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Prabowo must resist temptation to apply more force in Papua

Nikkei Asia - February 27, 2024

Hamish McDonald – After what appears to have been a decisive win by Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto in Indonesia's presidential election, many observers have been speculating about what kind of leader will emerge when he takes over from incumbent Joko "Jokowi" Widodo in October.

Will it be the hot-headed army general who allegedly abducted student protesters, instigated anti-Chinese riots and came close to mounting a coup in 1998?

Or the 2014 candidate who launched his first presidential campaign riding a white horse surrounded by strapping uniformed men? Or the stirrer of Islamist street-power who railed against foreigners during his second campaign in 2019? Or just the tubby, avuncular figure who seems to have finally won this month at age 72?

Chameleon is the word many analysts have used.

An early test could come at the far eastern end of Indonesia: the western half of the island of New Guinea, which has been restive under Jakarta's rule since it was handed over by a reluctant Netherlands 60 years ago under American pressure.

Papua is an old stomping ground of the military version of Prabowo. In 1984, he led troops from Kopassus, the army's Special Forces Command, across the border into Papua New Guinea to search for fighters from the Free Papua Movement, known by its Indonesian initials as OPM.

In 1996, he led a Kopassus operation to free World Wildlife Fund hostages taken by the OPM. The mission was controversial because soldiers traveled via a white helicopter previously used by Red Cross negotiators.

Enough provocations are happening now to bring this persona of Prabowo's again to the fore.

Jokowi's legacy is "a better armed, better resourced, more coordinated pro-independence insurgency; higher civilian casualties; and the failure after a year to secure the release of a New Zealand pilot held hostage by the guerrillas," said the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), a Jakarta-based research group, in a report on Papua earlier this month.

Indonesia is still far from winning the hearts and minds of its Papuan citizens.

Early on, soldiers and officials looted what the Dutch left behind. Then Jakarta held an "act of free choice" in which 1,026 handpicked indigenous representatives voted for unification with Indonesia. Although the vote was accepted by the U.N. at the time, it has been regarded as a sham by many historians as well as Papuans.

Periodic protests have met harsh military crackdowns. Millions of settlers from other parts of Indonesia have moved into Papua, threatening to swamp the indigenous Melanesian population.

The Papuans have been onlookers to the exploitation of the territory's immense natural wealth: the giant Freeport gold-copper mine, oil fields around the Bird's Head peninsula, a BP natural gas field in Bintuni Bay, hardwood forests logged and replaced with oil palm plantations. Indonesian military men have thrived on fees from security and the opportunity for post-retirement employment.

When the authoritarian New Order regime of late President Suharto ended in 1998, many Papuans hoped their dreams of self-determination would finally be realized under liberal-minded Abdurrahman Wahid. But initiatives launched during his brief 2000-2002 presidency were undermined by his successors.

Unique among Indonesia's regions, Papua has been exempted from the demokrasi era that followed Suharto's fall. It remains closed to foreign correspondents and U.N. human rights officials without approval from a vetting committee composed of representatives from intelligence, military and government agencies.

Jakarta has tried to draw the Papuans more into national progress through new governmental structures, sharing resource revenue and making the police rather than the military the first responders to unrest.

But mobile phones and social media have penetrated military information controls to reveal protests, security crackdowns and shootings to the world, giving a boost to pro-independence political activists and guerrillas.

"For the last 20 years, the conflict has only grown worse and the last 10 years in particular have seen an escalation of violence, despite huge amounts of money and huge numbers of troops sent in," IPAC said in its report.

A year ago, a guerrilla band destroyed a small commercial aircraft at a remote landing strip and took pilot Philip Mehrtens from New Zealand hostage. Jakarta has tried negotiating his release but also has positioned forces for a rescue attempt that IPAC said would certainly result in Mehrtens' death and many civilian casualties.

In a presidential debate in December, the Prabowo of old made an appearance as he promised to "support" Papuans by strengthening the security apparatus in the region.

"We see there is meddling by foreign hands there," he said. "And we see that certain powers always want Indonesia to disintegrate and fracture."

The vagueness of his policy platform has left people guessing about his intentions, said Andreas Harsono, Indonesia director for U.S.-based campaign group Human Rights Watch.

"But whatever Prabowo will do, the importance of human rights issues and respect for their land will still be front and center for the indigenous people in West Papua," he said. "If Prabowo wants to have a model on how he should work on West Papua, he could indeed look at Wahid."

Jokowi, who initially tried to open Papua to outside scrutiny but was overruled by his nationalist and military supporters, may have some moderating influence over a president to whom he lent his popularity – and his eldest son as running mate.

But the biggest block of seats in the legislature, and probably the speakership, looks set to go to the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, led by Megawati Sukarnoputri. The daughter of founding president Sukarno who won Papua from the Dutch, Sukarnoputri applied military solutions to insurgencies during her own term as president. Her party may not resist if Prabowo seeks to apply forceful methods.

The pilot hostage drama may well be over by the time Prabowo takes charge. But other flashpoints could tempt him into a shock military response to the embarrassment of Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the U.S. – countries that have positioned themselves as friends and supporters of Melanesians amid China's efforts to boost its influence in the Pacific. These partners should quietly suggest patient dialogue and avoidance of armed confrontation where possible as a better approach for the new leader.

[Hamish McDonald is the author of "Demokrasi: Indonesia in the 21st Century."]

Source: https://asia.nikkei.com/Opinion/Prabowo-must-resist-temptation-to-apply-more-force-in-Papu