Jokowi’s Opportunity to Write a New Chapter on Papua
September 4, 2014
Jakarta governor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo will enter office as Indonesia’s next president in October amid high—likely unachievable—expectations that his will be a transformational administration. He is expected to sweep away corruption, cut bureaucratic red tape and inefficiency, strengthen the social safety net, and lay the groundwork for long-term economic growth. These are critical challenges with which Jokowi will grapple and hopefully make progress, even if not as much as his supporters expect. But one important challenge has barely registered in the narrative surrounding his election: long-simmering troubles in Indonesia’s eastern region of Papua.
Jakarta has grappled with a low-intensity insurgency in Papua, now divided into the distinct provinces of Papua and West Papua, for a half-century. The heavy-handedness and impunity of Indonesian security forces in the region has combined with low development in almost every category, from income to education and health, to keep Papuan anger at a low boil and contribute to a regular cycle of violence. Papuan suffering combined with Jakarta’s disingenuous insistence that all is well in the region despite all evidence to the contrary is a blemish on Indonesia’s otherwise improving global reputation and holds back its relations with neighbors in the Pacific.
Two recent events have again cast light on the deadliness of the conflict in Papua and the Indonesian authorities’ ill-considered attempts to suppress knowledge of it. Martinus Yohame, a well-known activist and proponent of Papuan independence, went missing on the eve of a visit by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to the region in late August. His body was found six days later floating in a sack off the Papuan coast, reportedly with bound hands and feet and bearing bullet wounds. Given a long history of disproportionate violence by Indonesian security forces against Papuan activists and separatists, Yohame’s death, which will almost certainly go unsolved, will further inflame local anger.
Earlier in August, two French journalists were arrested in Papua for filming a documentary—a violation of their visas to visit the region. Jakarta has long banned foreign press from visiting Papua, except for carefully orchestrated trips, and attempts to control access to information. The journalists remain in custody and Indonesian authorities have said they will likely go on trial and face up to five years in prison. This heavy-handed response has not only sparked condemnation abroad, but is indicative of Jakarta’s general policy toward Papua—ignore the problem, force others to do the same, and eventually it will go away, despite five decades of evidence to the contrary.
In the waning years of the Yudhoyono administration, there were some half-hearted attempts to engage the Papua problem. But those efforts led to little more than an off-again on-again debate about how to fix the 2003 legislation granting Papua special autonomy that was passed under Yudhoyono’s predecessor, Megawati Sukarnoputri. By early 2014, even that tepid reevaluation was apparently shelved as Jakarta decided it had done just enough to avoid an embarrassing condemnation from its Pacific Island neighbors. In the end, the Yudhoyono government never showed any real desire to take ownership of Papua issues and invest real political capital in resolving them.
But the incoming Jokowi administration will have the opportunity to do exactly that. Jokowi’s status as a relative outsider will allow the new president to approach Papua without much of the baggage of the Jakarta political establishment from which his predecessors emerged. And his strong mandate to be a transformational leader, even after a hard-fought election, will lend him breathing room to try new things, including a reevaluation of Papua policy.
The signs are already promising. Jokowi campaigned in Papua twice ahead of the presidential election, during which visits he said there is no reason foreign press should be barred from the region. That compares to three visits in 10 years by President Yudhoyono. Jokowi also held a meeting in early August with Papuan political and religious leaders during which he introduced a plan to boost dialogue between the national government and Papuans.
But the most symbolic, and certainly boldest, move by Jokowi was a proposal to build a new presidential palace at Lake Sentani near the Papuan capital, Jayapura. Jokowi pitched the idea as a way to “symbolize the presence of the central government in Papua.” And if he follows through, it would certainly send a strong message of the new president’s commitment to finally address Papuans’ frustrated aspirations and to incorporate the nation’s most remote region more deeply into the body politic.
Of course, such symbolism will only go so far. Grappling with issues of inequitable development, persistent violence, and demands for greater autonomy in Papua will be a years-long endeavor. But it will be one that could provide a lasting legacy for Jokowi and clear one of the greatest hurdles to Indonesia’s stepping out as a regional and global power.
(This Commentary originally appeared in the September 4, 2014, issue of Southeast Asia from Scott Circle.)
Gregory Poling is a fellow with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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