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Jakarta Post

Rethinking infrastructure approach in Papua

Depok   /   Wed, March 11, 2020   /   05:31 pm
Rethinking infrastructure approach in Papua The construction of an aquatic venue for the 2020 PON National Games progresses in Sentani, Jayapura, Papua on Oct. 14, 2019. (Antara/Gusti Tanati)

Until today, the government’s approach in Papua stresses security, even though gradual attempts at comprehensive counterinsurgency started alongside the 1998 democratic reforms. The importance of “population support” has been considered one of the decisive factors for the government’s claim of having the upper hand in Papua so far.

As in any counterinsurgency warfare, the general population's support for the government is vital for weakening the support base of armed pro-independence groups, depriving them of intelligence, supplies and hiding places. In terms of international legitimacy, support from the native Papuan population would also strengthen Indonesia’s position and secure it victory in the event of a referendum for independence, such as Papuan activists demand. In contrast, a lack of sympathy for the government would strengthen the insurgents’ propaganda and bargaining position in the international community.

Amid political and security constraints, the government has been trying to gain the sympathy of the native Papuan communities while avoiding sensitive issues that would potentially destabilize domestic politics. The idea of “playing safe” is still strongly associated with the physical development of the Papua and West Papua provinces. To date, the government’s “winning hearts and minds” strategy has been focused on physical development through autonomy funds and infrastructure programs.

The infrastructure strategy was intensified early in President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s first term, when he proceeded to uphold his campaign pledge to pay special attention to development in Papua. Since the beginning of his tenure in 2014, infrastructure building has included airports, border checkpoints, bridges and access to electricity, which cost the government more than Rp 100 trillion (US$6.9 billion) in the four-year period.

For a short period of time the government’s strategy seemed to be working. In 2017 an Indikator Politik survey reported that almost 90 percent of respondents living in Papua were satisfied with the government’s programs.

The successful infrastructure programs also attracted many people from Papua New Guinea (PNG) to cross the border regularly to get their daily necessities from Indonesia. Many second-generation Indonesian refugees in PNG — including families and their descendants from members of pro-independence groups and militias who escaped military persecution in the 1970s — also returned to Indonesia to seek better opportunities, believing that the Indonesian government’s outlook toward Papua had changed.

However, the physical development approaches are mostly designed top-down and lack engagement with the local communities in Papua. Much of the infrastructure that was built has been abandoned since it did not resonate with the communities’ needs.

For example, subsidized housing in Skouw subdistrict in Muaratami district, Jayapura, which was intended for native Papuans in the Indonesia-PNG border areas, was built in remote areas and residents must travel for hours to reach the nearest public facilities, such as markets, churches and hospitals. Another example is the Holtekamp Bridge in Jayapura, Papua’s capital, which was scheduled to be open by the end of 2018. The bridge’s construction was stalled by dissension between the state and customary law regarding land ownership and the red bridge has become nothing more than an unusable tourist attraction.

With the increasing grievances of indigenous Papuans, the infrastructure programs clearly do not result in sustainable support from the population. Rather, any success looks merely temporary and is prone to change every time a sensitive subject arises in Papua. Consequently, some officials are questioning the need for continuing infrastructure projects since they have been proven ineffective for gaining indigenous support. Discussions on finding a more adept strategy have long been ongoing, even though until today the government has not come up with a different strategy to win the hearts and minds of native Papuans.

The lack of success of the infrastructure approach should nevertheless not diminish the fact that Papua and West Papua are still physically underdeveloped compared to other provinces in Indonesia. Many areas in the region are mountainous and hilly, making them almost inaccessible by land vehicles. The only way to reach some regencies is by air, including light aircraft and helicopters, which is transportation often only available to law enforcers and the political elite. Such limited access to some villages has perpetuated poverty in many border communities. Therefore, many remote regencies in Papua and West Papua are in dire need of infrastructure, particularly what would allow them access to basic facilities and economic opportunities.

Therefore, infrastructure in Papua should be seen as an essential aspect of state-building instead of a mere strategy to win the hearts and minds of the population. While to some extent it is working for winning the favor of the population, the government should not rely solely on physical development. Indeed, it is difficult to address politically sensitive issues. However, the government can still minimize the discrepancy between its programs and the needs of indigenous communities by figuring out a middle way to gain their sympathy.

Indonesian authorities have been so focused on the top-down approach that despite so much criticism and so many recommendations, the government has yet to seriously engage in long-term social-economic improvements.

Racial equality outside Papua, the welfare gap between indigenous and settlers and access for young native Papuans to work in government must be issues that are seriously considered. Although gaining less exposure than incidents of violence, for instance, or the launch of new road construction, those issues are more concrete, relatable and sustainable for indigenous Papuans. It could be a game-changing decision to shift the government’s hearts and minds approach to focus outside of the physical development aspects.

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Lecturer of international relations at the University of Indonesia

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.