Act of Free Choice in West Papua: The Background, The Process, and The Result

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The act of Free Choice (Pepera or Penentuan Pendapat Rakyat) was held in 1969, from July to August. In this democratic referendum, 1,026 men and women who live in West Papua were asked to decide an important political or social question. The question in this regard discussed the future of West Papua status following the end of colonialism in Indonesia and the country’s Declaration of Independence in 1945.

Two decades after Indonesia’s independence was admitted and acknowledged by the Dutch government as well as by the United Nations, the status of West Papua had not reached the final decision. The official statement of Indonesia’s easternmost island remained a question whether it will be included as the part of Indonesian Republic or will be ruled under the Dutch governmental system.

The government of Indonesia, of course, wanted to include the island in the republic since Papua and its populations have become a part of Indonesia for a very long time, even before the republic is formed. Moreover, reclaiming West Papua was also an effort to fully free the island from the Dutch colonization. For that reason, with the aim of creating a democratic decision in West Papua, Act of Free Choice was held.

The Background on Act of Free Choice

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The Act of Free Choice is actually linked to several democratic conferences regarding Indonesia’s sovereignty power. Starting from 1949, in the Dutch-Indonesian Round Table Conference, the status of West Papua after the Indonesian Declaration of Independence was discussed.

Although the Dutch government admitted that Indonesia had declared its independence, West Papua was not automatically included as a part of the republic. Instead, according to the Dutch government, the status of West Papua will be re-discussed in a later time, one year after the Round Table Conference.

However, after a year had passed, West Papua remained a debatable area between the government of the Netherland and Indonesia. This situation resulted in a number of movements and military aggressions regarding the reclaim of West Papua from the Dutch. In 1962, involving the United Nations, New York Agreement was held.

One of the results in New York Agreement is the establishment of United Nations Temporary Executive Authority (UNTEA), in which the Dutch temporarily transferred West Papua administration to the organization. As the representative of the United Nations, UNTEA assisted and participated in the arrangement of Act of Free Choice, according to Article XVII and Article XVIII of New York Agreement.

The later article of New York Agreement also stated that Indonesia, with the assistance of UNTEA and the United Nations Representative, will arrange the Act of Free Choice based on four primary plans. The plans include the consultation of procedures and methods, the decision of time and period when the Act of Free Choice will be held, the formulation of the questions, and the voting requirements of all adults who currently lived in West Papua. The Act of Free Choice was finally arranged from July to August 1969.

The Process of Act of Free Choice

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Eight regencies of West Papua took part in the Act of Free Choice. These include Merauke, Jayawijaya, Fakfak, Manokwari, Biak, Jayapura, Paniai, and Sorong. It involved 1,026 people that belonged to Pepera Deliberation Council, represented the whole population of West Papua.

The participants consisted of several local organizations: 400 people who represented traditional organizations, including the leaders of cultural or tribal groups; 360 people who represented regional organizations; and 266 people who were the representatives of political and social organizations.

The Act of Free Choice was organized in three stages. The first stage, held on March 24, 1969, was the process of consultation between the administrative board and the participants regarding how the movement will be held. It proceeded to the next stage, that is, the selection of Pepera Deliberation Council and Representation.

Two stages above lead to the final stage of Act of Free Choice. In this final stage, all of the participants were asked whether they want to remain as a part of the Republic of Indonesia or have their own sovereignty.

The Result

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The result clearly showed that most of the participants involving in the Act of Free Choice agreed to include West Papua as a part of the Republic of Indonesia. Ortis Sanz, the representative of the United Nations who assisted the process of this referendum, brought the result to be discussed in the United Nations General Congress.

Finally, in the General Congress that was held on November 19, 1969, the result of Act of Free Choice was acknowledged, validly and legally, by the United Nations and the world. It was cited in the Resolution of the United Nations Number 2504, stating that Indonesia successfully reclaimed West Papua.

The Act of Free Choice marked a historical path of West Papua when it turned to be an important part of Indonesian Republic. This movement is considered a fair and democratic effort to reclaim West Papua from the Dutch colonization.