How to deliver peace in troubled Papua province

P.M. Erza Killian, Malang | Mon, 03/01/2010 1:11 PM | Opinion Jakarta Post

A series of threats and violence in the mining area of PT Freeport Indonesia is unlikely to cease despite the death of the Free Papua Movement (OPM) leader Kelly Kwalik, who was believed to be behind the terror in Papua.

The Jan. 24 shooting was the 4th shooting incident in the last seven months, causing an increase in the security and military measures of the mining company.

Freeport and the Indonesian government have a long and complex history not only with the separatist group, but with the local community. Social disparities, the unequal spread of wealth, historical concerns and allegations of “stealing” Papua’s natural resources were at the root of the conflict. Despite the efforts of both parties to overcome this problem, Papua remains a problematic issue in Indonesia’s politics.

Following Indonesia’s so-called attempt to free West Papua in 1963, Freeport started its full operation in 1966, causing ongoing resistance from the local community who believe the company and the government is destroying their homeland and not compensating them enough.

Although, since the late 1990s, Freeport has made various attempts to empower the community and provide basic infrastructure and needs, the damage done was already too big to be compensated by just 1 percent of the company’s revenue.

Similarly, the government’s approach to Papua has not been very popular. After the assassination of notable Papuan leader Theys Hiyo Eluay by seven members of the Indonesian Special Army Troops (Kopassus) and the shooting of Kelly Kwalik by the police force, the attitude of the Papuans’ toward the government is clearly not improving.

It was a clear irony watching Kwalik’s funeral, where a man labeled as separatist was mourned by more than 800 local people, raising questions about the given label. One could see there was something wrong in the government’s handling of the Papuan case.

The case of Papua is obviously not an easy one to handle. A combination of historical issues, economic concerns, political factors and cultural aspects clearly plays a role in the dispute. The government has so far only touched on several aspects of the problem, leaving other issues untouched.

The government for example, responded to the economic and political issues by giving special autonomy status to the region, providing the region with more money and opportunity to grow, although the success of this program is still questionable.

Similarly, the government, during president Megawati Soekarnoputri’s legacy, decided to divide the region into five provinces despite the local accusation that it was merely the government’s technique to minimize the “freedom of aspiration” of the people by giving them more power.

As a result, the region so far had been separated into two provinces with uncertain and mixed results for growth and development.

However, the government still hasn’t touched on one of the most crucial issues covering the region, which is culture. Papua, without a doubt, is the most distinct cultural groups in the country. Not only do they have a strikingly different appearance, race and identity from their Indonesian counterparts, they also have a different historical background.

Papuans were not involved in Indonesia’s Youth Pledge (Sumpah Pemuda) in 1928 nor in Indonesia’s Proclamation of Independence in 1945. Papuans were “latecomers” in Indonesia’s history and therefore share a different sense of belongings compared to the other people in the country.

This situation was worsened by the stereotype given to the Papuans as minor, uneducated and a subordinate group in the community, making them even more reluctant to join the larger community of Indonesia. This is one crucial issue the government has failed to touch on.

Richard Chauvel (2005) put it very clearly when he said that Papuans have a different sense of nationalism from Indonesia, one that is called “Papuan Nationalism”, a larger sense of belonging to the region rather than to the country, due to the similarity in identity, culture and historical background. This nationalism is often very influential to the point that even long-time immigrants and non-Papuans can actually relate and even possess this sense of belonging.

If there is one thing the central government lacks in negotiating peace with Papua, it is a clear understanding of this “nationalism”. It is true that economic factors also play an important role, but economic solutions alone won’t be enough. Papua needs recognition as a different identity, a different culture and an equal partner within Indonesia. If Indonesia can’t or won’t give that recognition, they are going to force it using their own way.

What Papua needs is recognition. Not recognition as a separate country, but as a different entity with a different culture that should receive equal treatment and respect from the others. Papua is indeed a complex case, requiring not only the government’s approach but also the involvement of society as well as an overall perspective shift regarding the issue.

It is therefore a matter of bridging communication and understanding between the central government, the local community and society to solve the problem of Papua. Misunderstanding is often a source of dispute and Papua has been misunderstood for so long.

What the government needs to work on now is not just implementing economic development policy in Papua, but how to integrate Papuans into the larger Indonesian community, slowly building their sense of belonging as Indonesians, not just as Papuans.

Denise Leith (2003) argues that one of the basic problems of the Freeport-Indonesia-local community relationship is cultural differences that often blur the lines of communication, leading to misunderstanding, resentment and inappropriate development programs. Indonesia, therefore, needs to work first on understanding Papuan culture and their national identity before its hopes of a lasting peace in Papua can be achieved.

This should be the goal, not only for the government, but society as a whole, if Negara Kesatuan Republik Indonesia (the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia) is still our final goal.

The writer is a lecturer at the Department of International Relations, Brawijaya University, Malang. She has been residing in Papua for more than 20 years.

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