Despite having different political systems and history, Indonesia and China are both experiencing the same problem: sporadic violence in outlying provinces.
In the past few years, there have been significant attacks on Han — the largest ethnic group in China — residents in Tibet and Xinjiang regions, with hundreds of casualties. In Indonesia, skirmishes between Indonesian soldiers and the Free Papua Organization (OPM) and individual attacks on Indonesian settlers and Western miners are still taking place years after Indonesia made peace with Aceh.
In terms of the intensity of conflicts, scale and scope of the rebellions, fortunately Indonesia and China do not have the problems faced by United Kingdom in Northern Ireland and the Philippines in Mindanao. Separatism in Papua, Tibet, and Xinjiang, however, would keep those regions insecure for this decade.
Compared to the Chinese claim to Tibet and Xinjiang, Indonesia’s claim over the western part of New Guinea is relatively new. The Netherlands had only just colonized the island in the early 20th century, while Australia administered the eastern part after World War I. China, on the other hand, has occupied the Tarim Basin since the time of the Roman Empire, and took Tibet as a tributary state along with Korea and Vietnam since medieval times.
Both nations, however, took the post-World War II power vacuum to make their claims. Indonesia defines its territory as the former Dutch East Indies’ territories, which includes Netherlands New Guinea.
The Netherlands did not include it in its federal plan for Indonesia, believing it as a distinctive colony since it did not have any client kingdom that could claim West Papua as its homeland and Holland’s dominant urban population was Eurasian.
Chinese who read history are convinced that Tibet was invaded by the United Kingdom and was restored soon after the birth of the People’s Republic, and Mao Zedong also retook Xinjiang before it could become a Soviet state.
The reason of renaming Netherlands New Guinea or West Papua (Papua is the Malay name for the island’s inhabitants) “Irian” was obscure. Older Indonesians said that it was Sukarno’s acronym for the “(I)ndonesian (R)epublic (A)gainst the (N)etherlands” while military historians said it was a name given the area by the Ternate-Tidore sultanate. The usage of the word is now rare, 10 years after the province was renamed Papua.
While both the Chinese government and the Tibetan people agreeing with the name Tibet, the name Xinjiang is still unacceptable to locals. Besides Uyghurstan, the Uighurs prefer East Turkestan to highlight their Turkish identity, which the Chinese take as an insult. On the other hand, Xinjiang means “new territory”, emphasizing its Chinese-centric view, and some Chinese even propose to call it by its ancient name, Xiyu (Western Region), since China has occupied the area for millennia.
The causes of rebellion movements in Papua and Xinjiang are quite clear. The native population sees that the government moves great numbers of ethnic majorities from afar into their region in order to choke out their traditional culture, way of life, and probably existence. The migrants open up business and the region’s economy is improved, although the native population plays little part in it.
The locals are treated as second class-citizens by the local government and the colonists, while at the same time are reminded to admit that they are citizens from the same country. In Chinese televised programs, the non-Hans are highlighted by their traditional dresses, said to represent multiculturalism, while at the same time the Han majority is free to wear modern outfits.
Recently, many consumer products in Indonesia that want to send “proudly Indonesian” messages would feature Papuans in traditional clothes, in contrast to other Indonesians who would wear jeans and cotton shirts. In both cases, the implied message is that these people are part of our nation too, although they are less civilized than us.
Despite the ups and downs in intensity of violence, independence organizations in Papua, Xinjiang and Tibet are more political than militaristic. Their main activity is in Western countries, holding demonstrations and working with human rights groups, instead of taking arms and launching full-scale rebellion. Their leaders are certainly more media-friendly than the Chinese and Indonesian embassies and students are, although their supporters are no more than some NGOs, university professors, and few politicians. When notable violence strikes in Papua and Xinjiang, separatist spokespersons in Western states would provide soundbytes to journalists, while on the other hand the governments would ask other countries to respect their sovereignty while restricting foreigners’ access to the region.
Of course, the relatively small scale acts of violence still claim scores of innocent lives and the settlers are counting on the government troops stationed in the area to protect them. OPM rebels have stated that their targets are not only Indonesian security forces and settlers, but also Westerners associated with US gold miner PT Freeport Indonesia.
Since the Beijing Olympics in 2008, China has been worried that rebels in Xinjiang would launch a major terror attack. Even the recent attacks with knives and hammers have gripped the Han population with fear, and the government goes as far as saying that the offenders are trained in Pakistan, an ally of China.
There is no immediate way to resolve separatism in China and Indonesia. Liberals say the locals need a fairer economy, and the governments say that is what are they are doing — building the local economy. The chance of independence is weak. China has no reason to let go of Tibet or Xinjiang, and although Indonesia did give up Timor Leste, its position is much stronger in Papua. The OPM has no charismatic or strong leaders, and has no solid plan for life after independence.
Indonesia defeated the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) through a military operation (and the tsunami deus ex machina), and Sri Lanka did the same, so unfortunately military conquest is still a viable option to defeat separatism. China’s and Indonesia’s best bets are for the locals to be happy with the economic development, to feel accepted, and for the rebels to refrain from escalating violence.
The writer is a graduate of La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia.