Monday, August 9, 2010

Resentful Papua: Turning pebbles into boulders

SLOWLY but surely, Papua is emerging as a serious international problem for the otherwise well-liked Indonesian administration of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The latest report on the region by the International Crisis Group (ICG), a think-tank, shows how

the government’s own missteps are escalating tensions, which, in turn, will draw increasing foreign attention. The specific issue the report focuses on is the fate of “SK14” , a decision taken last November by the Papuan People’s Council, or Majelis Rakyat Papua (MRP). This recommended that elections for some senior local-government posts be reserved for indigenous Papuan candidates—ie, migrants from Java, the most populous island, and other parts of Indonesia would be excluded.
This highlighted the Papuans' two big grievances. The first was that the “special autonomy” they were promised in 2001 has not been honoured. The newly democratic government in Jakarta had been eager to put an end to decades of low-level insurgency when they offered it. But the autonomy granted seems insubstantial, especially since the central government split the region into two, creating a new province of West Papua in 2003. The second was that migration from elsewhere in Indonesia was swamping local culture and making a mockery of the idea of autonomy in the first place.

The response of the central government was dismissive. The MRP, it pointed out, was supposed to look after cultural matters, not dabble in high politics. And in any event the law it proposed was discriminatory. This refusal to recognise that the MRP was voicing a widespread feeling—and the contemptuous way in which its recommendation was brushed aside—had the predictable effect, radicalising local opinion. It led to louder demands that special autonomy be “handed back”, to pave the way for an internationally-mediated dialogue and a referendum on full independence.

Indonesia, which fought long and hard to avoid that outcome on impoverished, inhospitable and tiny East Timor, is not going to permit it for the resource-rich and huge chunk of Papua it controls, whatever local opinion wants, and whatever the legality of its rule there. The sad thing is that Indonesia seems to be repeating many of the same mistakes it made in East Timor. Its forces have been guilty of terrible human-rights abuses (see for example, this report by Human Rights Watch). It has attempted to close the region off from scrutiny by the foreign media (though some reporters sneak in). Its migrants have too often been contemptuous of indigenous inhabitants (ICG quotes a local police officer who denies that Papuans are lazy or stupid, insisting that, rather, “It's just that they're still in the Stone Age.”)

Above all, as the ICG points out, Indonesia has refused to recognise that there is a political problem that cannot be solved either by immigration or the central government's exchequer. This new report may help. An editorial in the Jakarta Post, an English-language newspaper, seemed to get its point. But the internationally minded liberals at the Post are a softer touch than the nationalists whose hackles rise at any hint of further archipelagic dismemberment.

Over East Timor, a former foreign minister famously put his foot in it by calling the problem a mere “pebble in my shoe”. There is an echo of that in the ICG’s accurate description of the current status of Papua, as viewed from Jakarta: “a distant, if chronic, problem of no urgency whatsoever”. The Economist by Banyan

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