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Dialogue or Referendum? Indonesia’s efforts to quell tensions in West Papua

dialogueorreferendumThe demand for a referendum in West Papua, one of Indonesia’s provinces is growing, with Papuans seeking independence from Indonesia. The ongoing civil unrest which started in the middle of August was sparked by police detentions and racism against ethnic Papuan students studying in Java, and add to the old and ongoing call for West Papua’s right to freedom and self-determination. The protest is considered to be the first of its kind in the history of West Papua, going across from West Papua to Jakarta. Now the question is how will Indonesia respond this time around, will it accommodate the calls for a referendum or will President Jokowi’s charm offensive and appeal for a dialogue yield any positive results?  

West Papua is considered to be rich in natural resources such as gold, silver, natural gas, copper and timber, and is also home to one of the poorest and marginalized groups in Indonesia. It is argued that the natural resources are the main reason why Indonesia will not cede to the calls for a referendum.  For over 50 years, there has been limited information coming out from West Papua regarding their struggle for independence, this has supposedly been linked to how Indonesia constantly monitored the region through military deployment, banning media and monitoring international aid groups over concerns of a secessionist movement on the island.

The desired call for independence of West Papua has been a contentious issue dating as far  back  as 1969 when West Papua became part of Indonesia through a controversial referendum (known as  Act of Free Choice) backed by the United Nations. Controversial in a sense that, even after the UN acknowledged that the results of the referendum did not democratically represent the will of the people, it went ahead to recognise Indonesian government rule in West Papua.

Since 1969, Indonesia’s rule in West Papua has been allegedly linked to human rights violations perpetrated by the state in the form of large-scale military operations to intimidate, imprison and kill Papuans who are against the Indonesian government. This had led to the formation of an armed movement for independence to lead the fight against the Indonesian military. In 1987, a Working Group on Indigenous populations in Geneva issued a statement concerning the West Papuan’s right of self-determination, where they also referred to the ‘Act of Free Choice as a sham used by Indonesia to mock the United Nations policy on decolonisation and self-determination.

In an attempt to resolve the issue of independence, Indonesia granted West Papua a ‘Special Autonomy’ status in 2001, which was supposed to allow the Papua province to regulate and manage the interests of the local people based on the aspiration and fundamental rights of the people of Papua. However this did not yield to any positive outcome, as Indonesia is accused by several parties in West Papua of failing to implement the Special Autonomy. 

The current Indonesian government administration under President Jokowi has been calling for a dialogue to resolve the conflict, in opposition of granting West Papua full independence. This has been Jokowi’s approach since 2014, to focus on developing infrastructure and improving connectivity to end the isolation of many Papuan communities.  Compared to Indonesia’s previous presidents, Jokowi enjoys considerable support both from Papua and West Papua, however his efforts to quell a five-decade old civil unrest remains in limbo.  

While Jakarta continues to be adamant that West Papua is an integral and indivisible part of Indonesia, all attention is now on President Jokowi’s response to the current violent protests. At this stage, the demand for a referendum by the Free Papua Movement has gained momentum more than ever with no sign of backing down. The leaders of West Papua do welcome a dialogue but with a condition that it must feature talks on a referendum. On the other hand, Jokowi’s determination to bring peace and unity with West Papua is perceived to be the only solution to the civil unrest.  Consequently a dialogue is necessary, but most importantly the nature of the outcome of the dialogue, whether it will accommodate both Jakarta’s interest as well as the demands of West Papuans, and if not, who will be willing to compromise on their position.

Mr. Kenny Dlamini holds a BA Hons in Political & International Studies from Rhodes University and is a research officer at the Institute for Global Dialogue associated with UNISA. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the IGD

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