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New Indonesian president offers hope for West Papua

  • 01 September 2014

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