Indonesia: Will The Jakarta-Papua Dialogue Be Fruitful? – OpEd


By Navrekha Sharma

International pressure is growing on Indonesian Government over its human rights record in Papua. A remote island one-fifth Indonesia’s size, Papua is unbelievably rich in natural resources but its one million people, mainly tribal Christians, are abysmally poor. Over three decades of its rule, Suharto’s military killed hundreds of tribals demanding rights to land and clean water etc, in low intensity conflicts in forested areas. But during the 14 years of democractic rule peoples ’disappointment with the Center has increased as conflict has expanded into urban areas too. Unfortunately, the Autonomy law of 2001 which provides for the bulk of locally generated revenues to be retained for local use, has seen its benefits cornered almost exclusively by a privileged few.

Since 2009, 43 people have been killed. The government claimed that some of those declared dead were security forces and at a UNHRCS quadrennial Review meeting last May, described Papua as “stable”. However, the capital Jayapura has witnessed sixteen shootings since then, in mysterious circumstances reminiscent of East Timor where the military acted with impunity. President Yudhoyono’s dubbing of the deaths as “small scale” was unhelpful and evoked angry reactions. A Presidential dialogue with Church leaders and developmental agencies initiated four months ago is going nowhere. Important sections of public opinion are pessimistic about Papua’s future.

East Timor’s Christian population, supported by well heeled international NGOs and media, had successfully swayed public opinion against Indonesia, culminating in a breakaway referendum in 1998/9 which took the Government by surprise. OPM leaders’ calls for freedom are similarly supported by NGOs, foreign and Indigenous. But before concluding that Papua will go the East Timor way, in Indonesia one can always expects the unexpected! Aceh, remote and resource-rich like Papua (but devoutly Muslim), saw longer years of neglect – of open war between the people and the State –ending peacefully after the tsunami hit in December 2004. The crisis was turned into an opportunity by Indonesia’s Government, assisted by International mediation and funding. In 2007, a former rebel leader was elected Aceh’s Governor!

Which of the two examples, East Timor or Aceh, is relevant to Papua? The answer lies in another question: why did the Government hold a referendum with secession as an option in East Timor but not in Aceh? Understanding the country’s political culture and the role of history and International law therein is vital.

The problem in East Timor coincided with ASEAN’s economic crisis of 1997/8 which got fully blown in Indonesia. Secondly, Indonesia’s accession of Portugal’s erstwhile colony in 1975 was not recognized by the UN under whom, Indonesia’s boundaries are limited to those of former Dutch East Indies. It was in these vulnerable circumstances, one economic and the other political, that President Habibie took the all- or -nothing gamble of a Referendum in East Timor. In contrast, Indonesia’s claim to Aceh, despite its longer and more violent secessionist struggle, was clear and unambiguous.

Some have tried contesting Indonesia’s hold on Papua on grounds of the “dodgy” Referendum of 1969, but its prompt endorsement by the UN had confirmed Indonesia’s right of possession. Moreover it took Indonesia’s first President and “political father” Sukarno, 13 years of protracted diplomatic and military struggle to retrieve Papua from Holland in 1962: since then, Papua lies at the core of Indonesia’s identity as a modern Nation. An Archipelagic State of 17000 separate Islands finds its main bulwark against disintegration in the law: neither President Yudhoyono nor any successor to him can surrender Papua without committing political hara kiri.

If political status is not negotiable, hence succession improbable, the possibility of Papua remaining indefinitely neglected and marginalized is real. Papuans are most backward people but their land is rich in gold, copper and hydro carbons, fisheries and forests. From early 1970s, international exploration was welcomed by Jakarta’s Government and its powerful but ill paid, military. The world’s largest gold mine and its second largest copper mine are in Papua, run by Freeport Mc Moran with 10 per cent Indonesian shareholding. Offshore oil and gas deposits are also plentiful. According to reliable reports (“Below a Mountain of Wealth, a River of Waste,” New York Times, 27 December 2005) over a billion tons of mineral waste and copper tailings have already been dumped directly into Papua’s rivers and 3 to 6 billion tons more waste is expected with consequent ill effects. Australia, with its interests in neighbouring PNG, some European countries and Canada challenge Papua’s human rights record, but the USA is careful to distance itself, declaring Papua as Indonesia’s “internal affair.”

Democracy has truncated the political role of Indonesia’s Armed Forces but in remote areas, the Territorial Command Structure, a Suharto era inheritance under which 70 per cent military funding is off-budget, remains intact. The new democratic dispensation puts police in charge of law and order and only secessionist violence (“treason”) justifies army’s presence. But with dismantling of operations in East Timor/Aceh, military’s strength in Papua has increased. Corruption here is endemic and increasingly well paid and the two arms are vying for a role in collusion with a tiny political elite.

Democracy has changed the form of exploitation in Indonesia but not its substance. In the absence of an act of God such as a tsunami (!) lip service by Jakarta to Dialogue with Papua will probably continue indefinitely.

Navrekha Sharma
Former Ambassador to Indonesia


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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