Kornelius Purba, Jakarta – My conversations several years ago with three former foreign ministers on East Timor (now Timor Leste) suddenly came to mind when I read an article in this paper entitled "Indonesia to protest 'ill-intentioned, click-bait' UN Papua report" on Tuesday.
The three ministers were once on the front lines as chief Indonesian diplomats in defending the government from accusations of human rights abuses in our former colony East Timor and, from time to time, in Papua. East Timor, then the country's 27th province, decided to secede from Indonesia in a United Nations-mandated referendum in 1999 and changed its name to Timor Leste when it became officially independent in 2002. Indonesia invaded the small territory in 1975 and always insisted that the majority of people there welcomed Indonesia and that only a few ungrateful people wanted to separate from the country. But the referendum proved Indonesia wrong – if not that it had lied.
The Post quoted Indonesia's UN mission in Geneva as saying that "the government will submit a strong protest through [the UN human rights body] for the unprofessional, ill-intentioned, one-sided and click-bait working method in order to establish negative public opinion". As quoted by the UN's official website, the three UN rapporteurs reported that "shocking abuses against indigenous Papuans have been taking place in Indonesia".
They said that since the escalation of violence in December 2018, the total number of displaced people had grown by 60,000 to 100,000 people. "The majority of IDPs [internally displaced persons] in West Papua have not returned to their homes due to the heavy security force presence and ongoing armed clashes in the conflict areas," the UN experts wrote.
Meanwhile, some IDPs have been living in temporary shelters or staying with relatives. "Thousands of displaced villagers have fled to the forests, where they are exposed to the harsh climate in the highlands without access to food, healthcare and education facilities," the special rapporteurs continued. "These cases may represent the tip of the iceberg, given that access to the region is severely restricted, making it difficult to monitor events on the ground," they warned. "Urgent action is needed to end ongoing human rights violations against indigenous Papuans," the experts said, advocating for independent monitors and journalists to be allowed access to the region.
In responding to these concerns about the conditions in Papua and West Papua, Indonesia, surprisingly, used the old, harsh and even rude tactics that characterize undemocratic nations such as North Korea and Myanmar. The country also took the same tone in two previous UN annual general assemblies to answer criticism from Vanuatu over the conditions of the Papuan people. We should remember that Indonesia is the world's third-largest democracy, after India and the United States.
This year, Indonesia holds the rotary presidency of the Group of 20, the club of the world's 20 largest economies. Let's act with dignity and acknowledge that the situation in Papua is indeed messy but that we intend to fix the problem and to prove to the world that we deserve its trust.
Papuans are part of Indonesia, and many of them are not happy with their own nation. Just be honest with yourself, as an Indonesian, when you are asked about your impression of our brothers and sisters in Papua. Many of us will have a negative impressions because the judgment is based on degrading racism and discrimination. We rarely try to see the problem from Papua's perspective.
On a few occasions, former foreign ministers Hassan Wirajuda and Marty Natalegawa shared their bitter but also "funny" experiences at UN general assemblies and at the UN human rights body in Geneva. One of their most difficult missions was to act, no matter what, as the defender of the government against accusations of human rights abuses in East Timor. The criticism came from the same countries, especially Portugal and its former colonies, so often that the Indonesian delegation responded like a "tape recorder".
Sometimes they gave the same answers to unexpectedly different questions. On one occasion, an African country raised a new human rights violation case in East Timor. Hassan, who did not pay attention to the speaker, then looked at the Portuguese delegation and mentioned their names in his statement, to the shock of the Portuguese side.
Marty was almost humiliated by his own staff when he denied allegations of human rights abuses raised by another African country. In an effort to bolster his defense, he asked one of his delegation members, an Army officer, to speak at the Geneva forum. The officer was in East Timor when the alleged human rights violations occurred. "Please tell them that the accusation is baseless," Marty told the officer. "Actually the incident happened, but they exaggerated it," said the officer. Marty immediately asked the officer to leave the delegation.
On many occasions, then-foreign minister Ali Alatas said the problems in East Timor were not more than a "pebble in the shoe" and then had to acknowledge that what happened in Papua was a "time bomb put into my body". The three former foreign ministers knew very well that as diplomats they should not lie about the real situations and that they were obliged to tell the truth, but they decided not to disclose "the whole truth". Defending something that they knew was incorrect was actually not the right thing to do.
The same dilemma is faced by Indonesian diplomats and the Foreign Ministry in dealing with the Papua issue. They know the problem lies at home and not at the UN or elsewhere. But they have to accommodate various interests, such as the Indonesian Military (TNI) and the Defense Ministry. After East Timor became Timor Leste in 2002, I asked Pak Alatas whether Papua would one day follow in the footsteps of Timor Leste. His answer was a firm "no". He argued that Papua was totally different from Timor Leste.
First, from the very beginning, the UN has acknowledged Papua as an integral part of Indonesia. The UN held a very simple referendum in Papua in 1963 and the majority of the representatives of the people chose to stay with Indonesia.
The referendum was widely criticized as improper because it only involved Papuan elites. Even as of the last general election in 2019, the balloting system in some remote parts of Papua was simpler than in other areas. For me, it is not about the questionable UN historical referendum. It is more about human dignity. Second, it was easier for East Timorese people to be united because of shared ethnic and religious – largely Catholic – identities.
In Papua, there are hundreds of different ethnicities with different languages and cultures. They speak Indonesian as their common language. Most Papuans adhere to Protestantism, consisting of many denominations. If the same question were asked now, the late Ali would likely answer, "I am probably wrong." The Papua issue can only be settled if the nation acts together and treats Papuans equally so that they feel truly at home. It is not an easy task at all, and the government should not take the blame solely.
Many parties contribute to making the Papuans not feel at home. And many of them are now asking Indonesia just to let the Papuans go.
[The writer is a senior editor at The Jakarta Post.]