The problems of Indonesian President Joko Widodo are many. A revival of the communist party and politically expedient alliances between Islamic militants and opposition parties are among the latest headaches he must deal with inside the corridors of power in Jakarta.
But much further away, in West Papua, old issues continue to simmer, perhaps threateningly so unless Widodo can negotiate deftly with people who have little in common with Indonesia’s central authorities and those who run the conflict-prone country.
The latest escalation in tensions between locals and Widodo’s administration erupted last week when it was revealed that a secret petition had been passed around, gathering 1.8 million signatures, demanding a free vote on independence for West Papua.
The demands were presented to the United Nations in New York by exiled pro-independence leader Benny Wenda. But the bid was rejected, with doubts cast over the veracity of the petition by Jakarta.
In fact, The Jakarta Post reported that the chairman of Special Committee on Decolonization, Venezuela’s Rafael Ramirez expressed “indignation with those individuals and parties who had manipulated his name for their own purposes.”
“I have never received anything or anybody regarding the issue of West Papua,” he apparently said in a doorstop interview at UN headquarters.
The United Nations, and the international community more generally, may not want to upset the Indonesian government. But the 1.8 million signatures figure, if correct, represents around a whopping 70 percent of the West Papuan population. Separatist agitation also has a long history there, amid sporadic crackdowns by the military that have obviously not worked.
And the petition did in fact exist. It asked the UN to appoint a special representative to investigate human rights abuses in the province and to put West Papua back on the decolonization committee agenda and ensure their right to self-determination.
It was that committee which refused to accept the petition.
“In the West Papuan people’s petition we hand over the bones of the people of West Papua to the United Nations and the world,” Wenda said, adding the petition was banned in the provinces of Papua and West Papua, and blocked online.
“After decades of suffering, decades of genocide, decades of occupation, we open up the voice of the West Papuan people which lives inside this petition. My people want to be free.”
Indonesia can ill-afford another conflict, having dealt with similar issues with respect to East Timor and Aceh that threatened the country’s political and social stability.
West Papua was lumped within Indonesia’s sovereign borders through a forced and controversial annexation by Indonesia that has been well-documented. Since then many reports have documented how indigenous people have been subjected to harassment, ranging from beatings to murder.
Peter Arndt of the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission compiled one report accusing the Indonesian government of staging violent incursions into the region and systematically expelling Papuans from their homes in what amounted to a “slow-motion genocide.”
According to the report, the indigenous people of West Papua now account for just 40 percent of the population, compared with more than 95 percent three decades ago.
Released a year ago, the report also found that the situation in West Papua was “fast approaching a tipping point.”
“In less than five years, the position of Papuans in their own land will be worse than precarious,” it said.
“They are already experiencing a demographic tidal wave. Ruthless Indonesian political, economic, social and cultural domination threatens to engulf the proud people who have inhabited the land they call Tanah Papua for thousands of years.”
Doubts surrounding the recent petition might be real. But the fact is there are fewer doubts surrounding human rights abuses committed by the military and the hostility felt among locals on West Papua.
This is a highly combustible mix. And it comes at a potentially troubling time for Widodo ahead of presidential elections in 2019. So far, although he has visited the area several times and focused his efforts on economic issues, resolving the harder political questions has proven elusive. Navigating them will demand a skillful and more sensitive approach, which is a far cry from the clumsy, violent and authoritarian hand of the military we have witnessed previously.
Luke Hunt can be followed on twitter @lukeanthonyhunt