Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Struggle to Make Papua a Land of Peace

LAST Tuesday Papuans rallied in the provincial capital, Jayapura, demanding a referendum and independence from Indonesia. Such demonstrations are not unusual. This one, however, was timed to support a conference at Oxford University that questioned the legality of Indonesian rule in West Papua. The demonstration also attracted media attention because in the days before some 20 people had been killed in two separate incidents.

Responsibility for the killing of four people, including one soldier, on the outskirts of Jayapura is contested, with police accusing the pro-independence Free Papua Movement and human rights activists denying that.

Two days before the demonstration, in violence not related to the demand forindependence, 17 people were killed in the Puncak district of the central highlands. Supporters of rival candidates in the forthcoming district election clashed, reflecting the intensity of competition for control of local governments and government resources. The demonstration and the violence highlight unresolved tensions in Papua.

In early July the Papuan Peace Network, a movement campaigning for dialogue to resolve those tensions, held a conference in Jayapura called ''Let us make Papua a land of peace''.

The presence of senior government figures suggested a more open mind in Jakarta and that the campaign to persuade the government that dialogue was the appropriate means to resolve conflict was beginning to produce results.

The tenor of the Papuan presentations at the conference demonstrated the strength of Papuan identity and the demand for independence. Papuan interpretations of the history of their integration into Indonesia during the 1960s reject the legality of Indonesian sovereignty. The foundations of this argument was the focus of the Oxford conference and is central to what Papuans want to discuss with Jakarta, but it is the issue Indonesian governments find most difficult.

The failure of the 2001 autonomy law is one of the few issues that the government and its Papuan critics agree on. Papuan responses to the failure have been demands for a referendum or a dialogue with Jakarta. The government, however, has preferred to see Papua's problems as ones of socio-economic backwardness, as well as corruption and poor governance. The peace conference declaration reasserted that dialogue was the best way to finding the solution to the conflict between Papuan people and the government and that the dialogue had to be mediated by a neutral third party.

One month on from the conference, there are no signs that the government is prepared to engage in dialogue, particularly with international mediation. Given the daunting differences between the government and Papuans and the intense mutual distrust, it might be naive to hope that Hillary Clinton's recent advice to Indonesia that it hold an ''open dialogue'' with Papuan representatives be seriously considered by Jakarta.

By Richard Chauvel who teaches at Victoria University, specialising in
Indonesian history and politics. Sydney Morning Herald

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