The release of the International Crisis Group’s latest report again highlights the important — yet often neglected — issues surrounding our easternmost province. It is ironic that only piecemeal attention has been given to a territory which has contributed so much to funding our development, holds a special place in the nation’s struggle for independence and adds much to the nation’s richness in biodiversity and pluralism.
The history of Indonesia’s largest province has taught us four lessons since it was incorporated in 1963:
First, its problems are deeper more complex than anyone would like to admit, whether in terms of religious tensions or in integrating Papuans with migrants from other parts of Indonesia.
Authorities tend to have short attention spans. Its programs and efforts in the province have been unsustained in execution and have failed to produce tangible results. The government presumes that people will adapt, adjust and live in harmony just because they are told to do so. As in other parts of the country, the authorities in Jakarta would rather sweep convoluted ethnic, religious and societal problems under a rug as quickly as possible.
This challenge will not be fixed in days or even in years. Serious, patient and prolonged attention must be invested if the process of true “integration” and “assimilation” is to succeed.
Second, Papua has been ground zero for exploitation. The abundance of natural resources has been a scourge rather than benefit. Much has been taken, little has been returned. The prospect of riches has led to the rise of monopolies and “cartels” that are eager to exploit Papua’s wealth.
Tensions frequently flare, even when discussing how to redress the problems of exploitation profit taking. A mountain of gold always attracts the greedy before the noble.
Third, there are flaws and problems with the leadership of the indigenous Papuans themselves. Papua’s most senior tribal leaders and elders have profited from a status quo that has encumbered and disadvantaged its people.
Alliances of local elite figures have created divisions in their own society, restricting Papuan camaraderie to “checkbook” and tribal alliances. It is a self-inflicted divide et impera.
Many leading Papuans are as complicit, if not as culpable, as those from outside the region when it comes to profiting from Papua’s wealth.
Fourth, is the international dimension. Papua has often been referred to as the next Timor Leste (formerly East Timor). Many conspiracy theorists have even suggested that ‘foreign’ interests are scheming to separate Papua from the republic.
While these claims may be an exaggeration, it is an indication that Papua remains very much in the minds of many international commentators. It is a reminder that Indonesia cannot take an ostrich-like approach by simply burying its head in the sand while stubbornly claiming that the issue has been resolved by a UN referendum.
These challenges will not go away. Failure to systematically address the issues through sustainable and equitable process of negotiation will only raise more international concerns.
A solution cannot be found tomorrow, but there is always hope if an honest effort is made. Ultimately that is what our brothers and sisters in Papua seek from us all.