By Nithin Coca
WITH increasingly regular protests and a violent crackdown by police and the military, the contested Indonesian region of West Papua is currently seeing the highest levels of agitation it has experienced in years. Against a backdrop of Indonesia’s forthcoming general elections in April, tensions are rising over long-standing human rights violations, pro-independence agitation and lack of accountability for crimes committed by security forces.
“The situation is not improving for the better, it’s getting worse,” says Ronny Kareni, an Australian-based activist of West Papuan origin. “There is a divergence between Jakarta and locals, and that is deeply rooted in the historical status of West Papua.”
On 1 December 2018, more than 500 people were arrested in cities across Indonesia for commemorating the 57th anniversary of Papuan attempts to declare independence from Dutch colonial rule. Raising the pro-independence Morning Star flag or publicly expressing support for Papuan self-determination is considered a criminal offense against the Indonesian state.
The following day, on 2 December, pro-independence militants are reported to have killed up to 31 workers on the Trans Papua Highway construction project in the Nduga region of the Papuan highlands. Although the ongoing independence conflict in West Papua has resulted in the deaths of approximately 500,000 Papuans since 1969, this was the deadliest attack by militants in recent years.
The government response has been fierce, with activists reporting that military action has forced thousands to flee their homes.
With the media and civil society prevented from independently visiting the region, these reports are difficult to verify, but international human rights organisations have made pleas for calm. “We call on all parties, the Indonesian army, police and the Free Papua guerrilla fighters, not to target civilians,” says Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher for Human Rights Watch.
West Papua, which forms about half of the island of New Guinea, was not part of Indonesia when it gained independence from the Netherlands in 1949. It was annexed in 1969 in a military-run election approved by the United Nations, in which about 1,000 hand-picked representatives were forced to vote against independence. West Papua was then ruled with the strongest of iron fists during Indonesia’s New Order era under General Suharto (1966-1998), before being granted special autonomy status in 2001 in a bid to quell the independence movement. The island’s population, estimated at around three million, are mostly Melanesian and follow either Christianity or indigenous religions, unlike the rest of Indonesia which is mostly Polynesian and Muslim.
Natural resources have played a significant role in shaping the trajectory of Papuan history. Shortly after the rigged election of 1969, Freeport McMoRan, an American mining company, began operating in the region. This marked the beginning of a long relationship which has proved prosperous for the company and the Indonesian government. However, tax revenues mostly go to the western part of Indonesia which is much more developed; West Papua, in the east of the country, is the poorest region in Indonesia and its people see few benefits from resource extraction.
Jokowi’s promises of reform
In 2014, then Jakarta Governor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo (now president of Indonesia), an outside candidate in the presidential elections with no connection to Indonesia’s elite or military, made several campaign promises to address human rights in Papua. This included addressing the ability of the military to use its own internal trial mechanism rather than civilian courts, opening up the region to the foreign media and freeing political prisoners. Papuans saw hope in Jokowi, and he won the two provinces (Papua and West Papua, formerly Papua until 2003) that make up West Papua by more than 30 percentage points each. In an election where Jokowi won nationally by only 6.3 per cent, the region provided him with some of his best results.
Even months after his inauguration, President Widodo reiterated his promises directly to Papuans after a police shooting in Paniai killed five people.
“Jokowi made bold promises in front of Papuans attending Christmas celebrations, saying that he would investigate and solve this case, and bring peace to Papua,” says Papang Hidayat, a researcher at Amnesty Indonesia.
Jokowi initially made a few attempts to improve the situation in West Papua by releasing five political prisoners in 2015 and declaring the region open to foreign journalists, for example. But his power has been limited due to the role of security forces in West Papua, including the Indonesian soldiers who have maintained their presence in the region despite the fall of Suharto’s military rule more than two decades ago. As a result, most of his promises to make reforms remain unfulfilled.
“It became clear to many people that whatever [Jokowi] says, it will not be implemented,” says Kareni. “He is only a face for democracy, but [he is] not actually in power.”
Harsono agrees: “The situation on the ground, especially the resistance from the bureaucracy, is much bigger than his presidential authority, I’m afraid.”
Attempting to address political grievances through economic development
One area in which Jokowi has been able to push forward is on development. The government is investing massively in roads, airports and agriculture, including a plan to build 1.2 million hectares of palm oil and sugar plantations.
Following decades of underdevelopment, “the government feels the need to pay more attention to Papua,” says Arie Ruhyanto, a lecturer in the Department of Politics and Government of Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. “Given the political setting, the option is limited to the non-political issues…hence, the Papua problem is always framed in the context of development issues, such as poverty and underdevelopment.”
In the end, this has only increased tensions, as many Papuans feel that development is either aimed at extracting resources or benefitting migrant workers from other parts of Indonesia. That’s one reason why the December attack by separatists was against the construction of the centrepiece of this new development plan – the 4,300 kilometre Trans-Papua Highway.
The response to the attack also highlights a major problem – that many in the Indonesian security apparatus do not distinguish between the peaceful protests and aspirations of the vast majority of Papuans, and a small minority of militants. In response to the Nduga attack, police arrested members of the West Papua National Committee (Komite Nasional Papua Barat, KNPB), a student-run organisation that coordinates peaceful protests, and forcefully closed their offices.
With the security forces entrenched and Jokowi’s power limited, many fear that the divide between the two sides is growing. Papuans know that the April elections are unlikely to change anything.
However, instead of waiting and hoping for action from Jakarta, more West Papuans are starting to agitate on local, national and global stages. In 2014, several West Papua independence organisations unified under the banner of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP), headed by the renowned Papuan activist Benny Wenda. The entity has been active within the 18-nation Pacific Islands Forum, founded in 1971, and the Melanesian Spearhead Group within it, which counts the four Melanesian nations of Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, as members.
“In 2015, the ULMWP put in an application bid for a membership of observer status,” says Kareni. The bid was successful. “For Papuans it was a recognition of our cause. The movement has gained a lot of momentum, especially in the Pacific.”
In 2017, organisers in West Papua undertook an impressive effort, smuggling a petition across the island and collecting signatures from 1.8 million residents – 70 per cent of the population – in support of an independence referendum, as promised in the 1960s. The petition was delivered to the United Nation’s Special Committee on Decolonization, to which Indonesia responded by arresting Yanto Awerkion, a KNPB activist and organiser of the petition drive, and sentencing him to 10 months in prison.
One small opportunity to shine a light on the human rights abuses taking place in West Papua came when a UN human rights panel issued a statement condemning racism and police violence in the region, resulting in a rare apology from the Indonesian police for one incident in particular.
There is also hope in the expression by the Indonesian foreign ministry that it will allow the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit West Papua. However, civil society are skeptical that the UN visit, if it takes place, will result in concrete changes.
“It is not new,” says Harsono, referring to previous invites that were not followed up with visas or details. “I won’t believe it until I meet them in Jayapura, until I see them in Papua.”
Meanwhile the election campaign is gathering steam, with the Nduga incident becoming a campaign issue, spurring increased nationalist sentiment against West Papuans. Unfortunately, there may be little that either Jokowi or his opponent – former military general Prabowo Subianto, who has a checkered record due to his involvement in East Timor – can do to change the plight of Papua.
“Whoever the president is, he will be in a difficult position since all political forces in Indonesia, whether the nationalist, the military or Islamic groups, seem to be reluctant to address the human rights issue,” says Ruhyanto. “It remains a marginal topic that only concerns a handful of activists and academics.” (*)
Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on social and economic issues in developing countries, and has specific expertise in south-east Asia.
Father Neles Kebadabi Tebay – ‘a pioneer’
By Theo van den Broek
THE mass of funerary wreaths on the way up to the High school for Theology and Philosophy (STFT) where Fr Neles Tebay has been laid to rest is impressive. All layers of the society are represented, the government (local as well as national), the religious institutions, the NGOs, the security forces and great variety of persons and just ordinary people. No doubt left that the man who died at the age of 55 after fighting a devastating bone cancer has touched the heart and mind of a lot of people.
Here at the STFT he is back at the place where he has been lecturing from 2007 to 2019. To prepare for that he studied in the Philippines (Ateneo Jesuit) 1995-1998 and in Rome (Pontificia Universitas Urbaniana) 2000-2006. While he was at the STFT during 1998-1999, before leaving for Rome, Father Neles shared the experience of the relative short ‘spring-time’ in Papua after President Suharto was forced to step down and all of a sudden ample room was given to free expression of opinion and aspirations in Papua. Also churches responded to that change with giving more explicit attention to human rights issues and local aspirations and speaking up clearly via its Secretariat for Justice and Peace (SKP) in the Catholic Church and the Institute for Study of Human Rights (Elsham), very much connected with the Protestant Church.
Father Neles joined in with these developments as they challenged his own interest of looking for a way to overcome the often paralyzing socio-political problems in Papua. At his ordination as a catholic priest in 1992 in his home-community in Waghete, where he was born in 1964, the elders of the indigenous community handed him a ‘name with a mission’, Kebadabi, which means: ‘pioneer’, ‘someone who opens up the way’. Within that mission, the recent attention to human rights and related issues in Papua was very appealing to him.
Although he left for Rome in 2000, he nursed a close relationship with SKP and followed developments in Papua. Including landmark events such as the second Papua Congress that proclaimed so loudly the deep aspiration of the Papuan People to become independent. Including also the inspiring effort made during a SKP-organized workshop ‘Building a Culture of Peace moving towards Papua Land of Peace’ in 2002 that involved representatives of almost all the sections of the Papua-society to give more meaning to what “peace” in Papua should stand for concretely. The workshop delivered a rather comprehensive understanding of “Peace” touching very concrete aspects such as: harmony-unity, truth and justice, feeling secure, welfare, participation of all, solidarity and tolerance, recognition and self-esteem, information and communication. At the same time a motto got popularized, “Papua Tanah Damai” (Papua Land of Peace) under which the various sides could join in and meet each other. Fr Neles followed closely these developments and made them an active part of his own agenda.
As interest in Papua was also growing in the European community, Fr Neles became one of the main resource-persons invited to share his insights in the complex situation of Papua in various international conferences and workshops. Over a couple of years he – often in cooperation with SKP and Elsham in Papua – was able to create an impressive network of contacts and international understanding and sympathy for the situation in Papua. And, not surprising, the doctoral dissertation concluding his missiology study in Rome carries the title: “The reconciling Mission of the Church in West Papua in the light of Reconciliation and Repentance”.
Back in Papua (2007) he continued his journey as ‘a man with a mission’. In January 2010 the “Papua Peace Network” (JDP) was set up by a number of activists and Father Neles was named the coordinator for Papua, while Bapak Muridan S. Widjojo, research staff of LIPI (Indonesian Institute for Study and Research) was asked to coordinate the lobbying at the central government level in Jakarta. Developing its agenda JDP provided the motto “Papua Land of Peace” and its ‘comprehensive peace concept’ with a more operational structure and strategy. At the same time they used the results of a study by LIPI, “Papua Road Map: Negotiating the Past, Improving the Present and Securing the Future” (2008) as an analytical base. JDP’s aim can be summarized in just one word: dialogue! In just very simple words: ‘if we just stick to our respective “absolute conditions”, for Indonesia the indisputable political status of the Republic and for the Papuans the demand for independency, we only will stay in a paralyzing deadlock, no way out and finally everything will get lost. We have to open up, we have to look for the truth together and to recognize each other to find a dignified way. Sitting down together and dialoguing truly and honestly will be the sole way towards a solution that meets our human standard of dignity and mutual respect’.
Under the inspiring leadership of Father Neles, JDP organized consultation-meetings all over Papua, gathering Papuan communities, and at a later stage also reaching out to migrant communities, to discuss openly the situation in Papua and ‘what to do?’ The message was spread in Papua and many people started talking enthusiastically about the dialogue as a solution, while also intensive and very demanding lobbying took place in the centre of the national government in Jakarta, where Bapak Muridan accompanied Father Neles to win the heart and minds in the circle of policy-makers, including a listening ear of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
Also a wider public was reached by Fr Neles via his writings in the various local and national papers. His way of writing was appealing because it put complex matters in simple language while respectfully addressing anyone who might have a different opinion. He put ‘another Papua’ on the national map, different from what most of readers used to encounter in the national mass-media. Part of his extraordinary personality was Father Neles’ capacity to communicate with just anybody, from the President to his beloved people in the village.
The results of the consultation all over Papua were put together during a “Peace Conference” in Papua in August 2011. This conference got ample support by the central goverment in Jakarta and was therefore promising as an important step in the right direction. The conference delivered an overview of indicators for peace in Papua, identified per sector of attention (economy, health, education, socio-cultural, security and politics). A handy and comprehensive Roadmap for Peace in Papua, ready to be used!
At the end of the Peace Conference and looking to the road ahead, initial remarks were made on how to select the participants for the very much hope-for dialogue. This part proved very sensitive and made some observers from Jakarta rather nervous, asking themselves: are we talking about a dialogue, or are we involved in a process of independency? This uncertainty translated into a lesser involvement of the central government in the further process, its participation decreased significantly leaving Father Neles and the whole JDP-team in a rather difficult position. But they never lost the conviction that they were moving in the right direction: bringing the various stakeholders together to find a solution together, no matter how sensitive the issues to be discussed might be.
A special event in Papua, the Third Papua Congress in October 2011, indirectly pressed again to look for dialogue. The Congress declared its independency as a Papuan Nation and doing so the participants were confronted with a very brutal reaction by the security forces. Some were killed and scores of people were beaten up and taken to the police station. The leaders were put in jail. This brutal action by the security forces triggered a heavy reaction nationwide, including very much nationally respected people who started questioning Indonesia’s policy in Papua, and started calling for a dignified approach to solve problems in Papua. Renewed interest in the dialogue surfaced clearly. Father Neles together with JDP’s efforts had evidently made their mark. Nine consecutive explorative meetings were hold gathering representatives from Papua with representatives from the central government during 2012-2014. Main aim: to get familiar with each other, creating mutual trust and insight in respective policies. Although an official summary of the results has been formulated, the impact of these meetings has been rather limited, partly because there was too much change in persons/representatives of the central government, and therefore no continuity reached or secured.
In the meantime Father Neles’ relentless commitment and struggle for a peaceful solution in Papua, which was already monitored quite intensive by partners in Europe, also gained attention in Asia. In 2013 Father Neles received South Korea’s prestigious Tji Hak-soon Justice and Peace Award. This international recognition probably challenged the Indonesian authorities to give more substantial room to the dialogue with the Papuan people.
At the same time some other developments challenged the popularity of the dialogue pushed for by Father Neles. The developments around internationalization of the ‘Papua-problem’ that materilalized in and after 2013 and which resulted in a strong support by Pacific island states, in uniting the political struggle via a representative body named United Liberation Movement West Papua (ULMWP) and in opening up a discussion on Papua on international forums such as the UN and European Union. These developments didn’t go unnoticed by the indigenous Papuan community and slowly expectations raised high. These expectations were less connected with a dialogue, but more with backing up the agenda of the National Commission West Papua (KNPB) and the related international movement, a call for a new referendum on Papua’s political status. Within this context the presence of human rights violations, including being jailed, beaten up and even killed – the fate of quite some KNPB members – became a kind of ‘sacrifice needed’ and ‘taken for granted’ as the price to be paid.
Calling for peace and dialogue in this new context slowly became a very difficult and complex mission. And once in a while Father Neles was labeled as ‘being in the other camp’ or even mistrusted. Nevertheless Father Neles -and this characterizes him very much- never got discouraged and continued his call against the use of violence and his fight for the dialogue as the only dignified way towards a peaceful solution. It included also a meeting with the President in August 2017, where once again he had a chance to explain the need of a dialogue-process.
The President looked for some constructive steps towards a solution of the Papua-problem, and set up a national commission for dialogue chaired by Father Neles by the end of 2017. The commission was meant to start a ‘sectoral dialogue’, a dialogue on the concrete problems in some specific sectors, i.e. health, education, good governance, and economy. However, certain sectors were explicitly excluded from the mandate of the commission: no discussion on the political and security sector. Although very disappointed about this exclusion, after consulting with the JDP-team Father Neles accepted the nomination by the President as chair of the commission. Some of his friends were not pleased with his decision and told him so. Father Neles respected the difference of opinion and argued that ‘once again there was a small opening, an opportunity and that opportunity should be used in the process for the full and true dialogue he always has in mind. Indeed, not ideal, but a strategy that hopefully leads to more room for opening up the problems in the sectors not yet included in the current offer’.
Father Neles has struggled relentlessly to find a dignified solution to the problems. This is what people have seen and made him a pioneer who was pointing in the right direction. He has met with support and resistance in the process and has appreciated both, not forcing his opinion, but sharing. A spokesman for the National Commission West Papua (KNPB) voiced it in his own way: “Kebadabi (the pioneer) passed away. He left us the peaceful road to end the problems in Papua without killing the struggle of the Papua People”.
His consistent struggle, his never decreasing trust and optimism, his disarming warm laugh and high competence have made him the man who is accepted and loved by so many people, the man who was hoped for to become the first Papuan bishop in Papua, and the man who will be missed dearly. The Papuan People are extremely proud of him, as expressed during funeral speech by his old teacher, Phillipus Degei: “we, a very traditional indigenous Papua community, often looked down at, we, we delivered this great person to Papua, Indonesia and the world”.
Listening to all the people present during the ceremonies around his passing away and funeral, one extraordinary conclusion stands out indisputable: people recognize in Father Neles’ life and struggle their own ‘dream and aspiration’: being recognized and living in peace, peace, peace! That aspiration/dream is embodied in Father Neles and makes him the man to be followed, now and tomorrow! (*)
Author is a social political observer. Living in Jayapura.
Military approach questioned as violence worsens in Papua
Papua, Jubi – As the numbers of casualties and displaced people in Papua’s Highlands pile up, prospects for an end to armed conflict in the Indonesian-ruled region appear dim.
Humanitarian concern is growing for villagers who have been displaced by conflict in the Highlands between Indonesia’s military and the West Papua Liberation Army.
But even elected Papuan leaders in government pushing for a de-escalation of military operations risk a reprimand or threat of prosecution from Indonesia’s military.
In the latest bout of clashes yesterday, Indonesia’s military said between 50 and 70 Liberation Army fighters descended on soldiers guarding the construction of a bridge in Nduga’s Yigi district.
Indonesia’s military said three members died before the military was able to drive the rebels back. It also claimed that between seven and ten Liberation Army fighters were killed.
According to the Liberation Army, the violence on Thursday was sparked when Indonesian soldiers interrogated a local villager and then set fire to five houses.
Indonesian military and police operations intensified in the remote Highlands regency of Nduga in December after the Liberation Army massacred at least 16 road construction workers.
The Indonesian government’s major Trans-Papua Road project was already controversial among Papuan Highlands communities without the involvement of military engineers on the job adding to mistrust among Papuans.
However as military operations to pursue the Liberation Army’s guerilla fighters ramped up, thousands of Nduga villagers caught in the middle of hostilities fled to the bush or neighbouring regencies such as Jayawijaya.
An Indonesian academic, Hipolitus YR Wangge of Jakarta’s Marthinus Academy, has been working on research in Papua and found himself volunteering help for Nduga’s refugees streaming into Jayawijaya’s main town of Wamena.
He said the people were traumatised and short on basic needs, having come from a regency which is extremely isolated. According to him, over two thousand Nduga people have sought refuge in the Wamena area, including over six hundred children.
“Those refugees are coming down from the jungle, from Nduga, and they have nothing here, even the local (Jayawijaya) government here say ‘these are not our people, these are not Jayawijaya people, it is Nduga regency people, so let their government deal with this one’,” he said.
“On the other hand, Nduga’s government, their focus is mainly on those Nduga people who are running away and staying in the (local) jungle.”
The impact of displacement was also seen by Peter Prove, a member of a delegation from the World Council of Churches which was last month permitted to visit Papua.
“And in particular in Wamena we met with a group of more than 400 children and adolescents who were displaced, and who were being provided with refuge in the compound of the Roman Catholic Church there,” he explained.
“And we heard very alarming stories about the circumstances under which they had fled from their territory, including indications of a very strong-armed military response.”
An emergency makeshift school was established by volunteer groups in Wamena for the displaced children. However last month when Indonesian military and police personnel came to the school, a number of children reportedly ran away in fear.
Concerned for the displaced communities, governor of Papua, Lukas Enembe, recently called for Indonesia’s president to withdraw troops to allow villagers to return home and access basic needs.
His call was echoed by local parliamentarians, customary leaders, church and civil society organisations who continue to press for a de-escalation of military operations in the region.
However Indonesia’s military spokesman in Papua, Colonel Muhammad Aidi, has warned that the governor had violated state law and should be prosecuted.
“A governor is an extension of the state in the region and is obliged to defend the sovereignty of the republic of Indonesia,” Colonel Aidi explained.
“A governor must support all national strategic programs. But on the contrary the governor through his statement actually inhibited the national development process.”
A West Papuan anthropologist based in Australia, Yamin Kogoya, worries that telling the truth in his homeland has become an act of treason.
He said that by practically labelling Governor Enembe a supporter of the Free West Papua Movement, Colonel Aidi had added to the sense of threat over this leading elected official who is already being investigated by Indonesian anti-corrution investigators.
“This is a very, very harsh statement by the military spokesperson in Papua against the governor of Papua province who has every right to express his concerns and worries about the welfare of the people under his care,” Mr Kogoya said.
“He never, ever expressed publicly that he supports the independence of Papua.”
Following the Liberation Army’s massacre of road construction workers, the chairman of the Papua People’s Assembly, Timotius Murib, said he and his colleagues condemned the violence. He added that security approaches rarely helped in Papua.
“This does not solve the problem in Papua, but instead creates human rights violations and trauma for indigenous Papuans,” Mr Munib said.
Indonesian police and military posts are common in every town and most villages throughout Papua. From his observations in the region, Peter Prove said the increasing militarisation and security approach in Papua had only exacerbated the problems there.
“There are many accusations and counter-accusations as to who is responsible for specific instances of violence. But I think the military approach to securing and stabilising the territory evidently hasn’t worked not in terms of improving the human rights situation in the region.”
Armed conflict between the Liberation Army and Indonesian security forces is mainly confined to the Highlands region. The Papuan guerillas are outnumbered and outgunned by Indonesia’s military forces, yet are also difficult to totally defeat, as they easily move in and out of the bush in their rugged home terrain.
But the presence of Indonesia’s military, special forces, police, and intelligence agents throughout Papua have added to a climate of fear for Papuans.
According to Mr Wangge, the Indonesian government appears to favour the security approach as the most effective way of containing Papuan resistance, even though it does not win hearts and minds of Papuans.
He said that Jakarta had long since identified core problems in Papua – related to historical grievances, politics, human rights abuses and economic development. But apart from its promotion of economic development through its major infrastructure drive, Mr Wangge said the government had not openly addressed these core problems in a wholehearted way that involved Papuan participation.
While it was difficult to pinpoint why the problems hadn’t been confronted Mr Wangge said the military was still a powerful political entity within the Indonesian republic.
“If human rights or historical problems will be discussed both by central and local governments, the military will face some legal consequences for this one,” he said.
Mr Wangge, who has been involved with efforts to build temporary schools for the children displaced in Wamena, was doubtful whether President Joko Widodo’s economic development approach was a lasting solution either for Papuans’ grievances.
“To some point, yes, it can benefit some Papuans,” he said, “but the benefits of the economic approach, it’s only for outsiders, non-Papuans, immigrants – that’s how many Papuans see it.”
This was echoed by Mr Murib, who said “we as state institutions that are representatives of indigenous Papuans have never been involved in discussing the Trans Papua road project”.
“Papuans are eliminated from their own land, lose their rights as indigenous people and face depopulation problems. Papuans want life, not roads and companies.”
He said if the central government respected Papua’s Autonomy Law, and indigenous Papuans, it should “sit down to talk with us for all forms of policy in Papua”.
Meanwhile, Colonel Aidi has confirmed an extra 600 military personnel have been deployed to Nduga region to secure conditions for construction of the Trans Papua road to proceed.
Since December, dozens of people have died in escalating clashes in Nduga. The Liberation Army has indicated it was willing to negotiate a peaceful settlement of the conflict, but Colonel Aidi suggested this would be not be possible.
“The aim of Indonesia’s military is to preserve the sovereignty of the Republic of Indonesia. If the purpose of the “armed criminal group” is to be independent from Indonesia, surely the dialogue or negotiation will never be realised.”
Armed conflict continues in Papua, intractable as ever. (Johnny Blades Johnny Blades, RNZ Pacific)
Source: RNZ Pasific
Indonesia’s pressure tactics over West Papua issue resemble the actions of China over Tibet
By Nithin Coca
EARLIER this month, the Indonesian military raided and destroyed the offices of the West Papuan National Committee, a separatist group in the country’s easternmost region, which has long agitated for independence. The raid came amid allegations that the military had used chemical weapons in airstrikes on separatists in West Papua in late December. The Indonesian government has responded harshly after at least 17 construction workers were killed by West Papuan militants in early December, the deadliest such attack in West Papua in years.
This surge in unrest in the region is the outcome of a harder line that the Indonesian government has taken on West Papua in recent years. During the United Nations General Assembly last September, the prime minister of the tiny Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, Charlot Salwai, criticized that approach. Referring directly to West Papua, he said the Indonesian government needed to “put an end to all forms of violence and find common ground with the populations to establish a process that will allow them to freely express their choice.”
The reaction from Indonesia, which is usually quiet at the U.N., was fierce. President Joko Widodo hasn’t even bothered to attend the General Assembly in his five years in office, but his government immediately lambasted Salwai. Jakarta’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Dian Triansyah Djani, declared that “Indonesia will not let any country undermine its territorial integrity.” Referring to separatist and independence groups in West Papua, he said Indonesia also “fail[ed] to understand the motive behind Vanuatu’s intention in supporting a group of people who have [struck] terror and mayhem [on] so many occasions, creating fatalities and sadness to innocent families of their own communities.”
West Papua was not part of Indonesia when the country gained independence from the Netherlands in 1949. The region, which has a distinct ethnic and linguistic identity from mostly Polynesian Indonesia, was formally annexed in 1969 after what Indonesians call the “Act of Free Choice,” when a group of hand-selected Papuans voted unanimously in favor of Indonesian control in a vote marred by allegations of blackmail and coercion.
Since then, West Papua has been the site of regular violence, either from one of the many separatist groups on the island, or, more often, the Indonesian military. The island is rich in minerals, the revenue from which make up a significant portion of Indonesia’s budget. Freeport-McMoRan’s huge Grasberg mine alone provided more than $750 million in revenue in 2017.
Many West Papuans, either living in Indonesia or abroad, have been advocating for self-determination for years. But what was primarily a local conflict has now become more regional, as both sides have attempted to internationalize the issue. West Papuans are ethnically Melanesian, like the citizens of Vanuatu and other Pacific Island nations, such as the Solomon Islands and Fiji. West Papuan activists have been working to build connections with these countries, with the goal of having them speak up for Papuan independence, like Salwai did at the General Assembly.
“West Papua is a regional issue, because we are part of Melanesia, connected culturally and linguistically,” Benny Wenda, an exiled leader of the Free West Papua organization currently based in the United Kingdom, told WPR. “The majority in the Pacific islands, they don’t see West Papua as distant. It’s close to them.”
The main entity for cooperation in the region is the 18-nation Pacific Islands Forum, founded in 1971, and the Melanesian Spearhead Group within it, which counts the four Melanesian nations as members. West Papuan advocates have used the forum to push for global recognition, including formal membership for West Papua as an occupied country.
Indonesia, however, has been pushing back by sowing discord among the forum’s members. It provided military support to Fiji after the island’s 2006 coup, which had led to the imposition of Western sanctions, and offered significant aid to Papua New Guinea. With both countries’ support, in 2011, Indonesia was granted observer status in the Melanesian Spearhead Group. Since then, attempts by the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, an umbrella organization of independence groups, to get a similar status have proved futile. Now, both Fiji and Papua New Guinea say they support Indonesia’s full membership in the group, which would push the West Papua issue to the sidelines.
Since Indonesia got its observer status, “the MSG has become an empty house,” says James Elmslie, a political scientist with the West Papua Project at the University of Sydney. “The MSG is now split on the issue.”
Indonesia’s pressure tactics resemble the actions of a much bigger power in Asia dealing with territories it considers its own: China. Having long sought to isolate supporters of Tibet, China regularly pushes countries to refuse access to the Dalai Lama, as both Russia and South Africa have done in recent years. Beijing also uses a carrot-and-stick strategy to shrink the number of countries that recognize Taiwan, which it sees as a breakaway province. In the past year, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic have dropped their diplomatic recognition of Taiwan in favor of China. Like other countries that have done this, they can expect to be rewarded with aid, investments and more. Conversely, countries that refuse to switch, like Palau, have been squeezed by China and seen their tourism industries suffer.
Unlike China, though, Indonesia is a democracy, one that is often hailed as a model for both Asia and the Islamic world. There was a small window of opportunity, right after the fall of the three-decades long Suharto dictatorship in 1998, when newly democratic Indonesia was engaging with pro-independence activists in West Papua. At the time, East Timor was permitted to hold an independence referendum, and there were calls for something similar in West Papua.
But when reformist President Abdurrahman Wahid—facing corruption allegations, economic woes and political unrest—was forced to step down in 2001, that window slammed shut. The Indonesian military reasserted control, killing Papuan independence leader Theys Eluay, and things went back to the status quo of repression. Indonesia continued to exploit the region for resources and suppress the voices of Papuans. Democracy may have transformed Indonesia, but it brought little change to West Papua.
Now the situation is only getting worse. The core problem is that unlike a decade ago, the Indonesian government is refusing to engage peacefully, instead allowing, either implicitly or explicitly, the Indonesian military to take the lead.
Getting an independent view of what’s taking place in West Papua remains as difficult as ever. For decades, the Indonesian government has essentially closed off the region to journalists, international observers and NGOs. The few who do enter face risk of arrest, like Jakub Fabian Skrzypzki, a Polish citizen who is now on trial for alleged ties to Papuan separatists and faces potential life imprisonment in Indonesia if convicted.
It looks like another move out of China’s playbook. Why would democratic Indonesia go that route? Because so far, it’s working.
Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on social, economic, and political issues in developing countries, and has specific expertise in Southeast Asia.
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