Monday, July 22, 2013

Recalibrating Jakarta’s Papua diplomacy

Although Papua accounts for 22 percent of Indonesia’s land mass, the amount of diplomatic efforts, resources and expertise allocated to the region hardly reflects its massive size.

Focusing on Jakarta’s previous lack of sustained attention and haphazard manner in handling the Papua issue on the international stage, one might be tempted to conclude that Papua is the size of Bekasi.

However, Jakarta’s latest dealing with the ongoing application of West Papua National Coalition for Liberation (WPNCL) for membership in the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) suggests that our diplomatic reflexes might be improving. An Indonesian high-level delegation, consisting of prominent Papuan public figures, was sent to the 19th MSG Leaders’ Summit in Noumea, New Caledonia, to block the WPNCL
application for membership.

In the end, the regional grouping had decided to defer the membership application for a six months period in which a ministerial visit will be conducted to fulfill Jakarta’s invitation.

Two core counter-arguments had been leveled against the WPNCL membership application. First, the organization is seen as lacking in legitimacy and therefore unable to represent the “whole” of Papua. Unfortunately, 75 letters of support carries little weight in an increasingly fragmented independence movement with dwindling support from the non-indigenous population of Papua.

Second, the organization’s claims of conditions in Papua are seen as overly exaggerated — hence Jakarta’s invitation for the group’s foreign ministers to look into the situation themselves. The pro-independence movement, however, accuse Jakarta’s invitation as a typical “red carpet theatrical” doctored to downplay and conceal the extent of abuses towards and poverty among the indigenous population of its Papuan provinces.

Although an Australian media broadcast that the membership application “is still alive”, it is perhaps more accurate to say that it is now dangling on life-support for the next six months. The pro-independence movement continues to disseminate information that their application was “accepted” or “received” by the MSG — often failing to mention that it has not yet been approved of.

Some important general points should be noted ahead of the MSG ministerial visit to Jakarta and Papua.

First, Jakarta should not repeat its poor handling of the Oxford debacle. The previous diplomatic bashing of the UK ambassador was an obvious overkill and a face saving effort at best. Understandably, it was much more convenient than admitting a foreign ministry, fully supported by state budget with staff numbering in the thousands, had been outmaneuvered by one person with an internet connection, relying on donations and volunteer work, operating from a 3 by 3 meter attic office in a shabbier part of Oxford (The Telegraph, June 12, 2013).

Unlike the UK, some countries within the MSG, their parliaments, public figures and national leaders actually supports Papuan “self-determination” — in all sense of the word — and had long been the home base for pro-independence Papuan activists.

Second, diplomatic efforts on Papua and its prioritization should be more sustainable — and institutionalized if possible — instead of being conducted in a somewhat ad-hoc “fire brigade” approach.

Despite their stellar performance, the Indonesian delegation sent to the MSG summit are not professional diplomats themselves and all of them have daily tasks at hand ranging from running state ministries to managing their respective provinces.

Members of the delegation are obviously individuals who unconditionally hold Papua close to their hearts and would never reject whenever asked to bridge differences between Jakarta and the multitude of dissenting voices.

However, it is much better to trim our diplomatic lawns regularly than to continually use these individuals as human shields every time a crisis develops itself. Furthermore, taking into consideration the upcoming 2014 elections, it is in Jakarta’s best interest to ensure that its diplomatic approach on Papua maintains consistency instead of being dictated by the mood swings of its political elites.

Third, it is important for the foreign ministry not only to have a specialized section on the issue but also to allocate sufficient resource and expertise to it. Currently, different Papua “desks” scattered throughout many state institutions contribute little constructive insights and often inject their biases as well as nationalist overtones into much of the information that passes through them. Stories of Free Papua Movement (OPM) inhumane treatment of kidnapping victims and unarmed migrants are all too common.

Similarly, pro-independence activists continue to excessively use the most graphical depictions of their slain comrades in any and all available opportunities. Although I agree that “no one should censor themselves to entertain ignorance”, both sides should refrain from
dehumanizing and criminalizing each other while romanticizing their own cause.

Unfortunately, their audiences are often left terrified if not induced with second-hand trauma. These counterproductive practices need to stop and the foreign ministry is
the best institution to spearhead the effort. 

Lastly, Jakarta should recalibrate its engagement with the South Pacific outside of Australia, a region that has long been the backwater of Indonesia’s diplomacy. This does not mean that ASEAN is any less important. It simply means that diplomatic ventures are a lot like investments — it is always better to have a well-diversified portfolio.

Different Papua “desks” scattered throughout many state institutions contribute little constructive insights and often inject their biases
The writer is executive director of the Marthinus Academy, program director of the Papua Center at the University of Indonesia, and author of Solving Papuan Grievances (University of Indonesia Press, 2012).

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