The world has seen the success of the recent referendum in Bougainville. Many are happy that the self-determination process was a great leap regarding the positive results and appreciate the peaceful process. Some, meanwhile, assume that the referendum still needs a long process to finalize. To some extent, some entities happened to relate what happened in Bougainville to West Papua. For once again, the discussion around issues on West Papua tensed up. Free West Papua campaigners quickly saw a momentum to raise the world’s attention to the easternmost region in Indonesia.
While the internet battle might serve the favor of the campaign, the real-world situations of the two areas are starkly different. Using the Bougainville case for analyzing West Papua is no prudent. It is even detrimental to the struggle for a prosperous West Papua.
The Bougainville case as what we know
In 1988, due to local dissatisfaction with the exploitation of natural resources and the mining industry in Bougainville, a prolonged war broke out. Residents took up arms against the PNG government who were in power at the time. The war continued for nine years causing tens of thousands of deaths and thousands of others living in refugee camps.
In 1997, the PNG Government was revealed to have hired a private British-based Sandline International military company to use hired troops to take control of Bougainville. The unfolding of the scandal prompted international attention to bring down the PNG government in Bougainville at the time.
New Zealand then became a host for the PNG-Bougainville peace negotiation, which eventually led to the formation of the Bougainville Autonomous Government. In 1998, a permanent ceasefire was put in place overseen by Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Vanuatu as the UN Observation Mission continued.
In 2001, a comprehensive peace agreement was signed. In the deal, it was agreed that the referendum should be carried out no more than 15 years from the realization of the agreement (before 2020). And, we now can see the results that more than 90 percent of residents in Bougainville decided that they want independence from PNG.
Several countries congratulated on the peaceful referendum, including, of course, PNG, Australia and New Zealand. Many observers of international relations also gave the same positive sentiment. But some circumstances still certainly need to be addressed.
Among these is that the results of the referendum are not binding until the PNG parliament approves. Some experts even concluded that the results of the referendum still had to go the long and winding road. Because basically, the PNG government has not provided more detailed comments, let alone agreed on the referendum result.
Some experts believe that what happened in Bougainville could become a benchmark for West Papua, Indonesia. If Bougainville could hold a referendum based on a peace agreement, West Papua should also be able to do it. The basis, which is too often conveyed in the media, is that West Papua has a Melanesian native community that has similarities with the Bougainvillians. Amid the many issues and the Free West Papua campaigns, the referendum of Bougainville is considered as a case equation that can be used for the West Papua matter as a reference.
Unfortunately, this view sounds attractive from the side of publicity, but in reality, it is actually a simplification that can even worsen the situation in West Papua.
This simplification view seems to be a careless, imprudent effort. Equating the situation in Papua and in Bougainville is a betrayal of the Western perspective on the importance of anthropology and the history of their knowledge. For the time being, without disregarding the happiness over the peaceful referendum on Bougainville, let us leave it aside for a moment. Let us discuss how simplification is unwise, which is unfortunately undertaken only for media sensation.
The process of joining West Papua as part of Indonesia is certainly not a ‘clean’ process. There have been not only struggle, sacrifice, and prolonged negotiation, but also bloodshed and betrayal.
Based on the principle of uti possidetis juris, the Indonesia government could claim that from Sabang to Merauke, which was previously a Dutch East Indies, would automatically belong to the country. After colonialism, especially after World War II and the formation of the United Nations, the concept of a nation-state was massively transformed into the establishment of a state based on former colonies. Unlike the nation-state, post-colonial countries often contain various ethnic groups or nations. As we know, post-colonialism countries were merely formed due to the division of the colonies, including Indonesia. As a consequence, many countries in South East Asia, East Asia, and Africa are mostly, if not all, are home of people of diverse ethnicities.
Back to Indonesia, after the war, the Netherlands released almost all areas of the Dutch East Indies to the Indonesian government, except West Papua. Apart from the current polemic, so far, it has not been answered why the exception occurred, while the world has witnessed the birth of many nations based on the principle of uti possidetis juris. The Netherlands itself did not register West Papua in the UN C24 decolonization committee. Until finally, the disputed Pepera or the Act of Free Choice was carried out which finally made West Papua part of Indonesia.
The Dutch inconsistency finally led to a prolonged dispute until now. The Indonesian government considers that Pepera is legal and binding. Meanwhile, some West Papuan people believe that the act of free choice is full of manipulation. The latter group finally decided to fight for the West Papuan independence from Indonesia until now.
Many people are concerned about how the Indonesian government deals with West Papua’s problems. If they want to make West Papua truly part of Indonesia, the welfare of the people should not be as saddening as it is today. However, it must be re-examined that the sharp criticism towards the Indonesian government also needs to be directed at the Dutch government’s policy back then which was politically half-hearted when it left Indonesia.
In the end, comparing the Bougainville issue in PNG with West Papua in Indonesia is not a fair and prudent effort. The international intervention on the issue in Bougainville was found to be necessary because it was needed mainly because of the prolonged civil war and the peace agreement in 2001.
Meanwhile, West Papua, especially in this reform era, has experienced rapid changes both in the political, economic, educational, and so on. As stated by the expert (McGibbon, 2006) that international intervention would actually just worsen the situation in Papua because it arrogantly denies the political and socio-cultural contexts of West Papua and Indonesia.
Missing link and match
There are many oddities that we will encounter when we match what is mentioned in the western world related to West Papua with what happened in the region. The Free West Papua campaign can then be called as suffering from a perspective inconsistency.
The free West Papua campaigners keep campaigning the perspective that West Papuans are different from the rest of Indonesians, ethnically and religiously. This perspective looks enticing at first, but if we dig in deeper into the history, that way of looking at West Papua is seriously flawed.
West Papua, in fact, has been a multicultural place even way before Indonesia existed. Some kingdoms from neighboring areas like the Ternate Kingdom had then paid visits and developed interactions with West Papua and the native people there. In that sense, religiously, Islam from the ternate interaction my touched west Papua way before the colonial powers came to the region. Now many native West Papuans in the West Papua province are minority Muslim communities.
Recently, many have voiced their opinion that human rights violations by security forces are a severe issue in West Papua right now. For the last two decades, regarding the Free West Papua (FWP) campaigns, our Internet has been flooded by graphic pictures of West Papuan Indonesians being molested or even murdered, allegedly by the country’s security officers there. The main argument is that they were mistreated because they fought for the freedom of West Papua.
Unfortunately, the campaign seems to be politically coopted as they are providing an imbalance picture of West Papua for some reason. It is so true that human rights violations happened and are probably still happening now in the easternmost region in Indonesia, which every educated person in this world cannot deny that situation. During the Suharto era for sure, Indonesia took a seriously wrong approach to take care of West Papua which kept the native people there away from taking part to develop their region.
But after the 1998 revolution, in this Reformasi era, many things have changed. With the Special Autonomy, many fields there have improved. Now, politically, all local leaders are Native West Papuans. Educationally, many young West Papuans now have opportunities to taste a better education both at home and abroad. Many even have gained prestigious scholarships to fund their higher education both at home and overseas.
Even though far away from perfect nor ideal, but it is the best that Indonesia can do for now. We say Indonesia because those who join the ship to better West Papua are as a matter of fact, not only the government but a massive amount of ordinary people in Indonesia. An enormous number of volunteer teachers and health workers have arrived in West Papua for the last two decades to help better lives there.
Internet vs real-world battles
To this end, if there is any bad news about the region, one should have a clear perspective in seeing the real problem. For example, regarding the story about corruption and flaws in budget spending, in this sense, local leaders of West Papua should be If be held accountable. Moreover, while it is true that some violent actions against local West Papuans indeed have been undergone by the security forces there, one should never overlook the fact that the more West Papuans, regardless their ethnicity, have died due to the atrocities committed by the freedom fighters. We can never forget, for example, how the freedom fighters are using children for soldiers and how the fighters mercilessly murdered innocent West Papuans in the recent Nduga and Wamena massacres.
With the current information battle on the internet, we believe that the campaigners of Free West Papua would still win. The Indonesian government is too lazy to provide counter information on the alleged facts set out by the campaigners. Meanwhile, the aforementioned volunteer teachers, medical workers, library, and school builders in West Papua also seem to have no time to see the internet distraction.
In that sense, when it comes to a real-world battle, those campaigners alongside their political backups who benefit a lot from the info disruption on West Papua, will surely never prevail. West Papua is never like Bougainville, as recently argued. Just because the main locals of both regions are Melanesian, does not make both areas have the same contexts. Real-world developments are undergoing in West Papua despite the remaining dispute over the independence of the region from Indonesia. While some are still struggling for political freedom, some others have been struggling and working hard for better education, health service, and economic developments there.
Winning the internet battle over West Papua issues may be fun but will surely never solve the real-world problem there. Human rights and justice advocates, instead, should join the real battle on the ground by collaborating with local leaders, youth communities, and authorities in solving West Papua’s real problems these days like the lack of many aspects like political aspirations, budget transparency, education, health, and economic development. (*)