Australia & Indonesia's Independence:The Transfer Of Sovereignty: Documents 1949

Speech by the Hon Alexander Downer, MP, Minister for Foreign Affairs, at the launch of the book 'Australia & Indonesia's Independence:The Transfer Of Sovereignty: Documents 1949', Borobadur Hotel, Jakarta, 9 July 1998


Next year marks fifty years since the Netherlands transferred sovereignty to the Republic of the United States of Indonesia. In the lead-up to that milestone, I am delighted to launch Australia & Indonesia's Independence: The Transfer of Sovereignty: Documents 1949.

This book, which was produced by my Department's Historical Documents Project Section, is the last of three volumes of historical documents on Australia's diplomatic policy toward Indonesia in the years 1947-1949.

Indonesia's struggle for independence during those years challenged Australia's capacity to respond positively to change in Asia. These were momentous times and the history of how the events were perceived in Australia and the way we reacted to them, is a fascinating one.

The basic story of Indonesian independence is of course well-known, even if the part Australia played in it is not as widely appreciated. After the Second World War ended, Indonesia's nationalist leaders, Sukarno and Mohammed Hatta, proclaimed the independence of the Republic of Indonesia on 17 August 1945.

But it took more than four years of diplomatic negotiation and at times bitter fighting before the Indonesian Republic finally gained its independence from the Netherlands in December 1949. On 20 July 1947, the Netherlands abandoned negotiating with the Indonesian nationalist leaders and launched a carefully planned military offensive against the Republic in Java and Sumatra.

Ten days later, Australia took a crucial diplomatic step and referred the conflict in Indonesia to the United Nations Security Council as a breach of the peace under Article 39 (Chapter VII) of the UN Charter.

The move had immediate results. Australia's action encouraged the United Kingdom and the United States, although reluctantly, to take a stance against their European ally, the Netherlands. The Security Council ordered a cease-fire on 1 August 1947 and established a Committee of Good Offices to broker a truce agreement in Indonesia and to assist the Dutch and the Indonesian Republic to reach a political agreement as a basis for Indonesian independence.

The Indonesian Republic nominated Australia to sit with the Dutch nominee, Belgium, and the United States on this Committee. Australia's representatives on the Committee, Justice Richard Kirby and Tom Critchley, did as much as they could to make the Renville Truce Agreement of January 1948 fair to the Republic. And when political negotiations bogged down after the signing of the Truce Agreement, Critchley devised a comprehensive plan to break the deadlock.

Although the Republic accepted Critchley's plan as a basis for negotiation, the Netherlands declined to do so. After again breaking off negotiations, the Dutch launched a second military offensive against the Republic in December 1948.

It is at this point that the last book of documents in our series begins. Frustrated at the rather weak international response to the second Dutch offensive, Australia participated in an Asian Conference convened by India's Prime Minister, Nehru, in New Delhi to concert regional support for the Indonesian Republic. Australian policy at the time, as it is now, was that "its security and prosperity is bound up with the security and prosperity of all Asian countries, and this depends on mutual co-operation and respect in the area". (Document 116)

The unprecedented demonstration of regional solidarity in New Delhi undoubtedly helped a majority in the Security Council to agree on 28 January 1949 to order the restoration of the imprisoned Republican Government to its capital, Yogyakarta, and for the resumption of negotiations between this Government and the Netherlands.

In response, the Dutch devised a plan, named after its originator, Louis Beel, that sought to transfer sovereignty - without first restoring the Republic - to an Indonesian federal Government which they would create and which they would indirectly control.

Australia worked actively against the Beel Plan. It sought to press the Dutch to first restore the Indonesian Republic - without which there could be no genuine negotiations for Indonesian independence - and even threatened to take the matter to the UN General Assembly. In response to international pressure, the chief Dutch negotiator in Batavia, J.H. van Roijen reached an agreement on 7 May 1949 with a Republican delegation headed by Mohammed Roem and assisted by Australia's Tom Critchley.

Under this agreement, the Republic agreed to cease hostilities against the Dutch army and the Netherlands agreed to restore the Republican Government to Yogyakarta.

On 5 July 1949, Sukarno and Hatta returned in triumph to Yogyakarta in an occasion captured on the cover photograph of our book. It was an important symbol: the first occasion on which the Dutch were obliged to give up territory they had taken and an overt recognition of the failure of their military action of December 1948.

After the Roem-Van Roijen Agreement, from August to November 1949, the Dutch convened a Round Table in The Hague conference consisting of delegations of the Netherlands, the Indonesian Republic, and the Dutch-sponsored federal Indonesian states, all assisted by the reconstituted UN Commission for Indonesia.

The task of the Conference was to negotiate the transfer of sovereignty to an Indonesian federal State. The Conference almost foundered on two issues: the status of West New Guinea and the question of the debts to be assumed by the new Indonesian State. Critchley helped to broker an agreement on both questions: first by urging the parties to leave the issue of West New Guinea to post-independence political negotiations and secondly by urging the lessening of the debts to be taken over by Indonesia. Critchley was not altogether successful: the United States settled with the Netherlands on a level of debt to be assumed by Indonesia much higher than either Critchley or the Republic thought was fair.

But the negotiations bore fruit and on 27 December 1949, the Netherlands transferred sovereignty to the Republic of the United States of Indonesia. On the same day the Australian Government led by Robert Menzies recognised the new State de jure.

On that day Australia helped to bring to fruition one of the first successes of the United Nations and of regional diplomacy: an end to the fighting in the Indonesian archipelago and the bringing into being of a new and great member of the world community.

Nearly fifty years have passed since the turbulent events documented in this book. Today, we find ourselves in a period of similarly rapid regional and global change. Against this background, Australia and Indonesia are again working in close harmony, increasingly linked by a complex web of economic, political, strategic and social interests. An important element in this partnership is the need for mutual understanding in the widest sense, including knowledge and understanding of the history of both countries.

This book and the series of which it is part makes a major contribution to meeting that need. I wholeheartedly commend it to you and have pleasure in declaring it launched.

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