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The price of Indonesian indignation

By Klaus Neumann - posted Monday, 19 June 2006

Historians are often fond of telling and retelling stories. So let me begin with a story. It was told by an Australian sub-collector of customs stationed on Thursday Island. He in turn recounted the words of a certain Alexander Toembay, a young man from the village of Sabon in the Indonesian-controlled western half of the island of New Guinea.

On 6 [January] ... we left ... and walked towards southern coast of West Irian. We built bamboo raft with palm leaf sails and sailed down Bensbach river reaching mouth on 13 January ... We sailed southeast. After four or five days reached Deliverance Island ... After one week ... left island. Wind drove us back towards West Irian and frightened. After few more days, all meat and water gone. Ate turtle eggs only. Very dry. Drank sea water in order to swallow food - turtle eggs. After further six days Gandewa’s leg had swollen up badly ... He died at 4pm. At 7am next morning we put body of Gandewa over side. Continue to drink salt water and each man have three raw eggs each day. Ears plop and all men weak. Two days later had big storm in afternoon and filled bottles with water. One week after storm we see Badu Island in distance but tide take us away. Next day ... managed to get raft ashore.

You may have guessed - correctly - that the man telling this story is a West Papuan refugee. But you could be forgiven for assuming - incorrectly - that the journey described here took place in 2006. It didn’t. Alexander Toembay and eight companions set out for Australia in January 1969 from what is now the Indonesian province of Papua but was then called West Irian.


The refugees, all of them associated with the West Papuan independence movement, told of Indonesian atrocities, including the bombing of villages. One said he witnessed two of his companions being beaten to death by Indonesian soldiers.

An Australian immigration official, who interviewed the eight survivors on Thursday Island, threatened them with deportation to Indonesia unless they agreed to be removed to Papua and New Guinea. There they applied for permits to stay in the Australian territory.

The territory administrator recommended against the granting of such permits with the argument that “it is only because of their continued anti-Indonesian attitudes, unwillingness to adapt to the regime there, that their future may be compromised”. On May 19, the responsible minister approved of the recommendation that, “The group be returned to West Irian if no arrangements are made for their transfer to the Netherlands within one month”, and that the "Indonesian Government be informed by the Embassy in Djakarta of the decision prior to their return”.

This is an unusual story. The vast majority of people who fled Indonesian-controlled Western New Guinea in the 1960s crossed into the Australian territory of Papua and New Guinea, rather than risked the journey to Australia. Between 1963 and 1973, thousands of West Papuans fled to Papua and New Guinea.

That alternative had been rejected by Toembay and his companions: “No good crossing the Papuan border because Australian and Papuan patrols have orders to send all refugees back to West Irian and people sent back to West Irian after trying to escape are put in prisons,” they told the Australians interviewing them.

Australian officials sent many West Papuans back across the border. Some were not refugees. Others were, and some of these were imprisoned or even killed after their return to West Irian. Those allowed to stay were issued with five-year permissive residence visas (the forerunners of today’s temporary protection visas, TPVs). They had to sign an undertaking not to engage in anti-Indonesian political activity. Some West Papuan permissive residents were made to live in a camp on Manus Island - as far removed from the sensitive border area as possible.


Then, the government was as much concerned about refugees using Australia as a “staging post” as it has been in recent months. In the 1960s and early 1970s, the Indonesians complained repeatedly about West Papuan exiles. They were particularly concerned about refugees like Toembay who were hoping to be able to interest their host societies in their campaign for West Papuan autonomy or independence.

Toembay told Australian officials: “I hope that Australian people give us political asylum protection and allow us to live in peace. But I also hope that people of Australia help us to get independence that was promised in the United Nations for people of West Irian.”

He was wrong: no such promise had ever been made. But the West Papuans were told that they would be able to have a say in their country’s destiny. In 1969, they were invited to take part in the so-called Act of Free Choice. It was sanctioned by the United Nations and by those countries who had supported the Indonesian stance since 1962, including the United States and Australia - but turned out to be a sham nevertheless.

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This is the text of a contribution by Klaus Neumann to the public forum Shutting the Door?, held at the University of Melbourne on June 15, 2006.

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About the Author

Dr Klaus Neumann works in the Department of History, University of Melbourne. He has held teaching and research positions in universities in Germany and Australia, and worked as an independent historian in New Zealand and Australia. Klaus has written extensively about Australian immigration and refugee policies. He is the author of the award-winning Refuge Australia: Australia's Humanitarian Record (2004).

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