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A look at the Papua conflict

Interview: Gabriel Domínguez
May 12, 2015

Following Indonesian leader Joko Widodo's move to free five political prisoners and lift media curbs in Papua, DW speaks to Gregory Poling about why so little progress has been made in solving the decades-long conflict.

Indonesisches Militär in Papua
Image: T. Eranius/AFP/Getty Images

President Widodo announced clemency for five Papuan prisoners while visiting Papua's provincial capital of Jayapura on May 9, 2015. The five men, convicted in 2003 for their alleged role in a raid on an Indonesian Armed Forces weapons arsenal in Wamena on April 4, 2003, which resulted in the deaths of two soldiers, were serving prison terms ranging from 19 years to life imprisonment.

The Indonesian leader also announced the lifting of travel bans for foreign journalists there. "We need to create a sense of peace in Papua. This is just the beginning," he said during his visit to the area, raising hopes of a change of policy towards the resource-rich region and that other political prisoners still held would be freed.

The nongovernmental political prisoners' advocacy organization Papuans behind bars lists a total of 38 Papuans imprisoned, detained, on trial, or awaiting trial on charges that violate their freedom of expression and association. Human rights groups accuse Jakarta of consistently detaining and jailing protesters for peacefully advocating independence or other political change.

Many such arrests and prosecutions are of activists who peacefully raise banned symbols, such as the Papuan Morning Star and the South Moluccan RMS flags. A low-level guerrilla organization called the Free Papua Movement has been leading a secessionist struggle in the region since the 1960's.

In a DW interview, Gregory Poling, a Southeast Asia expert at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, talks about the reasons behind the decades-long conflict, Jakarta's treatment of political prisoners and says that while there is renewed reason for hope, Papua's troubles will take more than visits and promises of economic progress to resolve.

Gregory Poling
Poling: 'Many Papuans remain bitter about the perceived illegality of Indonesia's takeover of the region half a century ago'Image: privat

DW: What have been the main reasons behind the ongoing Papuan conflict?

Gregory Poling: There has been a confluence of political and economic tensions that have fueled the conflict. Many Papuans remain bitter about the perceived illegality of Indonesia's takeover of the region half a century ago, which violated both the letter and spirit of a UN-brokered agreement.

Security forces for decades have acted with heavy-handedness and impunity to combat the low-level insurgency, which has resulted in widespread abuses. And then there is the perception among Papuans that their identity is under threat - a perception reinforced by large-scale migration of non-Papuans and suppression of symbols like the "Morning Star" flag that represents Papuan independence.

On the economic front, Papuans see that the region lags behind the rest of Indonesia on most important health, education, and other development indicators. Papua is Indonesia's richest province in terms of natural resources, and the Grasberg mine is not only the largest gold and third largest copper mine in the world, but is also the largest single taxpayer in Indonesia. Yet relatively little of that natural wealth has resulted in development in Papua.

In which ways has the conflict been carried out?

The armed opposition to Indonesian occupation hit its zenith in the 1970s. Since then, conflict remains chronic but low-level. To that end, the banned Free Papua Movement, or OPM, is a useful bogeyman for Jakarta, and does remain active. But the vast majority of pro-independence (or pro-autonomy) gatherings are peaceful, which makes the sometimes-deadly force used by Indonesian security forces to break them up all the more worrying.

What is Indonesia's position on this issue?

Indonesia is willing to countenance increased autonomy for Papua, but not independence. It granted Papua special autonomy over a decade ago, but its scope and implementation have been far short of Papuan demands. Toward the end of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's government, there was a movement toward strengthening Papua's autonomy, but that floundered at the end of his administration and has not been carried forward.

President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo has shown more attention to Papuan issues, and the recent announcements that five Papuans would be released from prison and the long-standing restrictions on foreign journalists entering the region lifted are good signs. But his statements still suggest an unwillingness to tackle the political as well as economic roots of Papuan separatism.

How does Jakarta deal with those seeking independence?

Indonesia views any calls for independence as crimes against the state and goes so far as to officially ban the display of the Morning Star flag. Security forces break up any protest at which the flag is raised - which occurs frequently - and arrest those promoting independence.

Indonesian authorities have also been highly active in regional diplomacy in recent years to block attempts by Papuan organizations to gain international recognition. The Melanesian Spearhead Group has been a particular focus of Jakarta's attention, and will soon decide whether to grant membership to a Papuan organization.

How does Jakarta treat its prisoners?

There have been reports of abuse against Papuan prisoners, but the limited access international organizations have been granted makes it difficult to ascertain the real situation. What is clear, however, is that dozens of pro-independence activists are imprisoned. Groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International classify them as political prisoners. Indonesia maintains that they are violent criminals and traitors.

Karte West Papua Englisch
Papua is Indonesia's largest and easternmost provinceImage: DW

Have any of the two sides signaled any willingness to compromise?

Jakarta has repeatedly proven willing to compromise by giving greater privileges and autonomy to Papua, but has repeatedly failed to follow-through in implementing such agreements. On the Papuan side, it is only a small minority who seems completely unwilling to compromise and insist on full independence.

How do you see this conflict developing in the coming years?

Papuan groups in exile have become savvier, and are helping throw a spotlight on the issue via their international lobbying and publicity. Unrest in Papua remains a thorn in Jakarta's side, blemishing what is otherwise a narrative of a consolidating, stable democratic state.

President Jokowi has so far shown a much greater attentiveness to Papua than any of his predecessors, and that is reason for hope. But Papua's troubles will take more than visits and promises of economic progress to resolve. Whether Jakarta can make the necessary political accommodations remains to be seen.

Bergbau in Indonesien
'Relatively little of Papua's natural wealth has resulted in development in the province'Image: Getty Images/AFP

In your view, why has this conflict been rarely covered by the media?

The lack of foreign media access is one issue. But a more systemic problem is the low level of the insurgency. Levels of violence in Papua never compared to those in Aceh or the Malukus or, for that matter, in Mindanao in the Philippines or southern Thailand.

The foreign press has a limited attention span, and a low-level insurgency in Indonesia's most far-flung and sparsely populated province has proven unable to draw consistent focus, especially given the extra effort needed to cover it because of the restrictions on foreign media access.

Gregory Poling is a fellow with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Washington-based Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS).