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Not always black or white: Downside of polarizing Papua discourse

Jakarta Post - November 25, 2020

Saskia Raishaputri, London – Papua is brewing, its people taking to the streets last year in large numbers to show their discontent at being a part of Indonesia. It has been 51 years since the last Dutch colonial bastion in this region joined the Republic, but instead of rejoicing, the demonstrations and protests have continued.

A series of racist slurs against Papuan students in the East Java capital of Surabaya triggered massive protests in August and September 2019.

But the Papuan problem is much deeper than racism. The people's discontent reflects the wider range of problems they have been experiencing, from violent conflicts to ill-suited development projects, to human right violations and other forms of injustice.

Should we still be questioning why a growing number of Papuans are demanding a referendum for self-determination?

The two provinces of Papua and West Papua rank among the most underdeveloped of all 34 provinces in Indonesia by almost any measure provided by Statistics Indonesia. At over 20 percent, the two provinces have the highest poverty rates compared to the 9.2 percent national average.

They rank low in terms of their literacy rates, and their children drop out of school earlier than children in any other province. More than half of the 3.3 million provincial population of Papua have no access to good sanitation services.

The people of Papua and West Papua tend to die younger, with a life expectancy of 65 years compared to the national average of 71 years.

The region is home to Timika, which has the world's largest gold reserves that are managed by American mining giant PT Freeport Indonesia, yet its per capita spending is Rp 7.3 million in Papua and Rp 8.1 million in West Papua, against the Rp 11.29 million national average.

Lack of economic development is only half the story. Discrimination and human rights violations have been brewing discontent, a ticking time bomb. Massive antiracism protests erupted again this year to coincide with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, with banners reading "Papuan Lives Matter" – an offshoot of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States.

The death of pastor Yeremia Zanambani in September only added to the long list of killings that remain unsolved. The Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) cites four causes as the root of the Papuan conflict: Political violence, the marginalization of indigenous Papuans with the rise of migrants from other islands, the failure of development, and the contradicting narratives on the history of the Papuan territory's integration.

For Jakarta, the integration was finalized under the results of the 1969 Act of Free Choice. Many Papuans are now disputing the process, which involved only 1,025 selected tribal chiefs to vote on behalf of the whole region, with alleged intimidation and violence throughout the process. Jakarta's canned response to these events in Papua has been to send in more troops to secure public order or more money for economic development. In any public discourse on Papua, we should acknowledge that some issues are not easy, but must be addressed nonetheless.

When we discuss the marginalization of the Papuan people, we need to acknowledge that the 20-year Special Autonomy (Otsus) launched in 2001 has failed. When discussing the violence against civilians, we cannot dismiss the role of the Indonesian Military.

When we address education and health issues, we also need to work on real justice, which has been left unmet. Instead, we find that the discourse on Papua is becoming increasingly polarized, dominated by the two extremes of those demanding independence and those saying that the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia (NKRI) is nonnegotiable. The middle ground, reserved for voices of reason, is rapidly disappearing.

Though many online campaigns and peaceful protests focus primarily on discrimination, human rights and injustice, the government and its die-hard supporters overgeneralize these as advocating for Papua's secession. They slap the label "separatist" on anyone for questioning Jakarta's Papua policy, for wondering why Papua's history under the republic has been so problematic, or for arguing that many of the grievances was caused by military violence.

Treating the Papuan issue as a matter of secessionist conflict undermines the intricacy of the problems and actors involved, and is making Papua too sensitive to discuss in public. Human rights activists and Papuans advocating for peace and justice have been accused of threatening national unity. Some have even been jailed for treason. Seven Papuan students and activist were sentenced to prison for participating in the peaceful antiracism protests in September 2019. Even online discussions are no longer safe. Amnesty International Indonesia recorded four cases of cyberbullying against students, academics and activists because they took part in online discussions about racism in Papua. Rather than shouting "NKRI harga mati" (the NKRI is nonnegotiable) or accusing others of being traitors,

it is much better for us to listen first, and then educate and familiarize ourselves with the real situation. We should not be romanticizing the resistance movement without acknowledging the loss of lives among both authorities and civilians in the horrors of conflict.

But at the same time, we should not remain silent on the greater destruction and trauma caused by the violence on the part of the state. It is time for a new approach other than militarism or development in solving the Papuan issue. The Papua discourse should never be polarized. As we discuss the next steps to take after the 20-year Papua Otsus ends next year, we need to keep the discussion open and critical, and not let it boil down to the question of mere sovereignty.

[The writer is a student of MSc Violence, Conflict and Development program at SOAS, University of London.]

Source: https://www.thejakartapost.com/paper/2020/11/24/not-always-black-or-white-downside-of-polarizing-papua-discourse.htm