Nic Maclellan – Writing in Crikey yesterday, Indonesia analyst Jim Della-Giacoma said the appointment of retired general Ryamizard Ryacudu as new Indonesian Defence Minister "could have been worse". But if you're West Papuan, it's hard to see how.
During his election campaign, Indonesian President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo travelled twice to West Papua, promising a new era of dialogue between Jakarta and Jayapura. Last August, Jokowi met with West Papuan political, community and church leaders, outlining new policies for the troubled region. He pledged greater access for foreign journalists, stating: "Why not? It's safe here in Papua. There's nothing to hide."
But the Indonesian President's appointment of Ryacudu as Defence Minister threatens to undermine these commitments. The choice of a hard-line former military general for this senior cabinet post is likely to undo Jokowi's cautious steps towards reconciliation in West Papua.
Successive Indonesian presidents have regarded the provinces of Papua and West Papua as an integral part of the Indonesian republic, cracking down on West Papuan nationalists who promote the right to self-determination or call for independence.
Since Indonesia's takeover in the early 1960s and the 1969 Act of Free Choice, Indonesia's police and military forces have committed extensive human rights abuses. The Indonesian Armed Forces have marginalised the West Papuan guerrilla movement Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM) but are struggling to control a new generation of student and community activists who are calling for independence.
In spite of Indonesia's post-1998 democratic advances, West Papua remains an area with little international monitoring on the ground (the recent arrest, detention and trial of two French journalists for meeting with independence activists is a sign the security forces are still hostile to international scrutiny).
The new Defence Minister is an ally of former Indonesian president Megawati Sukarnoputri, and his appointment reflects her influence with the new Jokowi administration. Ryacudu was chief of the Indonesian army's strategic command (Kostrad) in 2000-02 and then army chief of staff between 2002 and 2005.
During his time in the Indonesian military, Ryacudu was notorious for his hostility to Indonesian human rights activists, expressed doubts about civilian control of the military and downplayed concerns over human rights violations by the Indonesian military in Aceh and West Papua.
A decade ago, Ryacudu led the implementation of martial law in Aceh, with a crackdown on the Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM), or Free Aceh Movement. In May 2003, he told Time Magazine: "Our job is to destroy GAM's military capability. Issues of justice, religion, autonomy, social welfare, education? Those are not the Indonesian military's problems."
In response to reports that Indonesian soldiers had executed unarmed children during the martial law crackdown, he stated: "If they are armed and fire, they will be shot, because children – and women – can kill, too."
Ryacudu also played an important role in the crushing of the "Papuan Spring", the period between 1998 and 2001 when West Papuans met to propose new options for self-determination. In 1998, as the Suharto regime collapsed, the West Papuan church, NGOs and indigenous leaders formed the Forum for Reconciliation in Irian Jaya (FORERI). In February 2000, the Papuan Mass Consultation (MUBES) was held in Jayapura to discuss democracy and self-determination. Supported by then-Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid, this popular congress was a crucial but short-lived moment of hope for West Papuans.
A key outcome of the congress was the creation of the Papua Presidium Council, led by Chief Theys Eluay, a key indigenous leader who proposed dialogue rather than conflict with Jakarta. But Eluay was murdered by Indonesian soldiers on November 10, 2001, shortly after attending an event at the Kopassus Special Forces base near Jayapura – Indonesian military officials initially denied responsibility for the killing, but after campaigning by human rights activists, seven low-ranking soldiers were eventually brought before a military court. These soldiers were found guilty in 2003 but only served short prison sentences.
At the time, Ryacudu praised Eluay's murderers as heroes, stating: "I don't know, people say they did wrong, they broke the law. What law? OK, we are a state based on the rule of law, so they have been punished. But for me, they are heroes because the person they killed was a rebel leader."
Today, Indonesian human rights activists, academics and solidarity groups have all expressed concern about Jokowi's new Defence Minister, and the potential for further conflict in West Papua.
Joe Collins of the Australia West Papua Association (AWPA) states: "The people of West Papua live in fear of security operations in the territory and the appointment of Ryamizard Ryacudu as Defence Minister can only add to this fear. There was some hope that the election of Jokowi would bring an easing of tension in West Papua, but with Ryamizard Ryacudu's appointment it looks like there could be a continuation of solving issues of concern in West Papua by the security approach, not by dialogue."
The Indonesian President can talk of dialogue, but ongoing human rights violations in West Papua by Indonesian police and military will undercut this initiative and continue to sour regional relations.
For Australia, the issue of self-determination in Melanesia will not go away. The French Pacific dependency of New Caledonia is scheduled to hold a referendum on self-determination before the end of 2018. Bougainville is moving towards a decision on its political status after nearly a decade of autonomous government. Self-determination will remain on the agenda in West Papua, even though governments in Canberra, Jakarta and Port Moresby regard it as a taboo subject.
[Nic Maclellan, a journalist and researcher in the Pacific islands.]