Understanding Papua's struggle

Understanding Papua's struggle

A sham referendum under the Suharto dictatorship, an ethnic population dissimilar to Indonesia's predominantly Muslim community, over half a million lives lost to genocide and unlawful killings, and myriad human rights atrocities committed against their own people -- the story of Papua presents the most convincing case for independence out of many global separatist movements. Yet, the future of Papua remains highly unpredictable.

To understand whether statehood of the Papuan nation is even possible, we must understand the nature of the region and the conflict that has existed there since 1969.

Foreign journalists are prohibited from entering the region freely and Indonesia has blacklisted many journalists who report about its iron grip there. Even some staunch supporters of the Free Papua Movement (ODM) have never set foot on the land. This shortage of information makes it difficult to analyse and has left Papua and the ODM a mystery to the wider world.

Not only is Papua extremely diverse at a micro level, but it is also one of Asia's poorest regions. It ranks at the bottom in terms of wealth among provinces in Indonesia with an estimated 28% of the Papuan population living below the poverty line. It lacks key infrastructure as well as an institutional framework.

Papua's separatist movement also differs from others around the world in that the conflict is not necessarily vertical, where the state is directly involved in conflict with insurgent groups, but more horizontal, with infighting among insurgent groups. This has resulted in only low-level violence by Papuan insurgents against Indonesian authorities, and most of the violence is concentrated among the rebel groups themselves.

This horizontal conflict stems from a nonexistent hierarchy among the insurgents. This has left some scholars, including Bobby Anderson of Chiang Mai University's School of Public Policy, suspicious of the newly formed West Papuan Army's success in achieving self-determination.

Because of the discord among Papuan insurgents, the Indonesian government has curbed any progress made by the ODM, allowing Jakarta to further extend its control Recently, a Polish tourist, Jakub Skrzypski, was sentenced to five years for treason after allegedly meeting with a Papuan independence leader.

Based on current conditions, the prospect for statehood of the Papuan nation seems extremely bleak -- how is it remotely possible to craft a state from an extremely diverse and poverty-stricken population who are often fighting among themselves?

For now, it seems Papua would be better off as an Indonesian province. President Joko Widodo's administration as well as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) have vowed to make significant improvements to the infrastructure and institutional framework.

The budget allocated to the Western New Guinea provinces has continued to increase from the 85.7 trillion rupiah (US$6 billion) allocated in 2016. Jakarta is also building a Trans-Papua highway through Western New Guinea to improve connectivity.

As well, the government plans on improving education and the UNDP is working on poverty reduction and developing social protections. In the long run, Papuans can definitely benefit from these reforms.

Another noteworthy point is that if Papua were to remain under Indonesian administration, it would be harder to cover up genocide and human rights abuses by the Indonesian government. President Widodo has in recent years increased the number of troops in Papua, raising concern that Jakarta's iron grip will tighten further.

Coming to terms with the bloodshed in the region will smooth the relationship between Papua and Jakarta. Yet, for Jakarta, this seems like a tall order as it means having to admit colossal wrongdoing and a bloody history of oppression. Although the past cannot be undone, both parties can come to a negotiation in order to arrest future violence.

Papua's autonomous status granted by the Indonesian government in 2001 is definitely a step in the right direction. However, the region still lacks the necessary capital and infrastructure to become a functional state. Yet, Papuans fail to recognise this and continue to fight, adding to the complexity of the narrative.

Ultimately, if Papuans can change their mindset as well as embrace and accept the changes put in place by the Indonesian government and the UNDP, the region could avoid being a failed state and someday may even prosper as a nation from its bounty of natural wealth.

The bloodshed and atrocities in the region should also not be overlooked and brushed under the carpet. However, the violence should be treated as a red flag to alarm the international community to take immediate action.

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