Did Indonesia struck a deal with the US to get West Papua?

On November 2015 Indonesian politics was scandalised by a leaked secretly-recorded meeting between the head of the parliament and a representative from Freeport-McMoRan, a US gold and copper mining company that have a mining concession in West Papua. The meeting was related to the expiry of Freeport’s concession contract in 2021 and the head of parliament’s attempt to get some shares in the renewal of the huge contract, which was unethical not to mention illegal. It was disgraceful and it reignited the nationalistic debate whether Freeport even should be allowed to extend their concession contract beyond 2021, and instead plenty of Indonesian people believe that after decades of exploitation the mine should finally be given back to Indonesia.

Then it got me into a research mode, where I found some odd timeline about West Papua and Freeport, and discovered that “to give back” Freeport-controlled mine to Indonesia might not necessarily be an accurate expression, perhaps as misleading as to “unite back” the two Korean countries (there’s never been 1 country called Korea, only kingdoms before the peninsula was annexed by Japan).

So the timeline goes like this: Indonesia unilaterally claimed independence on 17 August 1945, while the Dutch acknowledged Indonesia’s independence from them only on 27 December 1949 but still occupies West Papua (then called Netherlands New Guinea). In 1960 Freeport geologist confirmed the Dutch discovery of a large above-ground gold and copper deposits in West Papua. On 1 December 1961 West Papua declared itself independent from the Dutch. In 1962 Indonesia began to launch a military operation to incorporate West Papua back into Indonesia (the argument goes, on 28 October 1928 Youth Declaration to fight for Indonesian independence, a youth representative from West Papua was present), however Indonesia was claiming to annex West Papua from the colonial Netherlands and not invading a recently-independent country. Then US president John F. Kennedy (JFK) interfere [with the official reason] to restore peace. And from 15 August 1962, following the New York Agreement (which was drafted by JFK’s brother Robert Kennedy whom was the special envoy for West Papua), United Nations forms United Nations Temporary Executive Authority (UNTEA) to act as a caretaker and prepare for an “Act of Free Choice” for West Papua in 1969, which is basically a referendum.

This is where it gets weird. Between 1962 and 1969 a lot of things happened: JFK was assassinated on 22 November 1963, while Indonesian president Soekarno was technically toppled in 1965 on a manipulative coup led by CIA-backed general Soeharto whom then officially became president on 12 March 1967. The 1st order of business by the new president Soeharto? He signed a concession deal with Freeport a month later on April 1967 to allow Freeport extract the gold and copper mine in West Papua, even though West Papua wasn’t officially a part of Indonesia yet. Note that a year earlier in 1966 Freeport formed Freeport Indonesia Inc, a subsidiary to negotiate a contract with the Indonesia government (not the Dutch government nor the independent West Papua government) to develop the Ertsberg mine, and the negotiation in 1967 was conducted under the guidance of Henry Kissinger (whom later joins Freeport’s board). On 5 June 1968 Robert Kennedy, like his brother before him, was assassinated. And in 1969 when the referendum was conducted, out of 815,906 population at the time only 1026 selected elders were eligible to vote, and some argued that they were under pressure to vote for joining Indonesia.

So this got me thinking, was West Papua the main reason CIA staged a coup on president Soekarno, to smooth the road for Freeport’s presence in there? And as a result, did CIA-backed president Soeharto struck a deal with the US on West Papua, where Indonesia gets the land but the US gets the natural resources underneath it? Despite the fact that West Papua has been a part of Indonesia for more than 4 decades now, it is still disconnected from the rest of the archipelago, with the news about the activities and history in West Papua are almost unknown until this day, as media access to West Papua have always been severely restricted. Even to visit West Papua, according to researcher at Human Rights Watch Andreas Harsono, an official permission would require signatures from 18 separate ministries and security agencies. The question is, what are they hiding?

Somewhere in the middle of these occurrences, the Free West Papua movement emerged, with Benny Wenda leading the movement for independence from exile in the United Kingdom. However, if history is any indication, the Free West Papua movement is arguably futile, because if ever they get their independence power will only shift from corrupt officials in Indonesia to corrupt officials in independent West Papua, while the majority of ordinary citizens remain relatively poor, deliberately under-educated and perhaps even oppressed. This is what have happened in a lot of post-colonial African countries and in countries with abundant natural resources, from Timor Leste to Guatemala to Nigeria. But if independence is not the answer, then what is? To his credit, compared to his predecessors, the new Indonesian president Jokowi has made a greater attention and effort to look after West Papua, including an effort to make the contract renegotiation with Freeport more beneficial for the local West Papuans. However, the results from these efforts remain to be seen and for now the big question remains, will they be significantly matter in the long run for the people of West Papua?

Obviously there are more questions than answers at this point, questions that are probably will never be truly answered.

The island of Papua is the 2nd largest island in the world after Greenland, and Indonesia officially owns half of it. The area covers around 40 million hectares of land (about 5 times the size of “main island” Java) with 3.5 to 4 million population live there (1.5 million of whom are native Papuans). Meanwhile, Freeport McMoRan controls 90.64% stake of Freeport Indonesia, where their current concession the Grasberg mine (multiple times bigger than the original Ertsberg mine, which was largely depleted in mid 1980s) span more than 2.5 kilometres in width, sit 4270 metres above sea level, and it is considered as the largest known deposit of gold and the 3rd largest deposit of copper in the world. It operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, with 700,000 tons of rock are moved every single day, and with 6 billion tons of industrial waste expected to be produced in total. As at the current contract, which will be expired in 2021, Freeport pays 1% loyalty on gold to the Indonesian government, and 3.5% royalty on copper. It is also worth noting that Freeport has been the largest provider of jobs, infrastructure, technology, education and services in West Papua, contributing up to 45.4% of the GDP in the Papua province.

Further readings:

John Pilger on West Papua [New Statesman / John Pilger]

The history of Netherlands New Guinea [Peter Van Der Heijden]

The story of Free West Papua movement [Open Democracy / Hugh Brody]

Documents on Indonesia’s 1969 takeover of West Papua [The National Security Archive / Edited by Brad Simpson]

JFK, Indonesia, CIA & Freeport Sulphur [The Secret Truth / lisa Pease]

West Papua: a history of exploitation [Al Jazeera English / N.A.J. Taylor]

West Papua: in need of media coverage and international intention [Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization]

The Indonesian government appoints Freeport lobbyist as presidential staff [Tempo / Inge Klara Safitri]

Papua’s time bomb [New Mandala / Yulia Indri Sari]

Freeport McMoRan’s positive economic impacts to Indonesia and enterprise development [3BL Media]

Enhancing the competitiveness of the Papua region [The Jakarta Post / Mamay Sukaesih]