Dag Hammarskjöld succeeded the Norwegian Tryggve Lie as UN Secretary-General in 1953, in the middle of a burning Korean war. During his eight years as Secretary General, Hammarskjöld proved to be an independent and courageous UN chief who stood up for decolonization and the right of geopolitically weaker nations to a voice in the global space. Photo: AP / TT

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The West Papua conflict — key to Dag Hammarskjöld’s death?

Although then-UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld’s fatal plane crash occurred in the heart of Africa, amidst a bloody conflict in the newly independent republic of Congo—the motives behind a potential sabotage of the DC-6 aircraft, which resulted in 16 people’s death, might be found elsewhere. Where Southeast Asia ends, and Oceania begins.

In the early 1960s still a mineral-rich Dutch colony, soon to absorbed by Indonesia. West New Guinea’s fate could have turned out entirely different, had Dag Hammarskjöld’s been given the chance to launch his decolonization project. A forthcoming plan, according former associates of the Secretary-General.

By Klas Lundström

Did Dag Hammarskjöld—then Secretary-General at United Nations—plan to launch a decolonization process in West New Guinea, then a Dutch colony, at the time of his death in Northern Rhodesia? The answer is yes, according to Greg Poulgrain, a lecturer of Indonesian History and Politics, and Southeast Asian History with the University of Southern Queensland and the University of the Sunshine Coast, and author of “JFK vs. Allen Dulles: Battleground Indonesia” (to be released on November 17).

“Dag Hammarskjold was assassinated in September 1961 shortly before he intended to make an historic announcement at the United Nations General Assembly,” he says to Global Magazine.

Dag Hammarskjöld died sometime between September 17 and 18, 1961, along with fifteen others onboard a DC-6 aircraft, which crashed in Northern Rhodesia—modern-day Zambia—during the UN Secretary-General’s attempt to mediate in a secessionist dispute in the Congo.

Hammarskjöld and JFK working in tandem

At the other side of mediating in the heart of Africa, Hammarskjöld’s plan—with then-US president John F. Kennedy’s private support—was to announce a UN intervention in the dispute between the Netherlands and Indonesia over the sovereignty of the western half of New Guinea shortly after his homecoming to New York.

“This decade-long dispute had become a Cold War priority just before President Kennedy’s inauguration because of a massive arms-deal between Moscow and Jakarta,” Greg Poulgrain explains. “JFK had the invidious choice of supporting the colonial presence of the Dutch in West New Guinea against newly-independent Indonesia, now supported by the Sino-Soviet bloc.”

JFK thus secretly consulted with the UN Secretary-General in Waldorf Astoria on April 28, 1961.

“The people of West New Guinea were ideal recipients for the UN scheme called OPEX,” says Poulgrain. “UN experts would participate in the government of a newly-independent country for six years to help establish a modern state and economy.”

Dag Hammarskjold’s plan was to reject both the Dutch and Indonesian claimants to sovereignty of West New Guinea, instead paving the way for an independent nation of West Papua with the assistance of the OPEX scheme—introduced between 1958 and 1959, and at the time of Hammarskjöld’s death already an implemented scheme in various countries, planting hundreds of UN personnel as helping hands to newly independent nations, struggling to find their feet and political economic independence in an ongoing Cold War.

Dag Hammarskjöld was killed along with all 15 others on board the DC-6 that was to take the UN Secretary-General to Ndola, in what was then Northern Rhodesia, for peace talks in the Congo war. For almost 60 years, theories of assassination have figured – one of which concerns Hammarskjöld’s sketches for a UN-led decolonization in Western New Guinea, now West Papua. Photo: AP / TT

Decolonization high up on the agenda

During Dag Hammarskjöld’s eight years as UN Secretary-General, spanning between 1953 and 1961, the issue of decolonization was high up on the agenda.

“Dag Hammarskjöld showed a completely different independence than anyone might have dreamed of, and he brought into account not only what European powers and what America would think about things—but also what small, seemingly insignificant countries around the world might have to offer,” Sture Linnér, head of the UN’s civilian activities in Congo between 1960 and 1961, and a close friend of Dag Hammarskjöld, said in “P3 Documentary: The Congo Crisis.”

In his book “Dag Hammarskjöld, the United Nations and the Decolonization of Africa,” Henning Melber—Senior Adviser and Director Emeritus at Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, based in Uppsala, Sweden—underlines the image of Hammarskjöld as a staunch supporter of geopolitically vulnerable nations’ right to a voice—and self-determination. An attitude that consequently turned Hammarskjöld into a potential enemy in the eyes of the world’s leading political and financial superpowers.

On the other hand, Henning Melber has never read any document that proves or even in which Hammarskjöld mentions a decolonization scheme of West New Guinea. Something that, on the other, doesn’t surprise him that much.

“Dag Hammarskjöld’s decolonization position is completely in line with Greg Poulgrain’s claims about far-reaching plans for West Papuan independence. I’m not at all surprised that there are no papers or quotes about West Papua, though,” Henning Melber says.

“On the point of getting something done”

As with numerous other dealings, which involve the still unknown reasons for the plane crash in Northern Rhodesia in 1961, closed doors are often followed by clearings into new paths in the case of Dag Hammarskjöld’s political legacy. The day after UN Secretary-General’s death was announced to the world, the former American president Harry Truman said the Hammarskjöld “was on the point of getting something done when they killed him.”

“Notice,” Truman underlined, “that I said: ‘When they killed him.’”

Although, the ex-President never disclosed any further details or further dug into where this information might have come from or who “they” might have been.

“We don’t know what Truman meant, maybe Katanga and the peace talks in Congo, or something completely different. But the main thing is that Truman emphasized that Hammarskjöld was on the trail of something, and that he challenged prevailing power structures,” says Henning Melber.

What is also clear is the following developments in West New Guinea. What could—at the helms of Dag Hammarskjöld—might have been an UN-led decolonization process and West Papuan independence transformed into something completely different; albeit, still under the watchful eye of the UN.

“According to the New York Agreement in 1962 by which Indonesia replaced the Dutch in New Guinea, a UN multi-national force of 1500 troops was supposed to ‘mediate’ between the departing Dutch and incoming Indonesia army troops,” says Greg Poulgrain. “Instead, the UN force, not multi-national at all, was comprised of Pakistani troops. They even prayed together with the Indonesian troops. When the killing of Papuans started, the UN ‘multi-national force’ turned a blind eye.”

The result of a clear-cut “under the table” deal to which there are no official documents.

Dag Hammarskjöld and breakaway province Katanga president Moise Tshombe shake hands after negotiations in Elisabethville. When it comes to theories about a possible assassination attempt on the plane in which Hammarskjöld was injured, many have remained on the African continent and in the Cold War great power game about the natural resources of the former colonies. Another theory – in line with Hammarskjöld’s anti-colonial commitment and support for indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination around the world – turns its attention to the junction between Southeast Asia and Oceania. And today’s West Papua, a disputed province in Indonesia. Photo: AP / TT

“It was arranged through a Pakistani government minister, Ali Bogra, who previously had served in Washington. This deal was a crucial first step in establishing a template for suppression of Papuan public expression and the high hopes they held for self-determination were quashed immediately. This is why there was no official documentation and the involvement of Ali Bogra must be regarded with suspicion. In early 1963, he visited New York and died mysteriously in the street, supposedly from a heart attack. His death ensured – it comes as no surprise – that details of the ‘under the table’ deal would never be revealed,” Poulgrain says.

Another suspicious—to others, perhaps convenient—death linked to the Indonesian take-over of West New Guinea regards G. Zijlstra, head of the Dutch Geological Foundation, who was permitted to remain under UN auspices in order to conduct exploration with a view to helping a future West Papuan state with viable mining opportunities.

“He was in the Netherlands in December 1962 and planning to return to West New Guinea in 1963, by then under Indonesian control. He intended to conduct exploration on the gold deposit, whose actual gold concentration had been carefully concealed, by then CIA director Allen Dulles and a clique of Dutch officials, so that it played no part in the sovereignty dispute,” Greg Poulgrain says.

On November 23, 1962, Zijlstra died in a car crash, crushed to death by a large truck on a single-lane road, returning from a Christmas party. After that, the Dutch Geological Foundation was disbanded.

Coup in Indonesia, presidential murder in the U.S.

Elsewhere, Allen Dulles, with deep-sinking interests in West New Guinea’s mineral riches, directed the Indonesian military to a coup against the republic’s first President Sukarno in 1965—paving the way for American interests in Indonesia, and especially in West New Guinea. A political intervention which led to the utter destruction of the Indonesian Communist Party, PKI, and the murder of between 500,000 and one million lives between 1965 and 1966—a genocide still to this day largely unknown by the general public worldwide, and still a hush-hush topic in Indonesia.

“What is often sorely lacking, is an appreciation of the importance of the event or how fundamental the violence was to achieving U.S. goals at the time. Compared with the Vietnam War or a subsequent series of right-wing coups in Latin America, Indonesia 1965 is virtually unknown,” reports Vincent Bevins, in The Atlantic.

Neither John F. Kennedy nor Dag Hammarskjold were aware of Allen Dulles’ strategy for a regime-change in Indonesia when they had lunch at Waldorf Astoria on 28 April 1961. In fact—as Greg Poulgrain displays in his imminent book—Dulles’ plans for an Indonesian annexation of West New Guinea was, therefore, threatened, not only by Dag Hammarskjöld—but also by the US president who two days prior to his murder in Dallas, Texas, had accepted an invitation to Indonesia in 1964.

In the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, John F. Kennedy would have outlined Indonesian–American relations along with Sukarno. According to Greg Poulgrain’s extensive research both leaders were determent to stop the escalating Indonesia–Malaysia confrontation, where decolonization issues over nearby British territories laid on the table.

“Kennedy’s planned visit would have secured Sukarno as president for life, but Dulles covertly wanted to replace Sukarno with a military regime. There were multiple assassination attempts but all failed,” Poulgrain says.

Kennedy, though, never made it to Indonesia in 1964. Neither did he make it back to Washington from Dallas. Instead he was assassinated by what was soon described as the work of a lone gunman named Lee Harvey Oswald—all according to the conclusions of the Warren Commission; in which the then-CIA director Allen Dulles served, despite having been fired by Kennedy in 1961.

“JFK forced him out of office after the ‘Bay of Pigs,’ but Dulles’ power base remained vast,” says Greg Poulgrain.

President-elect John F. Kennedy and United Nations secretary-general Dag Hammarskjold are shown at their conference in Kennedyâäôs suite at the hotel Carlyle in New York City, Dec. 7, 1960. Photo: AP Photo

“Dig deeper into this”

If the decolonization plan of West New Guinea, outlined in discretion by Kennedy and Hammarskjöld, was the motive behind the latter’s death still remains to be seen. George Ivan Smith—an Australian diplomat who befriended and assisted Dag Hammarskjöld as a UN Secretary-General—confirmed in conversations with Poulgrain that Hammarskjöld had plans to intervene in the New Guinea sovereignty dispute.

“He regarded it as more important than the issue Dag Hammarskjöld was facing in the Congo and, doubtless, Allen Dulles too regarded it as more important. The documents which Bishop Tutu brought to light showed Allen Dulles was involved in ‘Operation Celeste’, the plan to assassinate the Secretary-General,” says Greg Poulgrain.

The fact that—Poulgrain adds­—Dag Hammarskjöld died in the Congo has left subsequent investigations with the Congo as the focus for a possible motive.

“However, once we gain a better understanding of how Allen Dulles operated, with a global perspective, the threatened intervention by Dag Hammarskjöld in the New Guinea sovereignty dispute looms large as a motive for Dulles,” says Greg Poulgrain.

In January 2020, the UN General Assembly emphasized its intentions to put an end to the circumstances surrounding the plane crash in Northern Rhodesia on the night between 17 and 18 September 1961. A new 95-page report suggests that the DC-6 was downed, but whether a new UN-led inquiry will include the West Papua issue or not is still unknown.

“The West Papua theory is not as flimsy as you first might think,” says Henning Melber. “It should be taken seriously, and we should have historians to dig deeper into the archives, to see if there’s something there that confirms it.”

Katanga President Moise Tshombe placed a wreath on the coffin of United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold in a church in Ndola, Northern Rhodesia on Sept. 20, 1961. Hammarskjold died in a plane crash near Ndola while enroute to Congo cease-fire talks. Photo: AP Photo

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