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Jakarta Post

Papua: Keep calm and play it like the '€˜big boys'€™

  • Pierre Marthinus

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Tue, May 7, 2013   /  10:57 am

Following criticism from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay of unnecessary violence in Papua, the opening of a Free West Papua Campaign office in Oxford, UK, has set off a wave of reaction.

 Social media was buzzing with comments, mostly nationalist demands that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono take strong action against the UK, dismiss the UK ambassador, boycott its products, and nationalize its businesses operating in Indonesia.

Of course, none of these demands will ever be met since they would permanently damage Indonesian interests more than it would even scratch the UK.

London, alongside Washington, Beijing and Moscow, are the premium members of the '€œbig boys'€ club, major players in global affairs exercising military, economic and political prowess with the ability to project soft power abroad. It is not in Jakarta'€™s interest to get on their wrong side.

When dealing with the big boys, Indonesia needs to handle the issue of Papua with tact, subtlety, and diplomacy. If anything, the Oxford debacle is simply a display of Indonesia'€™s failure to deal with the issue of Papua abroad and a very convenient diversion from the issues of corruption and intolerance facing the Yudhoyono administration.

The actions of NGOs, activists and the general public do not necessarily reflect the position and official policy of a country.

Having been awarded the Honorary Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath as well as access to UK military equipment amidst heavy protests and plans of a citizen'€™s arrest last year, Yudhoyono should understand this.

Deciding whether individuals are acting in an official or personal capacity should be the first order of business. But even then, the Westminster system of complex devolvement of powers and local governance also means that actions and decisions taken at the local level might diverge from the country'€™s official standpoint.

In retrospect, a former Jakarta governor'€™s attendance at Islam Defenders Front (FPI) meetings and a former vice president'€™s defense of Abu Bakar Ba'€™asyir have never been read by the UK as Jakarta'€™s official support of sharia vigilantism or international terrorism. It is only fitting that Indonesia reciprocate in kind.

Although the UK has always been '€” and will continue to be '€” firm in its support of Indonesian sovereignty, they are still obliged to safeguard freedom of speech and civil liberties at home. Demanding that the UK deny Papuan activists the freedom of speech would be Indonesian intervention in their domestic affairs '€” a breach of our very own principle of non-intervention.

Second, issues of strategic interests should be engaged with '€” both at home as well as abroad. Even the '€œbig boys'€ themselves have domestic problems. Beijing, for instance, has problems with Taiwan, Xinjiang and Tibet, while Moscow has to deal with the terrorism and separatism in Chechnya.

Instead of avoiding, fearing or entering the international stage half-heartedly, the '€œbig boys'€ choose to harness the benefits of international attention and cooperation to their advantage instead.

China, for example, has engaged with countries in the South Pacific to secure their commitment to a '€œone China policy'€ against Taiwan and actively cooperating with Moscow through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to curb '€œterrorism, separatism and extremism'€ in an effort to promote stability in Xinjiang. After the Boston marathon bombing, Moscow might now utilize the '€œwar on terror'€ rhetoric to hold the moral high ground on policies in Chechnya.

In a globalized world, '€œinternationalization'€ is not a game you can opt out of. On Papua, refusing to pursue Indonesian national interest abroad is, interestingly, another breach of our own principle of being '€œactive'€ in the international stage.

Lastly, Indonesia should refrain from scapegoating and focus more on solving the actual problem at hand. The issue of Papua can only be solved by building bridges, not by burning them.

Indonesia'€™s diplomacy needs to court dissenting voices abroad, listen empathetically to critical voices in international seminars, conferences, newspaper commentaries and engage in an '€œeveryday dialogue'€ to sustainably forge mutual understanding, exchanges and cooperation at the unofficial as well as individual level.

London has been dealing with a very delicate situation in Northern Ireland and facing secessionist aspirations in Scotland.

Obviously, they are the least likely country to question Indonesian sovereignty. At this point, the UK is more valuable as a strategic partner than a scapegoat.

Although Papua needs a political solution, it does not need this kind of politicization. This current politicization of Papua does not benefit ordinary Papuans, it merely shows Indonesia'€™s own inability to engage with the issue of Papua on the international scene.

Furthermore, for Yudhoyono it is a most welcome distraction from the more pressing domestic agendas of reform.

Blaming the UK for our own inability to solve domestic problems and refusal to court dissenting Papuans abroad breaches two of our own principles of '€œnon-intervention'€ and being active on the international stage. For the time being, Indonesia needs to keep calm and play it like the '€œbig boys'€.


The writer is executive director of the Marthinus Academy and author of Solving Papuan Grievances (University of Indonesia Press, 2012).

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