Separatist resistance persists in Indonesia’s West Papua region, as attempts to internationalize the dispute by the Free Papua Movement (Organisasi Papua Merdeka – OPM) make it necessary for Jakarta to devise new policy options to address the decades-old conflict.
OPM has been waging a low-level guerrilla war in West Papua, formerly known as Irian Jaya, since 1969, the year of the controversial Act of Free Choice – a referendum process that ostensibly resulted in a unanimous decision by Papuan representatives to accept Indonesian sovereignty, but which has been dismissed by analysts as fraudulent.
Police reports indicate that between 2009 and 2014, there were 166 cases of violence involving the OPM. There were at least 14 attacks on the security apparatus in the region between 2014 and 2015. These actions indicate that despite the efforts of a newly democratic Indonesia (since 1998) to proactively address these challenges by reforming its counterinsurgency approach and providing more welfare for the population, grievances fed by protracted human rights abuses and economic exploitation linger.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The violence has been accompanied by OPM efforts to rally support from state and non state actors overseas, especially outreach to Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) members such as Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, and Fiji. With the help of these countries, the issues of independence and human rights abuses have been raised at the UN General Assembly, a development that could have serious repercussions for Indonesia’s international image.
The impoverished economic conditions of native Papuans is not the only factor driving the growing violence. Unsound transmigration practices have created a demographic imbalance where urban areas are inhabited mainly by non-Papuans while native Papuans populate the rural areas. Tensions are ever-present due to historical memories and the legacy of cruel military conduct, such as the infamous Biak Massacre of 1998, the perpetrators of which remain at large.
Aiming to address such grievances, Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has pledged to visit Papua three times a year, with one such visit being made in early May. Jokowi travelled to several areas, initiating economic projects like the national tourism region (Kawasan Strategis Pariwisata Nasional – KSPN) in Sorong and a petrochemical industry in Manokwari. In Merauke he harvested rice with the military, symbolically signifying his intention to strengthen the territorial functions of the military through welfare-related strategies aimed at building links to local Papuans.
A Three-Pronged Approach
More importantly, Jokowi stopped by a pasar mama-mama, a traditional market comprising women from traditional highland tribes, doing his trademark blusukan, or dialogue, with the local inhabitants and expressing a desire to resume the long-stalled Jakarta-Papua dialogue. While a mostly symbolic gesture, Jokowi’s visit aims to highlight his determination to win the hearts of Papuans through a three-pronged strategy of welfare, security, and dialogue.
With 45 percent of national copper reserves, 41 million hectares of productive forest, and 8 million hectares of conservation forest located in the region, Indonesia is clearly prepared to take extreme measures to prevent a repetition of the 1999 East Timor separation. Indonesia also sees the West Papua region – which consists of two provinces, Papua and West Papua – as a strategic buffer against potential intrusions from the north and east, such as those involving illegal fishing boats. The loss of Papua would reverberate across the archipelago with repercussions for fragile areas like Aceh, Maluku, and Kalimantan.
Jokowi remains aware that the stubborn resistance not only reflects the economic straits of native Papuans, but also the still unresolved military abuses in the era prior to Indonesia’s 1998 democratic transition.
Consequently, Jokowi aims to beef up former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s welfare and security approaches in the two troubled provinces. More importantly, though, he seeks to reinvent one element that could be a determining factor: dialogue.
To address welfare issues, Jokowi will adopt a more nuanced economic strategy. In the past, development polices actually worsened conditions, while poorly conceived transmigration policies during the New Order exacerbated conflict between trans-migrants and native Papuans. Hence, Jokowi’s development strategy consists of several new features, encompassing not just infrastructure expansion to achieve a low-cost economy, but also a local economy based on fairness and proportionality. To achieve a low-cost economy, Jokowi’s Ocean Toll Road project will be pioneered in Sorong, Jayapura, and Merauke. Deep-sea port facilities, once installed, should reduce transaction costs for far flung regions like Papua. The Indonesian president seeks to promote connectivity by revitalizing Frans Kaisepo as the international airport in Biak, building a trans-Papuan train system, constructing a bridge in Holtekamp, Jayapura, and accelerating infrastructure development in isolated areas.
In terms of regional development, fairness and proportionality remain contentious issues. To meet the needs of remote provinces, Jokowi has spoken of his intention to accelerate the provision of basic infrastructure, rehabilitate traditional markets, renegotiate the sharing of resources between Papua and Jakarta, and implement a “special autonomy plus” concept that would lead to a revision of the 2001 special autonomy law.
To ensure the success of his initiatives, Jokowi understands that he must do more to regain trust. Previous governments have failed to acknowledge that simply addressing economic issues was not enough: A comprehensive solution was needed. Indifference toward the political, ideological, and historical nuances of the conflict sowed the seeds of deep distrust, making it difficult for Papuans to move forward and forgive.
So Jokowi has pledged a dialogue that aims at comprehensively addressing issues beyond underdevelopment, involving the leaders of OPM. He is also encouraging every element at all levels of government – military district commander, the police chief, and all civil elements – to intensify dialogue with local inhabitants. In April, the Indonesian government offered a public undertaking to set up a team to investigate past human rights violations. The team consists of officials from the Ministry of Law and Human Rights, the Supreme Court, police, State Intelligence Agency, armed forces, and the Human Rights Commission. Its success will be the determining factor in the government’s effort to regain the trust essential for negotiating peace in West Papua.
Jokowi has also sought to win the trust of an international audience, especially MSG member states, which remain pessimistic of Indonesia’s ability to peacefully address its Papuan problems. West Papua’s application for membership to the MSG was submitted last year by the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP), and was followed this year by a similar application lodged by the West Papua National Coalition for Liberation (WPNCL). The applications are currently under consideration. Jakarta worries that if West Papua’s bid is successful it would have deleterious consequences for Indonesia’s international image in forums like the UN.
As a counter move, Jokowi made overtures to Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O’Neil during a May visit, expressing his willingness to build strong ties with the PNG, the MSG, and the broader Pacific region. To neutralize the impact of West Papua’s membership application, Indonesia has lodged its own application for membership of the MSG. Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi has visited Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Fiji, hoping to persuade these Pacific Island states to reconsider West Papua’s membership bid. If Jakarta’s own membership application is accepted, it will not only allow the Melanesian provinces of Indonesia to participate in cultural, trade, and investment engagements under Indonesia’s representation; it will also dilute any diplomatic support MSG member states offer the West Papua independence movement. Jokowi has also sought to appeal to the wider international community by granting clemency to five political prisoners while also ending the decades-long restrictions on international media access to Papua.
Old Wine, New Bottle?
Despite these seemingly genuine efforts by Jokowi, widely seen as a people’s president who started out as a small-time furniture entrepreneur in Solo, his concurrent plans to increase the military’s presence in the region have encouraged skepticism. Certainly, Jokowi is calling for a softer security approach, called Bhakti Bina Keamanan dan Ketertiban Masyarakat – Bhabinkamtibmas, essentially a social empowerment program under the auspices of the regional police, together with an unfortunately worded serbuan teritorial or “territorial invasion” program of social empowerment led by the regional military. Still, the local military presence is estimated at 45,000 troops presently deployed in Papua plus an additional 650 soldiers stationed near the PNG border. And with a further expansion of the military’s territorial structure, including the addition of a military district command (Kodam) in Manokwari plus a new Eastern Central Fleet based in Sorong that will add an estimated 7000-10,000 personnel, along with a plan to form a third division of the Army Strategic Command and a new Air Force Command; West Papua will become one of the most heavily militarized regions in Indonesia.
Various community projects aimed at empowering the locals are set to be conducted under the leadership of the military regional command (Kodam) and the police regional command (Polda), in cooperation with local government, state agencies, and ethnic leaders. Although the social empowerment programs are meant to build links and improve the image of the security apparatus, the specter of past human rights violations – extrajudicial executions, arbitrary detentions, and torture among them – gives rise to doubts whether the new military strategy will succeed in rebuilding local confidence in the security apparatus or whether it will in fact be perceived as a return to Suharto’s authoritarian methods.
One potential fault line that will require special attention is the lack of appreciation of the inherent complexities of Papuan cultures. More than 300 tribes exist in Papua from a total indigenous population base of fewer than 1.5 million people, with their own subtribes, clans, and subclans. With such a complex cultural milieu, there is always a risk of misperception and cultural incomprehension leading to military abuse. Prior to the 2005 peace accords, military abuse in Aceh was the product of an inability of the military to understand local customs and languages. Many Acehnese suffered violent treatment at the hands of the military because they could not communicate in Bahasa Indonesia (the Indonesian language).
Indonesian security forces, learning the lessons of Aceh, have anticipated such problems by recruiting more locals. For example, the police force has initiated a program called Brigadir Putra Daerah, or Local Youth Brigade, collaborating with local government since 2008 to recruit more than 1500 Papuans. Similarly, the military has attempted to recruit Babinsa or local village NCOs from among the Papuan population.
Yet while the intentions are good, the concept remains flawed. “Territorial invasion” is still driven by a perception of “local inability” rather than “local partnership” and a condescending attitude borne of years of ingrained prejudice that the locals are backward or “Papua Bodoh.” With such ensconced attitudes, a social empowerment program – even one based on a sound rationale – can descend into a situation where those running the program resort to intimidation to deal with short-term pressures. Real success requires that cultural training and language skills be prioritized to stop ethnocentrism and stereotyping from undermining the ability to address the deeper problems of Papuan underdevelopment.
Jokowi’s initiatives face some serious challenges, particularly the need to build an effective “dialogue” leg. A fragmented rebellion has complicated efforts to maintain a dialogue. According to a 2015 Threat Perception Report produced by the Papua Police Regional Command, seven groups recognized as armed separatists have declared themselves to be the legitimate OPM representative. Each group is supported by and cooperates with several smaller groups. For instance, Goliath Tabuni, a group with its operations based in the Tingginambut region of Puncak Jaya, controls the activities of groups like Leo Magay Yogi in Paniai, Ayub Waker in Tembagapura, and Theny Kwalik in Timika. Or there is Hans Uri Yuweni, a group based in Jayapura, which has a pervasive influence in parts of West Papua province such as Sorong and Manokwari reaching all the way down to Merauke in the Papua province. It is unlikely that a successful dialogue with one group will necessarily be supported by the others. Consequently, the risk of spoilers derailing the talks is high and will affect the sustainability of any peace process. From Jakarta, the risks presented by hardline groups from within the military or parliament are also high. Hence, the ability to manage different interest groups and the high expectations of Papuan groups will be vital in finding a durable solution to the conflict.
Jokowi is well regarded for his ability to negotiate, communicate with ordinary people, and blend. This was evident, for instance, when he peacefully relocated hawkers in Solo and Jakarta, while in the process working out an acceptable compensation package. Negotiating for peace in Papua will be fraught with uncertainly. Talks during the Aceh peace process required Yudhoyono to use skills learned during Suharto-era military politics to manage spoiler elements from the military and parliament, Jusuf Kalla and third-party mediators willing to engage the Free Aceh Movement, and the urgency revolving around the need for post-tsunami reconstruction.
Jokowi must adopt a “hands on approach” if he is to successfully find a resolution to the Papuan conflict. To reduce negative perceptions of the military, he needs to supervise its activities closely and ensure that their conduct towards the local population reflects greater cultural awareness. Jokowi also needs to live up to his promise to address local grievances with dialogue, while being creative in finding a solution that takes into consideration sensitive issues like the political aspirations of the Papuan people. Perhaps most importantly, rather than simply imposing its ideas, Jakarta really needs to begin to listen.
Leonard C. Sebastian is Associate Professor and Coordinator of the Indonesia Programme at the S. Rajaratnam of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU). Emirza Adi Syailendra is a Research Analyst at the Indonesia Programme at the S. Rajaratnam of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU).