Protesters in Papua want independence, but will it be another East Timor or Aceh?
While foreign news headlines in Singapore have been dominated by developments in Hong Kong in recent weeks, there is another protest close to home that bears watching. Since Aug 16, demonstrations have taken place in many Papuan towns and other towns throughout Indonesia, in the largest and most sustained manifestations of discontent among Papuans regarding their situation in the country.
While foreign news headlines in Singapore have been dominated by developments in Hong Kong in recent weeks, there is another protest close to home that bears watching.
Since Aug 16, demonstrations have taken place in many Papuan towns and other towns throughout Indonesia, in the largest and most sustained manifestations of discontent among Papuans regarding their situation in the country.
The protests and critical statements by the Papuans against the Indonesian authorities have been festering for several years now.
What sparked the ongoing wave of protests was a viral mobile phone video recording of police using the racial slur “monkeys” during an incident outside a Papuan student hostel in Surabaya, East Java.
Almost all of these demonstrations called for an act of self-determination or independence for Papua.
The Indonesian government has responded with an apology for the racial slur and action against the police officers concerned, combined with a hardening of its stance against calls for self-determination or independence.
More police and troops have been sent to Papua. The Internet has been closed down there. The police have been told to consider expressions of support for separating from Indonesia as illegal.
Activists, who used the West Papuan flag in a demonstration outside the Presidential palace in Jakarta, have been arrested and charged with political offences that carry severe prison sentences. The government has said it is open to dialogue, but has ruled out any discussion of a referendum.
Over the last 20 years, Indonesia has twice faced situations where regions have indicated they wanted to break away. In 1999, after 24 years of military occupation in East Timor against a prolonged struggle for independence, a majority of Timorese voted in a referendum for independence from Indonesia.
Today, Timor Leste as East Timor is also known, is a sovereign country with 1.3 million citizens.
In Aceh, after a similarly long period where there was a guerrilla struggle against Indonesia, there were also calls for a referendum on the question of independence.
Most notably, almost half of the whole population of Aceh took part in a demonstration in 1999 calling for such a referendum.
That however did not happen. Instead, negotiations took place, mediated by a third party, the government of Finland. The talks led to a settlement where Aceh remained within Indonesia, but obtained very significant concessions for its autonomy.
The local government has power over all areas of governance except defence, foreign relations and fiscal policy. The agreement also allowed for the establishment of local political parties.
Can the situation in Papua be compared with East Timor or Aceh? Which is more likely: An East Timor outcome or an Aceh outcome or indeed something new?
There are key differences, of course, among these three cases. The history of East Timor, including four centuries of colonisation by Portugal, meant that the Timorese population’s sense of community came out of a separate experience which began long before the integration into Indonesia following annexation in 1975.
The Timorese character as a national community was built on a different linguistic experience, with most people with schooling taught in Portuguese; with different political resources, drawing from Portuguese and African right-wing and left-wing ideologies.
They had almost zero overlap with the Indonesian national experience. On the other hand, Aceh had been an enthusiastic supporter of the establishment of Indonesia. In Papua, the common experience of ethnic Papuans has been mainly generated under Indonesian authority, communicated in Indonesian language.
One thing the Timorese had in common with Indonesia but not with Aceh or Papua, was that the Timorese nation was not ethnically defined. Timorese nationalists could be from a Timor ethnic group, or Chinese or Arabic. This was similar to Indonesia.
Acehnese and Papuan nationalism has on the other hand been tied more closely to ethnicity. In Aceh, this was never a major problem, but in Papua ethnic nationalism raised serious, but not irresolvable, questions about the place of non-Melanesian migrant residents of Papua in any Papuan national community.
Timor’s international situation was also very different. Both before and after 1975, all members of the United Nations recognised East Timor as a Portuguese colony and expected a properly organised decolonisation process to take place.
UN member countries — except for one, Australia, which needed Jakarta’s agreement to access oil and gas in the Timor Sea — did not ever recognise the Indonesian incorporation of East Timor.
A representative of East Timor was given official status at the United Nations in 1975. The Portuguese government consistently and seriously campaigned on behalf of an act of self-determination. Papuan nationalists only have the support of the small Pacific Island countries and no government from within the Western bloc.
Within the UN, no major country, including the former colonial power, the Netherlands, has questioned West Papua’s integration within Indonesia since 1969.
In Aceh’s case, its outcome was a result of compromise and negotiation. One feature of President Joko Widodo’s political style has been pragmatic coalition building, even more recently reaching out to his opponent in the elections, Prabowo Subianto.
The question now regarding Papua is whether the same pragmatic reach-out approach will be used for dialogue, similar to what happened with Aceh, or will it be abandoned for the 1999 Timor approach?
Much needs to happen before the answers to these questions become clear. In the meantime, the issue is unlikely to impact more widely on South-east Asia, except if support for Papuans spreads to neighbouring regions and becomes a public issue.
This is most likely if there is a serious top-down militarisation of the situation.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Max Lane is aVisiting Senior Fellow at the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute.