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The hope for peace in Papua recedes – for now

Papuans love to call their homeland the Land of Peace not for nothing. It’s not so much a utopian dream but it is a message they have been trying to convey for decades to the world, and most particularly to the Indonesian government: That whatever solutions anyone proposes to the complex problems facing Papua, they ...

STR/AFP/GettyImage
STR/AFP/GettyImage

Papuans love to call their homeland the Land of Peace not for nothing. It’s not so much a utopian dream but it is a message they have been trying to convey for decades to the world, and most particularly to the Indonesian government: That whatever solutions anyone proposes to the complex problems facing Papua, they have to be non-violent.

Papua, unfortunately, is anything but peaceful. And as violence begets more violence, the territory furthest east in the Indonesian archipelago could soon spiral out of control.

At least 18 people have been killed in the past month, most in the capital city of Jayapura. Most were shot dead. The government blames the Organisasi Papua Merdeka ("Free Papua Organization," or OPM for short) for the shootings. Papua-watchers say the armed separatist group traditionally fights its battles in the jungles, not in urban areas that are controlled by government forces. Is the government seriously suggesting now that the OPM is launching urban warfare?

Some of the shootings are harder to explain, since the targets appeared to have been picked randomly. They include a German tourist (shot and injured), a small trader, and migrants from outside Papua. Shooting or killing them certainly helps no one’s cause aside from spreading confusion and terror among the population.

Some of the targets were more obvious, such as a government soldier and an independent activist. But whoever started the violence, the government cannot completely wash its hands of the affair.

When a government soldier was shot dead, his colleagues went on a rampage in Jayapura. In addition to the considerable property damage caused, at least one Papuan was found dead after the riot. The raging soldiers escaped with a mere scolding — President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono described their behavior as "over-reacting."

The death of Mako Tabuni, a leading Papuan independent activist, while under police custody, later triggered a similar "over-reaction" from his supporters. (Some of them are shown mourning him in the image above.) Thousands of Papuans went on a rampage, setting fire to vehicles and property. Police said Tabuni had to be shot after he resisted arrest and tried to seize a gun from one of the arresting officers. Witnesses interviewed by the National Commission on Human Rights said the shooting was unprovoked.

The new round of violence has only served to destroy whatever trust the government and the Papuans, including the OPM, had painfully built between them in the preceding months. In November, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono agreed to a long-held proposal from faith-based groups, who asked the government to give dialogue a chance. He even agreed to the idea that all groups in Papua, including those who harbor independent aspirations, should be involved.

"I remember the days when anyone who proposed dialogue would be accused of siding with the separatists," says Neles Tebay, a Catholic priest and one of the religious leaders who had been advocating dialogue. "Now, the government is no longer allergic to the idea."

The Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs, Djoko Suyanto, confirmed that he had held a series of talks on behalf of the government, including closed-door discussions with OPM representatives, prior to this month’s shootings. He flew to Papua this week to control the damage by assuring all the Papuan leaders that dialogue will continue to be the path to solving the Papuan problem.

The OPM, however, declared that they would not return to the negotiating table, and avoided the Djoko’s government delegation when it arrived.

Apparently Jakarta’s response to the unfolding events in Papua did not inspire trust.

President Yudhoyono ruffled Papuan feathers when he described the Papuan shootings as "small-scale," and even dismissed the significance of the death toll by comparing it with the turmoil in the Middle East. He also ordered the military and the police to do all they can to reestablish order in Papua. It was not exactly the kind of olive branch most Papuans had hoped for. A day after Yudhoyono’s specific instruction, Tabuni was killed.

The confusing signals from Jakarta raise questions about its real agenda in Papua.

Indonesia has vowed to defend all its territory to the death after the bitter loss of East Timor in 1999. (The East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for independence in a UN-sponsored referendum, and the result effectively ended 25 years of Indonesian military occupation. The independent nation is now called Timor Leste.)

Indonesia sees Papua first and foremost within the context of its efforts to defend its jealously guarded territorial integrity. Secondly, Papua is important as it is home to some precious natural resources, including a highly profitable gold mine operated by the Louisiana-based Freeport McMoRan.

Given this order of priority, Papua is regarded more as a security issue, one that requires solutions invariably involving the military or the police. The issues that concern the people of Papua — namely their prosperity and their long quest for justice — are not as important, at least as far as Jakarta is concerned.

Even if dialogue is held with all Papuans, the government has made it clear that the status of Papua as part of the republic should not be questioned. The OPM, for its part, has called for a referendum on self-determination, and condemning the 1969 UN-supervised Act of Free Choice (a plebiscite claimed by Jakarta as legitimizing Indonesian sovereignty over the territory) as legally flawed. With the two sides a gulf apart, it was questionable whether the dialogue would have led anywhere in the first place. It was good as long as it lasted, for anything that brought them to the negotiating table stopped them from fighting.

Now that the dialogue has been put on hold, Papuans must brace for more violence.

And their quest to turn Papua into the land of peace will have to wait, again.

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