Breaking the silence on Papua

Last week the UN fora in Geneva and New York broke the silence on Papua. During the 24th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, the International Coalition for Papua (ICP) marked the session by revealing systematic efforts endorsed by the Indonesian government to isolate Papua from international scrutiny. As an attempt to break the silence surrounding this issue, the ICP released its third annual report highlighting the worsening conditions of human rights in Papua.


In a similar vein, the Vanuatu Prime Minister Moana Carcasses Kalosil spoke up during the 68th session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in New York, raising the issue of the neglected Papua with the Assembly. In light of the Syrian humanitarian crisis, he requested that the UNGA appoint a Special Representative to investigate the situation of human rights in Papua. Vanuatu is no stranger to the Papuan cause. On the contrary, it is the driving force of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG)'s sympathy towards Papua.

All of these efforts deserve our attention since for more than half a century Papua has attracted minimal attention from the outside world. The situation in Papua exemplifies common features of a sub-national conflict. Papua has a long history of a low-level armed conflict. It is situated on the periphery of economic and political decision-making processes although its natural resources significantly contribute to the national economy. Such an area is also inhabited by an ethnic minority who experience discrimination from their respective government.

Governments in the context of sub-national conflicts in Asia and the Pacific, like Indonesia, are generally heavy-handed. They are more than capable of isolating the conflicts from international attention and treating them as their own internal affairs in order to prevent any international criticisms. They have the power not only to convince, but more importantly, to stop the outside world engaging with what they claim to be 'internal affairs.' It is uncommon for outsiders to want to risk their bilateral relations with these governments. Given these characteristics, a sub-national conflict like Papua remains under-represented at both national and international levels.

Why does Indonesia silence Papua? There remains a strong belief among many Indonesian state officials that giving any political concessions to Papua could repeat the mistake of the former East Timor: separation from Indonesia. As a postcolonial state, the imagined political entity of Indonesia is constructed from former Dutch colonies. It stretches from Sabang to Merauke. The preservation of this construct has become the state ideology which shapes the Indonesian government policy towards Papua. It does not allow any discussion on the political dimension of Papuan issues. Papua is final or NKRI, harga mati (the Unitary State of Indonesia is nonnegotiable). As a result any who questions the history of the incorporation of Papua into Indonesia is considered as a separatist.

This dogmatic approach does not allow for any political discussion with Papuans. As a result, the Indonesian government is very reluctant to address the historical injustices of Papua. Instead it relies heavily on an economic development-based approach to respond to Papuan conflicts. The underlying logic of this approach is that improving the welfare standard of Papuans will satisfy their basic needs and eventually address the conflicts. The assumption tends to reduce all human needs into the single dimension of economic needs, whereas the Papuan conflicts largely derive from historical injustices. The latter remain neglected and cannot be adequately addressed simply by promoting economic development. They belong to the political domain and require a political decision.

What can be done to break the silence on Papua? There has to be a robust web of networks of resistance which is capable of confronting the history of impunity. The resistance should consolidate actions in different domains: local, national and international in order to win support from these three different audiences. Throughout the years various actors have made an effort to bring Papua's troubles to light. The Papuan Churches and NGOs play a key role in exposing the hidden history of impunity in Papua. They work closely with international solidarity networks that amplify the Papuan voices for a broader audience. They managed to secure international attention from the UN human rights monitors. Two UN Special Rapporteurs were invited by the Indonesian government to visit Papua in 2007.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression's recent plan to visit Papua, however, was delayed. At the last minute, Jakarta did not issue permission for him to visit Papua. This decision was not unprecedented. Previously the International Red Cross had been ordered by Jakarta to leave Papua. Similarly, the contracts of certain international charity organisations with Jakarta were not renewed. In parallel, the national parliament passed legislation that tends to encourage the military to come back to day-to-day politics. These all are challenges that confront Papua.

It is the time for the international community to join the Vanuatu Prime Minister's call for an independent investigation to be conducted into Papua's situation. The world must act to establish the truth of the state of human rights in Papua. This truth will hopefully lead to justice.