was masterminded by the PKI. “As far as Brits could learn,” a Canadian diplomat in London wrote after meeting the responsible official at the Foreign Office, “Untung himself was not Communist and there was no firm evidence that Sep. 30 movement was inspired by Communists.” The British official reportedly told his Canadian counterpart: “Although it was tempting to believe that army would take advantage of present opportunity as excuse to deliver really crushing blow to Communists, unfortunately there were signs already that this was not likely to happen…” The hopes of the British Foreign Office, in other words, lay parallel to those of the US State department as already revealed in US documents – that the army would seize the chance to destroy the PKI. Their fears were that the army lacked the resolve or the capacity to carry out this task.

5.London 3971.PDF

In information-gathering about the coup, Canada’s mission in Tokyo similarly learned that the Japanese government assessment was also that there was no PKI involvement. “There was no evidence of sufficient prior planning to indicate organized effort by PKI,” a report stated. In a subsequent report, Japanese officials expressed a “low opinion of [the Indonesian army’s] admin[istrative] capacity and honesty” and predicted that they thought the army would do a poor job of governing Indonesia.

8. Tokyo 697ff.PDF

Increasingly in the final months of 1965, the army command took the reins of government and encouraged violence against PKI members and others. By January 1966, the army-dominated government in Jakarta was ready to ask for foreign aid. The Canadian response to an Indonesian request to resume aid, which Canada had ended in 1964, was cautious to a fault. Ottawa planned to consult its major allies before acting, but noted that aid “might provide a means by which Indonesia could be drawn back into corporate international life.” Short-term relief, delivered ideally through the United Nations and its specialized agencies, might help ensure that the new regime in Jakarta would be pro-Western.

22.Y-3.PDF

What is striking in Canadian embassy reporting from Jakarta in the last months of 1965 and the early months of 1966 is the lack of attention to killings engulfing parts of the country. One embassy report opened with a declaration that the major challenges in Indonesian domestic affairs were led by high prices and inflation. Ironically, it took the Indonesian ambassador to Canada to put an estimate of the death toll of record. In his last call in Ottawa before being recalled to Jakarta, Ambassador L.N. Palar, speaking with “great frankness,” said that half a million people might have been killed by January 1966. Palar was one of the most respected members of Indonesia’s diplomatic corps – he had led the insurgent Indonesian independence delegation at the UN in the 1940s and then Indonesia’s UN delegation and been ambassador in Washington. His views, therefore, carried weight. His estimate was that the official estimate of 87,000 dead “was on the conservative side; speaking personally he would not be surprised if the tally came closer to 500,000.”

27.Y-65.PDF

This death toll did not alter Canadian views. Indeed, the Canadian ambassador in Jakarta, like US colleagues, lamented the “passivity of [the] generals” in the face of President Sukarno’s efforts to remain in office. Canada, like its allies, hoped that the army would be more ruthless and seize power sooner rather than later.

31.Jakarta 33ff.PDF

Days later, Indonesian generals forced Sukarno to sign the “11 March 1966 order” in which he handed real power to General Suharto. A representative was dispatched to stress to the British ambassador that the transfer of power was “gentlemanly” rather than brutal, and that “it would greatly help the Generals if this view could be taken abroad, rather than a renewed impression of lawless violence.” Britain’s man in Jakarta duly made that recommendation.

33.Gilchrist 455.PDF

In sum, the Canadian documents add to the weight of evidence that 1965 was an international story, as well as an Indonesian tragedy. Western governments were not surprised by events. They did not look on passively – instead, they encouraged the army to finish off its PKI rivals. They carefully used levers such as diplomatic pressure and foreign aid to support the result they desired: a military regime in Indonesia. And if that meant thousands killed, this was not bad news to the West, but simply the cost of bringing about the intended end of a pro-Western, army-governed Indonesia.

Eyeing the Indies: Canada-Indonesia relations, 1945-99

“Can you boil down your book to 7,500 words?” A question every author likes to hear.

When asked to do so for a textbook on Modern Canada, though, I tried. It summarizes the main points of my book Fire and the Full Moon: Canada and Indonesia in a Decolonizing World. And I had the chance to add back in some material that was cut from Fire and the Full Moon.

Here’s the opener; click through at the end to read the whole article (15 pp).

WHEN IN 1958 Theodore Newton became Canada’s second ambassador to Indonesia, his reaction summed up his new station’s peripheral place in Canadians foreign relations:

“Indonesia? The other side of the world! Visions of watery islands, brown hordes struggling to assert themselves, equatorial jungles, smoking volcanoes, gorillas and other bizarre forms of life flashed through my mind…. The die was cast, but my ignorance of my future parish was colossal and what little knowledge I possessed of it was bookish and remote.”

Indonesia mattered: it was the fifth most populous country in the world, the largest Muslim-majority country, and a trailblazer of non-alignment. Yet as Newton noted, even the capital city of Jakarta was a ‘confusing South Seas metropolis,’ pioneer territory for Canadian diplomats.

Canadian involvement with Indonesia began when Canada’s Security Council mission played a significant role in the UN-brokered peace settlement that saw the Netherlands accept the independence of its Indonesian colonies in 1949. The two countries exchanged embassies in 1953 and Canadian development aid commenced in the 1950s. Cordial if low-key relations continued until 1963, when the remaining British colonies in the region joined the Federation of Malaya to form a new independent Malaysia. This angered President Sukarno, who embarked on a ‘confrontation’ with the new Commonwealth member state.  The Canadian government lent strong support, even including some military aid, to Malaysia, and suspended aid to Indonesia. It welcomed the military coup that toppled Sukarno in 1965-66 and began to seek closer trade and aid ties with the authoritarian ‘New Order’ regime headed by General Suharto. Ottawa made Indonesia a ‘country of concentration’ for development aid in 1970; Indonesia rose as high as second among bilateral aid recipients in the years that followed. Canadian governments increasingly cultivated closer economic relations. Human rights, by contrast, were not a major factor. Only after the fall of Suharto in 1998 did any Canadian government press very hard on rights issues, giving support to the 1999 decolonization of East Timor. Human rights were again been subordinated to economic interests in Canadian policy towards the democratizing governments of Indonesia in the first decade of the twenty-first century.

For most of this period, Indonesia was important globally, but peripheral to Canadian policymakers’ perceptions of their country’s national interest. Their mental maps, their ways of picturing the world, placed the North Atlantic at the centre of the zone of ‘civilization,’ as Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent called it, with most of the world as periphery. This was the natural result of their upbringing in a Canada that was very much part of the British Empire. Lester Pearson considered that Canada could be most effective as ‘honest broker’ in areas on the periphery of cold war clashes. Examining a relationship peripheral to the imagined interests of Canadian governments permits a clearer look at the themes of Canadian foreign policy. The idea that Canada played the role of an idealistic ‘middle power’ has been debunked thoroughly by historians who have identified the importance of alliance politics. If there was indeed a strain of idealistic mediation running through Canadian foreign policy, it might be expected to be more visible in areas at the edge of the cold war, as Pearson suggested. In Indonesia – a land almost impossibly distant to many in Ottawa – it was not. Part of the reason was that Asia and the rest of the less developed world were seen as peripheral. Racialized perceptions underpinned and reinforced mental maps.

Many Canadians have spelled out their own diplomatic self-image of Canada as benevolent peacemaker and humanitarian internationalist power with respect to relations with the global South. In a 1960 Dominion Day speech delivered on Radio Indonesia, Newton offered as clear a statement of the Canadian sense of mission as any: ‘Canada is then more and more taking a world role in the interests of peace, in the development and the protection of the under-privileged, and in the fight against hunger, poverty and injustice… We aim to be considered honest brokers in world affairs. We wish to help the less developed and the less fortunate nations of the world toward a fuller life.’  A case study of Canadian policy towards Indonesia, however, shows that policymakers made decisions about Indonesia in ways that would serve the interests of Canada’s alliances and multilateral associations – the Commonwealth and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization above all. Over time, it increasingly meant serving the interests of Canadian capital by promoting trade and investment.

Eyeing the Indies full text.

Memory, truth and reconciliation in Southeast Asia

This fall’s major project is a workshop on Memory, Truth and Reconciliation in Southeast Asia, looking at conflict and conflict resolution in historical perspective in Timor-Leste (East Timor), Indonesia, and (West) Papua. The draft schedule is now posted. Undergraduate researchers at Bishop’s University have posted some valuable background material too, including an analysis of media coverage of the residential schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission here in Canada and an overview of past truth commissions in the Asia Pacific region for comparative purposes. The workshop aims to produce two products by combining academic and advocacy perspectives: a policy brief for the Canadian government and a book based on presentations made in Ottawa and other contributions from people who are not able to come.

Indonesia’s New Frontier: the Kennedy administration and the Indonesian annexation of West Papua

jfk-doll_convertedUnited States presidential elections still have the power to make some people wistful for the days when presidents got some respect. Barack Obama entered office on a wave of “hope” that was felt as much globally as within the United States itself. No president has been so revered globally since John F. Kennedy.

Kennedy is hailed for a firm hand in foreign policy, a willingness to change course and move towards peace where warranted, and nimble “crisis diplomacy.” One apparent success came in Kennedy administration mediation of the Indonesia-Netherlands dispute over control of West Papua (then known as West New Guinea, and later renamed Irian Jaya by its Indonesian rulers). Although the administration’s mediation efforts leading to Indonesian control of the colony are generally hailed as a success, they failed to address the roots of the conflict, which continues today.

Kennedy’s intervention arguably prevented an immediate explosion, but it did so at the cost of forty years of instability. If it prevented an immediate war, it permitted a simmering low-intensity war that cost thousands of lives. Here, as in so many of Kennedy’s initiatives, the New Frontiersmen concentrated on short-term crisis management. Their failure to consider local aspirations – a failure rooted in inability to see the “primitive” dark-skinned Papuans as legitimate international actors – created the conditions for an ongoing insurgency. Histories of the dispute have only been able to see it as a Kennedy success because they, too, have ignored the Papuans themselves

The Netherlands had retained West New Guinea as a colony when it recognized Indonesian independence in 1949; Indonesia demanded the territory be “returned to the fold of the motherland” and threatened an irredentist war. By pressuring both sides into an American-authored agreement, the Kennedy administration felt it had managed to avoid a Dutch-Indonesian clash, which would have benefited only the Soviet Union, and also hoped to maintain stability in Southeast Asia at a time when it was increasing American commitments in the region.

American involvement in the dispute ignored the local population entirely. Yet West New Guinea remains in dispute between the Indonesian government and a nationalist movement among the indigenous Papuan population, a conflict rooted in the aborted decolonization process. Apart from the removal of Dutch colonial rule, the dispute today remains similar to that in the years 1960–1962: should the territory be part of Indonesia, or an independent country? Kennedy’s intervention arguably prevented an immediate explosion, but it did so at the cost of forty years of instability. If it prevented an immediate war, it permitted a simmering low-intensity war that cost thousands of lives.

Fifty years after the 1955 Bandung Conference of 29 Asian and African governments, considered to be the birth of the “Third World,” the Indonesian government celebrated the anniversary of its first major international conference. Papuan nationalists delivered a letter to most foreign embassies in the Indonesian capital, calling their land’s struggle an issue of unresolved colonialism. There are regular Papuan suggestions that the US role in the Indonesian annexation of West Papua implies a responsibility for the outcome, half a century later.

In the attached article, originally published in the journal Diplomatic History in 2009, I explore the conflict from U.S., Indonesian and indigenous standpoints, and address background influences on Kennedy administration policy. These include the influence of mental maps derived from the cold war and colonial anthropology, perceptions of race that equated the inhabitants of West New Guinea with ideas of stone age primitivism, gendered perceptions that privileged vigorous action and crisis management, and modernization theory that defined stages and places of development.

David Webster, “Regimes in Motion: The Kennedy Administration and Indonesia’s New Frontier, 1960-1962,” Diplomatic History 33 no. 1 (January 2009): 92-123.