Dian Septiari, Jakarta – At the start of the week, two native Papuans entered a courtroom in Jakarta shirtless but adorned in their traditional attire, complete with feathered headdress and war paint. The word "monkey" was boldly strewn across their bare chests as they silently waited for their trial to begin.
The trial was eventually adjourned, but the scene had already become a foil for one of the most serious accusations leveled at Indonesia in recent years: discrimination against Melanesian Papuans.
Throughout President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo's first term in office, Indonesian diplomats shrugged off what they called efforts to "internationalize" the issue of Papua, including attempts to challenge the status quo by a small but persistent separatist movement.
In a joint communique issued in mid-August, members of the Pacific Islands Forum "strongly encouraged" Indonesia to commit to a schedule that included a visit by the United Nations human rights chief to the region to investigate alleged rights abuses. The government was quick to express its objection, telling them that they should instead talk about issues like climate change.
In the past few years, Jakarta has stepped up efforts to contain antigovernment sentiment by enacting a "Look East" policy that aims to provide development assistance to low-lying island nations in the hopes of painting an image of Indonesia as a benevolent giant in the region.
For the most part, experts argue this strategy has succeeded as the majority of these nations have stopped peddling allegations of human rights abuses in Indonesia's easternmost provinces.
However, Indonesia failed to claim the higher moral ground this year after local authorities and members of a mass organization in East Java were accused of perpetuating racism against Papuan students in Surabaya, inciting waves of protests in many cities in Papua and other parts of the country.
What had begun with a slur equating the students with monkeys later spiraled into violent riots and a wider call for self-determination in Papua and West Papua, regions with a predominantly Melanesian population.
Long considered a backwater region exploited for its wealth of mineral resources, the two provinces have become a development focus for President Jokowi in his second term.
However, violent protests that killed at least 33 civilians and forced thousands to flee the city of Wamena provided ample opportunities for countries like Vanuatu, outspoken in its support of the separatist movement, to raise the issue at the UN General Assembly in September.
Indonesia hit back by accusing Vanuatu of "state-sponsored separatism", alleging that it had provoked people and triggered conflict that damaged infrastructure and disrupted everyday life.
It was becoming increasingly clear that Indonesia was not immune to the discontent that has plagued many other countries around the world.
In a year that is increasingly being dubbed the "Year of Protests", Indonesia has found itself on the back foot as it struggles to calm a public that is growing disenchanted with the way the state deals with various domestic issues, especially those with an undeniable international dimension.
Unrest in Papua is just one issue that has exposed Indonesia to criticism.
Indonesia has received flak for politicians' plans to pass dubious laws that negate good governance, prompting thousands of people to take to the streets in the largest student movement since 1998, when the 30-year reign of dictator Soeharto came to an end.
At the height of the rallies beginning Sept. 23, protesters occupied the streets around the House of Representatives building, demanding that lawmakers stop its plan to pass a Criminal Code bill into law, while also voicing disappointment over the recent passage of a highly criticized amendment of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) Law.
Other countries, particularly those from the more developed West, expressed concern over Indonesia's lawmaking, with some singling out the Criminal Code bill, which carries the risk of criminalizing, among other things, consensual sex among unmarried couples and cohabitation.
Australia, for instance, took note of this issue in its latest travel advisory, urging its citizens thinking of visiting Indonesia to be wary of possible persecution. As many as 1 million Australians visit Indonesia every year.
The newly appointed ambassador of the European Union, Vincent Piket, also expressed worries that the Criminal Code bill, if passed into law, might affect EU citizens visiting or residing in the country.
Meanwhile, economists and private sector players urged Jokowi to roll back the amendment to the antigraft law, arguing that unchecked corruption would hamper investment. This appeared to hit home with Jokowi, who looks to grow the economy by increasing exports and canvassing foreign investment. In the end, the President did not bow to public pressure.
However, Jokowi appears to have learned from the wave of protests ahead of his second term in office. In November, he urged security forces and regional heads in a national coordination meeting not to underestimate signs of public discontent, a global trend that he noted has spread to places as far-flung as Hong Kong, Chile and Bolivia.
Dozens of other countries, including France, Spain, the United Kingdom and Russia, are also struggling with civil unrest, while the leaders of Algeria, Bolivia, Iraq, Lebanon and Sudan have been ousted or forced to step down due to issues that vary from corruption to economic hardship.
Vice President Ma'ruf Amin described discontent and public distrust as a "virus" that could "trigger instability", a message that has been echoed by Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi at various occasions.
Though people had largely vacated the streets, Indonesia should not consider it "mission accomplished", political economist Dinna Wisnu of Atmajaya University said as she warned of the dangers of a polarization in society that could drive further division.
"We shouldn't immediately think that a problem can be solved by giving people financial support," Dinna argued in a recent discussion in Jakarta. "People in Papua," she noted, "are already fed up and they don't feel a part of [Indonesia]." (tjs)