Oil and politics prove fatal mix for the people of West Papua PDF Afdrukken

Genocide accusations and dire conditions call for urgent joint action.

WHEN Indonesia officially became independent of the Dutch 60 years ago this week, Australia's role as midwife was crucial. The conflict that continued for four years in the East Indies after the end of the Pacific war stopped only when America threatened to withhold post-war aid for the Netherlands. Only three-quarters of the former colony - 5400 kilometres of islands draped like emeralds around the equator - became Indonesia because the Dutch crafted a partition to keep Netherlands New Guinea (now West Papua).

Australian diplomat Thomas Critchley, who died earlier this year, intervened when this delay threatened the first breath of the new nation. It was a difficult birth and West Papua was placed in the too-hard basket, where it festered until 1963 when Indonesian rule replaced the Dutch - and it's still festering today because West Papuans have never been accepted as equals. Since its inception, this problem has been unwanted on Australia's doorstep yet both Jakarta and Canberra agree that it must be solved to safeguard good relations.

When the Dutch did not leave New Guinea in 1949, the most disgruntled was the giant Rockefeller company Standard Oil. After its first taste of the territory's potential in the mid-1930s, Standard Oil wanted unfettered access. Before 1949, there had been Dutch rule in nearby parts of Indonesia for 350 years, but not in West Papua where only 5 per cent was under Dutch control. Because it was a foreign land of black-skinned people, not all Indonesian nationalist leaders wanted to include West Papuans in their new nation.

One of the Japanese agents who helped prepare the Indonesian Proclamation of Independence explained to me why he wanted West Papua included in the new territorial extent of Indonesia.

Speaking in his house in Tokyo, Nishijima Yoshizumi told me his wartime commander, Admiral Maeda, had personal control of the West Papuan territory during the war. Near the westerly tip oil was found, and in the central range an expedition explored the copper and gold deposit. Nowadays these resources are mined by the American company Freeport Indonesia, and its Grasberg mine is the largest producing gold mine in the world.

The large Sele oil field that was rediscovered in the mid-1970s - a record for South-East Asia in barrels per day - was the same Japanese oilfield used during the war. Of course, none of this information on natural resources surfaced when the Dutch handed over Indonesia in December 1949. Nor was it mentioned before Indonesia reclaimed the territory in 1963.

The territorial dispute over West Papua between Indonesia and the Dutch was very visible, unlike the Dutch struggle with ''Big Oil'', the name given to the major petroleum companies. In the 1950s, the Dutch government was in a hurry to colonise their long-neglected West Papuan territory and hoped the Netherlands New Guinea Petroleum Company would provide much-needed revenue, but it did not. It was comprised of 60 per cent American oil interests and Royal Dutch Shell (which sided with its American counterparts), and spent the 1950s deliberately not finding any oil - because they knew precisely where it was.

After 1963 when all Dutch inhabitants left New Guinea, it was arranged for Admiral Maeda to hold a concession over the ''undiscovered'' Sele oilfield, preventing all other exploration until the political climate in West Papua was suitable under president Suharto.

Some Dutch politicians were aware of the vast potential in natural resources. One of these was Joseph Luns, Dutch foreign minister for 17 years. When I interviewed him in Brussels in the early 1980s, he was NATO secretary-general and he told me frankly he had actually suggested that America and Holland together benefit from the West Papuan territory's great potential in natural resources. But the Americans had no intention of sharing and the blunt reply came back: ''We will (benefit), as soon as Holland is out.''

President Sukarno's anti-colonial campaign against the Dutch in New Guinea was supported by both the Indonesian communist party (PKI) and the Indonesian army. Millions of dollars came ''from an American source'' to fund the army's campaign against the Dutch in New Guinea, so I was told, at different times, by two former Indonesian foreign ministers. Military dominance in West Papua began in the 1960s and documents released under freedom-of-information from the US embassy in Jakarta in 1968 refer to the possibility of genocide occurring even then.

In 1983, I was sent by the London-based Anti-Slavery International to investigate reports that infant mortality along the southern coastline (where the army was rapaciously timber-felling) was 600 per 1000. Such a figure was unprecedented, but correct. More recently, among indigenous West Papuans, the incidence of HIV/AIDS is 20 times the national average, according to a Voice of America report last December.

Indonesia and Australia, neighbours for 60 years, need to work together to address accusations of genocide in West Papua.

Democratic reform will sooner or later end the impunity of the Indonesian army, but the dire conditions in West Papua demand an immediate halt to the army's territorial command.

Dr Greg Poulgrain is a lecturer on Indonesian history at the University of the Sunshine Coast. He is the author of The Genesis of Konfrontasi: Malaysia Brunei and Indonesia 1945-1965.