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Would Political Dialogue on Papua Be on Top of Jokowi’s Agenda?

October 19, 2019

Would Political Dialogue on Papua Be on Top of Jokowi’s Agenda?


OCTOBER 17, 2019

Jokowi should facilitate a political dialogue with Papuans while at the same time continuing to build and improve infrastructures on the island. (SP Photo/Joanito De Saojoao)

In August this year, the entire nation was again shocked by the recurrence of racial abuse against Papuan students in Surabaya. As reported, the verbal abuse was committed by authorities and local mass organizations who called the Papuans "monkeys," "pigs" and "dogs." The abuse was a reaction to an allegation that the Papuan students in Surabaya damaged an Indonesian flag on Independence Day, Aug. 17. This allegation remains unconfirmed.

In revenge, as we know, violent protests took place across the island of Papua. Arguably the Papuan protesters did not particularly target people of certain races; there were rumors to the opposite. Clearly the Papuan protesters wanted to send a strong message to the whole nation that racial abuse and discrimination shouldn’t be tolerated. A nation proud of its diversity must take a strong stance against any form of racism.

Unfortunately, the protesters failed to also send a message that violence of any form must not be tolerated. As we’ve seen, the Papuan protesters across the island reacted violently to the violence against some Papuan students in Surabaya. Here the idea that violence shouldn’t be avenged with more violence remains a challenge.

Ideally, and it remains a hope, this "action-reaction chain" has to be broken. This may not be easy to do, particularly if the problem is deeply rooted in history and culture.

But what needs to be done is to ensure that reactions, particularly the violent ones, are prevented in order not to exacerbate tensions. Failure to do so means the country’s proud belief in the culture of harmony and religion of peace remains merely a belief with no meaning in real life.

East Java Governor Khofifah Indar Parawansa’s initiative to apologize to the Papuan victims of racial abuse is greatly appreciated. President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo also expressed his discomfort about the case and disapproved of the violent reactions in Papua. He then urged all parties to restore calm and peace. He called a few Papuan elites and representatives to come to the Presidential Palace to talk about the case, aiming to cool down the heated reactions among the public.

But, are these enough to resolve the problems in Papua? The issue is much deeper than seen on the surface. The racial abuse experienced by the Papuan students in Surabaya in August, and particularly the subsequent violent reactions in Papua, reflect a much more complex problem.

Partly for that reason, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called upon the Indonesian authorities to initiate a dialogue with the Papuans. This dialogue is absolutely important because, as she implies, the Papua issue has historical roots, and therefore the issue needs to be confronted and resolved, hopefully once and for all.

The tensions in Papua in the wake of the racial abuse have been managed. But more tensions in and with Papua could recur any time in the future if the deep-seated problem remains unresolved.

Historically, the way West Papua was incorporated into Indonesia in the early 1960s was controversial. Even more controversial was when through the Act of Free Choice in 1969, West Papua remained part of Indonesia.

Many West Papuans then and now feel that it wasn’t really their free choice at all to be integrated with Indonesia. Consequently, there has been a long struggle for independence led by the separatist movement OPM (Free Papua Organization).

Hypothetically, if the Papuans seriously request a referendum now, what would the UN do? Would the UN try to persuade Jakarta to allow the Papuans to have a referendum? Many Papuans I know would like another opportunity, but unlike the one in 1969, to freely determine their own future – whether to remain part of Indonesia or to be apart.

The question is: would Jakarta allow that opportunity?

The UN call for the Indonesian government to engage in dialogue with the people of Papua in response to the violent reactions in August is of course greatly appreciated, but at the same time, it may be seen as an act of washing their hands of their past mistakes.

Regardless of these past mistakes (and whose mistakes?), the Papua issue is too serious to be ignored. It needs to be tackled through comprehensive dialogue.

But, would a political dialogue on Papua be on top of Jokowi’s agenda in his second term in office?

I doubt it. Jokowi wouldn’t make a political dialogue with Papua his top priority. His priority is to try to fulfill all his key promises as outlined in his vision and mission statement. Among them to complete the Trans Papua Project as a way to make Papua more accessible and reachable, and to make Papua more competitive economically.

To the government, endeavors to break down the isolation of and in Papua are as important as (if not more important than) efforts to engage in a political dialogue with the Papuans concerning their past and future.

Jokowi is capable of doing both. He can facilitate a political dialogue about the Papua issue while at the same time continuing to build and improve infrastructures in the country’s easternmost island.

And if he chooses to begin a political dialogue on the Papua issue, then it is crucial that all stages and processes are carefully planned and followed through.

Thorough discussions about the history of Papua chaired by historians are key in understanding the complexity of the Papua issue. All Papuans must also be open and honest about their hopes for the future of Papua.

It should be understood that political dialogue is a complex process, politically and psychologically. It takes place in many forms and at all levels of society, facilitated by a variety of actors. It is a "multi-level dialogue" that ideally fully engages everyone to reach a consensus on critical challenges, such as the future of Papua.

No doubt, Jokowi has a lot on his plate at the moment. It seems he is getting overwhelmed by protests and expectations. But with the right people in his new cabinet, I believe he will complete his second term in office with pride in his achievements. He would then be remembered truly as an “Infrastructure and Dialogue President”.

The title could be his legacy.

Justin L. Wejak is a lecturer in Indonesian Studies at Asia Institute, Faculty of Arts, The University of Melbourne.

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