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New Indonesian president offers hope for West Papua


West Papua independence movement

Since its foundation as a modern state in the 1940s, Indonesia has been plagued by a series of conflicts that have threatened the dream of a united republic, inflicted grievous human rights violations and poisoned perceptions of the place, not least in Australia. In recent years, these have included independence movements in Timor-Leste, Aceh and West Papua and violent communal unrest in central Sulawesi.

West Papua is the last of these major conflicts to be tackled. Though they involved the spilling of much blood and many secondary issues remain, each of the other issues has been resolved with varying degrees of success. Only West Papua, perhaps the most complex and intractable of them all, remains. Attempts at a settlement by previous post-Suharto presidents, particularly Gus Dur and SBY, have failed. It is now the turn of Indonesia’s incoming president, Jokowi, to address the issue.

Jokowi is well positioned to act. He is expected to focus more on getting Indonesia’s house in order than on world affairs and he has already clearly indicated that this agenda includes West Papua. West Papua was the first place he visited at the start of his election campaign where he underlined a personal connection by taking his wife Iriana with him; her grandfather taught there and she is named after Indonesia’s original name for the region. He acknowledges the need to address West Papua’s serious development deficit including the cost-of-living disparity between eastern and western Indonesia and has committed to lifting the standards of education, health and the public service that are his trademark concerns and are central to the interests of the poor in West Papua.  

Jokowi comes to the issue fresh and free of political baggage and hang-ups. He is not part of the old regime that has caused such grief to West Papuans over the last 50 years. He has turned dialogue, a modus operandi also advocated by West Papuans, into an effective art form. In one of his presidential debates with Prabowo, an ex-Kopassus commander, he pointedly highlighted his preference for dialogue over military solutions. West Papuans seem to like what’s on offer. Roughly 70% of voters across the region’s two provinces opted for Jokowi over Prabowo. Experts predict that Jokowi’s vice-president, Jusuf Kalla, who is credited with helping settle the conflicts in Aceh and Poso referred to above, is also keen to try his hand in West Papua.

The old guard can be expected to resist Jokowi on West Papua including his belief that foreign media and human rights organisations should be allowed to visit the region. But he will enjoy the support of many Indonesians who share his concern for West Papua. The issue is no longer off-limits in Indonesia. Indonesians are aware of the many challenges to be addressed. Regularly reported in the mainstream media, these include clashes between the military and the OPM, human rights, HIV-AIDS, domestic violence, ethnic fracas and the Freeport mine. Communications, including social media, tourism and travel in and out of the region are routine and non-Papuan civil society is better educated today about the history of Indonesia’s annexation, the dubious legal basis of that claim and related West Papuan grievances such as fears of being marginalised in their own land.

Though Jokowi was conspicuously silent on Timor-Leste during the presidential campaign, Indonesia’s former 27th province holds, I believe, important lessons for him in relation to West Papua. One obvious lesson is not to place too much store on defections from the OPM. Like Nicholas Jouwe, the co-founder of the OPM who was recently awarded a distinguished service medal by President SBY in Jakarta, some senior Timorese also collaborated at various points in their campaign. Another is that West Papua, like Timor-Leste previously, is not just a developmental challenge. Indonesia spent heavily on development in Timor-Leste but neither this nor the offer of special autonomy in 1999, of the kind since implemented in West Papua, addressed the underlying political and identity grievances of the Timorese. Though much needed, development recipes on their own will not be enough to meet all West Papua’s aspirations. Jokowi would also be well advised to listen to the Protestant and Catholic churches in Papua. They represent well over 70% of the population and, as with the church in Timor-Leste, are an influential and credible force.

Settlement of the West Papua issue can only come from Indonesia and the Jokowi presidency offers the best prospects for this in half a century. Creating the conditions in which inclusive dialogue based on mutual respect can occur will tax the political imagination and creativity of all involved. The trust and goodwill Jokowi enjoys, including in West Papua, make for an excellent start to this important enterprise.

Pat WalshPat Walsh is currently visiting Jakarta. He co-founded Inside Indonesia magazine.

Image from bennywenda.org

Topic tags: Pat Walsh, Indonesia, Jakowi, West Papua, Timor-Leste



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Existing comments

One of the reasons the Dutch held on to Dutch New Guinea, I believe, is that they felt the people there were ethnically and culturally quite different to Indonesians, particularly the Javanese, who are politically dominant and who they felt might oppress the indigenes and exploit their valuable resources without the locals getting much out of the situation. This has, sadly, proved all too true. Having said that, I think what we do next, as individuals or a nation, needs to be done with the utmost care and the best interests of the indigenes at all times. I cannot see any Indonesian government, certainly in the short term, giving West New Guinea independence. I think we need to concentrate on ensuring just and equitable treatment of the indigenes as far as we are able.

Edward Fido | 31 August 2014  

The problems with West Papua resemble in many ways the problems of Northern Ireland. In both a more powerful nation wanted their resources and moved in people of different religions and traditions to try to divide and so conquer the inhabitants. West Papuans are not Asians but Pacific Islanders and are traditionally not Muslims. Religion is probably the most conservative influence in most peoples lives, so it is essential that religious leaders find a formula that allows all religions to live together in peace and harmony, not only on the world stage, but also within each nation.. .

Robert Liddy | 31 August 2014  

DLP receives regular reports of atrocities committed by the TNI in West Papua. Unless the issue of sovereignty is address peace will be hard to obtain Indonesia needs to acknowledge the evil of the past and hold those accountable for human rights abuses Then talks may be able to start Like East Timor Aust is silent and complicit Democratic labour Party of Australia Federal Spokesperson on West Papua Human Rights Democracy

Anthony Craig | 31 August 2014  

whatever Indonesian social-economic development policies made under whoever administration definetly not good benefit for improving better lifestyle of Melanesian Papuan. I do not believe before real act occure about their Presidential campign's promes and its whatever languages. Special Autonomy Rule itself has failed to deal it, SBY's promise of the peaceful dialogue was only empety word, zero realisation so He lain to the world leaders and international community. What the world government reaction today funding over billion dollars for sepeial autonomy fund without nothing changed on West Papuan vulnerable circumtances? I am looking forward how to stop foreign aid goes to Indonesia on behalf of West Papua's propose. West Papuan people asking to find other ways to resolve political unrest so Is any foreign governments can hear their voice to take more peaceful solution rather given money to kill all West Papuan?

Douw AMatus | 21 September 2014  

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