A tribal man votes in 2004 Indonesia’s general elections in Lembah Baliem, in Wamena, Papua. Antara/EPA

How Papua is depoliticised in Indonesia’s presidential election

Three soldiers and several members of an armed group were killed in a shootout earlier this month in Nduga, Papua. Last Sunday, Indonesia’s easternmost province suffered another blow; flash floods killed at least 79 people in Sentani, near Papua’s capital, Jayapura.

Indonesia will head to the polls on April 17 for the presidential election, but the issue of Papua has been neglected. Both candidates – the incumbent, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, and his challenger, Prabowo Subianto – don’t seem to prioritise Papua in their campaigns.

The small number of Papua voters may not be significant for both candidates. These 3.5 million voters account for less than 2% of the total votes.

However, politically, Papua is a strategic topic. National interests are at stake. Papuan activists, both domestically and abroad, are increasingly campaigning for freedom. Some Pacific countries have raised Papua’s human rights issues in United Nations forums.

But Indonesian political elites still don’t see Papua as a political issue. Its absence from the presidential campaign means this issue is being depoliticised. Both the government and the opposition still consider Papua’s main problem is lack of economic development. Having this perspective, they oversimplify the issue.

A sensitive topic

Both presidential candidates seem to be reluctant to touch on the politically sensitive topic of Papua in their campaigns. At least two factors explain this.

The first is the candidates’ track records and their supporters’ political preference. Papuan activists regard both candidates as having lousy track records in Papua – particularly in relation to political affairs, law enforcement and human rights.

Even though Jokowi is popular for his infrastructure initiatives in Papua, many argue he made no progress in meeting his promises to resolve human rights cases in the province. He has not kept his promise to resolve the Paniai case. People’s disappointment deepened after Jokowi recruited alleged human rights offenders to his administration.

As for Prabowo, Papuans still can’t get over what the former general has done to them. In 1996, he led a military operation in Mapenduma, Nduga, which had a traumatic effect on Papuans.

Prabowo’s involvement in the kidnapping of pro-democracy activists during the 1998 transition to democracy was another part of his dark record on human rights issues. Also, Papuans link Prabowo to the late President Soeharto, who was responsible for numerous military operations in Papua during the New Order era.

The second reason both candidates depoliticise the issue of Papua is that they do not want to disappoint their potential voters. Even though they are competing with each other, Prabowo and Jokowi depend on support from three similar groups to win the election: the Islamic group, the nationalist group and the military.

For these groups, Papuan integration with Indonesia is non-negotiable. This rules out any discourse on secession, which is likely to arise when the issues of Papua are discussed. Thus, the two candidates are playing safe by not talking about Papua.

The history

The depoliticisation of Papua started when the government issued the 2001 Law on Special Autonomy for Papua.

The government issued the law to suppress Papuan people’s demand for independence. The Papuan people had voiced this demand during the Second Papuan People’s Congress in June 2000. That congress recommended Papua separate from Indonesia.

Then the law was issued as a middle way to bridge the antagonistic relationship between the government and Papuan people. To do so, the law is designed to cover broad themes, including political, governance, cultural and economic dimensions. At that time, the law – which was mainly formulated by intellectuals and Papuan activists – gave hope of a peaceful resolution in Papua.

However, the government was deemed inconsistent in implementing the law. One example was the failure to form a Truth and Reconciliation Commission or KKR to help with the historical rectification of Papuan integration with Indonesia as well as resolve human rights cases.

The government did not form KKR because the Constitutional Court annulled the law to establish the committee for being contrary to the Indonesian Constitution.

Besides, each regime seems to prefer to focus more on Papua’s economic development, while overlooking the political and human right issues, as the region’s biggest problem. The government’s pursuit of economic development has cast aside the need of Papuans for a process of reconciliation to heal the wounds from the past.

The government compensates for the shortcomings of the Special Autonomy Law by issuing several presidential decrees. Aiming to accelerate development in Papua, these decrees take the Papuan issue further away from politics as its main problem.

In a 2017 presidential decree, “politics” was not mentioned even once. The same goes for the decree’s action plan. It seems politics has disappeared from Jakarta’s narrative for Papua.

Political process as a peaceful solution

The issue of Papua is by nature political; it involves the question of state legitimacy. Unfortunately, both the governments and political elites insist on framing Papua only as an economic development problem.

The lack of discussion on Papua during the election campaign underlines the missing political dimension in solving Papuan problems. Approaching the nation’s fifth democratic election, Indonesians should be able to discuss national issues more openly.

The government should have learned from the Aceh peace process, which involves reconciliation via political processes. As with Aceh, the root of Papuan problems is a political matter, which should be dealt with politically as well. Ignoring this will not solve the problems but instead trigger new problems.

The presidential election could have created momentum to refresh ideas in formulating solutions for Papua. For that reason, the first step to take is to involve Papua in every part of the country’s historical events, including the national election.


Reza Pahlevi translated this article from Indonesian.

This article was originally published in Indonesian