Indonesia's Pacific Identity: What Jakarta Must Do in West Papua

17 Dec, 2014    ·   4781

Prof Shankari Sundararaman explains the importance of West Papua for Indonesia's ambitions in the Indo-Pacific

The Indo-Pacific is a term gaining wider acceptance as a geopolitical reality. If any country has the advantage of being at the centre of this emerging identity, it is Indonesia. This vast archipelagic region strides the two oceans – Indian and the Pacific – lending credence to the idea of the confluence of the two oceans, which was critical to the formulation of this concept. 

Over the past month, Indonesia has been making greater claims to its Pacific identity in order to meet the challenges in its easternmost province, West Papua.

One of the aspects of this new shift in its thinking is that Jakarta has begun to project itself as the rightful representative of the Melanesian population living within its boundaries. This position, which the Indonesian government is seeking to assert, is fraught with difficulties, especially since the Melanesian ethnic identity is clearly associated with the region of West Papua.

West Papua has been a highly debated issue in the Indonesian political history. West Papua forms the western part of the island of New Guinea, which, during the colonial period, was divided among three colonial powers. The Dutch expansion in the East Indies extended to this area that was initially called the Dutch New Guinea. The Indonesian nationalist movement was unable to wrest control of this region from the Dutch and till 1969, the region remained a contested area. When the Dutch granted independence to Indonesia, the region became known as Irian Barat (West Irian) and then Irian Jaya, before it was changed to the current West Papua. The eastern part of the island forms the independent nation-state of Papua New Guinea, which had been colonised by the Germans and the British.  

Dutch attempts to quell the Indonesian freedom struggle led to the region being marked as a special region that was to be kept under Dutch influence. However, the leaders of the newly-independent state categorically supported the fact that the province was a critical part of the Indonesian state’s territorial extant.

In the early 1960s there were minor skirmishes between the Dutch and the Indonesian armed forces in an effort to gain control of the region. In 1962, the region was placed under the UN as an administered territory and was officially transferred to Indonesia in 1963. This transfer mandated that a referendum would be held to allow the Papuans to decide their own destiny. In 1969, the Act of Free Choice was initiated using a consensus method of decision making in which 1054 elders of the Papuan community cast their vote to remain with Indonesia.

During the New Order period, from 1965-1998, the region witnessed several conflicts. Since 1969, separatist groups like the Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM) or the Free Papua Movement rebelled against the Indonesian state. Added to this was the role of conglomerates like the Freeport McMoran Mines that have been involved in the exploitation of the region’s resources. Till 1999, the level of central control was extremely high. The government actively encouraged demographic changes in the region through its policy of transmigration that altered the ethnic balance in the region in an attempt to dilute the separatist conflict. Following the country’s transition to democracy, the implementation of the 2001 Special Autonomy Laws in the cases of Aceh and Papua have been welcome steps through which the government tried to address the issue of decentralisation and devolution of powers.

Furthermore, the law seeks to address granting a share of the natural resources and fiscal sharing in the region. 

Since 2011, Indonesia has used its diplomacy to defend its claims of having the largest Melanesian population – 11 million – in the region. In fact, the country sought membership to the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) on the strength of this claim. There have been several critiques of this move, especially since it was seen as an effort to hijack the attention of other members of the MSG from the separatism demands in West Papua. In the 2013 summit of the MSG, a group supporting separatism – the West Papuan National Coalition for Liberation – was to be allowed observer status, but flurried diplomatic activity by the Indonesian government led to a dilution of the issue. While this meeting initially sought to support the West Papuans’ right to self-determination, it was later reversed, especially in the January 2014 meeting where it was decided that the other members of the MSG would not interfere in Indonesia’s internal affairs.

The recent electoral shift in Indonesia, which marks a critical phase of democratic consolidation, allows for the creation of a necessary space to address the issues that plague the West Papuan region. Indonesia’s pitch as a home for the Melanesian ethnic community needs to be translated into action where special autonomy laws go further so as to allow separatist political groups to be part of the political space.