Last month, the Free West Papua Campaign alleged that Indonesian police had opened fire on a crowd of Papuans attending a fundraising event held in Yahukimo for Vanuatu and other Pacific nations affected by Cyclone Pam. The shooting left one dead and three injured. Wenda, spokesman for the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP), wrote that there was no reason for the police to shoot as the event had been “peaceful.” The police, on the other hand, claimed that the event had no permit and that one of the attendees had attacked an officer and stolen his firearm.
If the Yahukimo shooting did indeed take place, it was the third state-sponsored act of violence against the Papuans after the December Paniai incident in which five were shot dead in a military rampage. The frequency of the attacks on Papuan and West Papuan civilians calls into doubt President Joko Widodo’s much-vaunted campaign promise to improve the lot of Indonesia’s two easternmost provinces.
In an interview with Australia’s Green Left Weekly, Jacob Rumbiak, the minister of foreign affairs of the self-proclaimed Federal Republic of West Papua in exile, said: “Before the election of Widodo, he got most of Papuan support, believing that Widodo would hear their voice and help them. But the reality is the opposite.”
Reality increasingly reflects the common theme that runs through Jokowi’s government: nationalism. In a symbolic gesture during a recent televised interview with Al Jazeera, the president proudly asked his interviewer to look at an enormous map of Indonesia in the background, while declaring that Indonesia “spans from Sabang [in Aceh] to Merauke [in Papua].” The length and breadth of the country are therefore implicitly non-negotiable for Jokowi.
The current administration’s predilection for expressing such nationalist sentiment alone will probably preclude any more concessions of autonomy for both Papua and West Papua in the foreseeable future, as the possible independence of both is seen as a direct attack on Indonesia’s territorial integrity. Jakarta will go to great lengths to ensure that the Papuan independence agenda is seen to be defeated.
In late February, Foreign Affairs Minister Retno Marsudi visited three countries in the Pacific in a bid to lobby against the application by the ULMWP to register the West Papuan state-in-exile as a full member in the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG). Minister Retno offered as a bargaining chip the promise of $20 million in assistance to support capacity building for MSG nations.
Indonesia made the pledge of assistance to MSG nations last year during the first ever visit to Fiji by a sitting Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. At the time of the visit, Jenny Hayward-Jones, an Australian observer, said: “Indonesia is concerned about an increasingly assertive Melanesian Spearhead Group [MSG], which promotes the West Papua cause, and therefore wants to be influencing the members of the MSG.”
However, if Jakarta wants better relations with Pacific Island nations, it is baffling that the government has not sent any aid to Vanuatu and other Pacific regions ravaged by Cyclone Pam as a gesture of goodwill. In contrast, when the threat of ULMWP being granted full membership in MSG loomed, our foreign minister wasted no time in visiting the region. The inconsistency suggests that the main concern of the Indonesian government in relation to the Pacific island nations is indeed their support for Papuan independence.
Given the muted representations by the Papua New Guinean and Fijian governments on the issue of the continuing human rights abuse in both Papua and West Papua during the ministerial visit, Retno’s shuttle diplomacy may have been successful, for the time being.
Nonetheless, the Indonesian government would be foolish to believe that, should it fail to improve its human rights record in Papua and West Papua, the MSG nations could refrain from voicing their protests indefinitely. Jakarta must consider the possible domestic pressure under which the MSG governments could find themselves, if the cause of Melanesian solidarity gains momentum in the Pacific region.
As the loss of the Papuan provinces would be too great a blow to Indonesia’s national pride, it may be political suicide for any Indonesian government to be seen dithering on the issue. Jakarta will do its utmost to keep them, but how? A wise administration would go about it by reducing the visible symbols of oppression Papuans have to encounter on a regular basis; a foolhardy one would insist on continuing the reign of terror.