Papua is not a problem but the way we talk about Papua is

The image of West Papua have always been framed by outsiders. Byelikova Oksana / Shutterstock.com

Many of us were surprised but pleased when Indonesian President Joko Widodo announced early this month that the decades-long restriction on foreign journalists in Papua would be lifted.

Access to Papua for international press and observers has been a longstanding issue. It was not only raised by rights organisations but also featured prominently during the 2012 Universal Periodic Review on Indonesia at the UN Human Rights Council.

But the pleasant surprise did not last very long. Less than 24 hours later, Minister for Security and Political Affairs Tedjo Edhy Purdijatno told Indonesian media that the access will be subject to the scrutiny of an agency. Indonesian military commander General Moeldoko confirmed this statement separately, saying that the government has yet to formulate new rules of the game for foreign journalists. Without waiting for further instruction from the national authorities, Papua police acted independently by announcing that foreign journalists will have to report to them.

While these statements reflect the ongoing conflicting policies on Papua, they reveal something much more problematic: the framing of Papua as a problem.

Papua is not a problem. The way we talk about Papua is.

Conflicting policies for Papua

This is the fundamental issue that we have to address. Papuans have repeatedly expressed their concerns over crimes against humanity, including the recent killings of four students by the Indonesian security apparatus in Paniai. But the response of the government is simply to delay the case until it withers away.

They asked for an evaluation of the Special Autonomy Law, but the response was establishing UP4B, a government task force to accelerate economic development programs. This policy perpetuated the existing conflicting policies of Papua until the team finished its term last year.

Papuans have raised their voice over the shifting demographic composition, with an increased influx of people from other islands coming to Papua. The government responded by planning a new transmigration program, overlooking the creeping threats of ethnic conflicts.

Papuans have asked for dialogue with the national government, but so far the government only holds closed-door meetings with the Papua Peace Network. They asked for open access for foreign journalists, but the response is a cacophony of mixed messages.

The government’s off-target responses have often been informed by analyses that typically frame Papuans as incompetent. These analysts hold the view that government services in Papua such as health care, education and public services are declining because the groundwork personnel, who are largely Papuans, are absent from their work. This analysis is partly true if they isolate the case to the local level.

But such analyses ignore the question of conflicting government policies on Papua that contribute to the low quality of implementation. The Papuan public service is an integral part of the larger government machinery. Even when a policy has clear guidance and is equipped with strong supervision and mentoring, implementation could go wrong; let alone when there are conflicting policies with minimal supervision.

How outsiders frame Papua

If we look back to the history of Papua, since their first encounter with outsiders Papuans have been construed according to the mindsets of the outsiders. The first encounter with the Sultanate of Tidore through the hongi fleet between the 17th and 18th century was marked by violence and slavery. Although the contact was limited to the Islands of Raja Ampat, the Bird Heads area and the Island of Biak, this mistreatment illustrated that Papuans were framed as objects by the sultanate.

Following the unconditional transfer of sovereignty from the Netherlands to Indonesia in 1949, the Dutch retained then West New Guinea as the last resort of its imaginary empire legacy in Asia. In 1966 Yale historian Arend Lijhart described this act as “trauma of de-colonisation”.

Since the territory was integrated into Indonesia in 1969, the name of the land has changed three times, illustrating the ways in which the government construed the land of Papua: from Irian Barat during Sukarno’s period to Irian Jaya during Suharto’s period and back to Papua under Abdurrahman Wahid, widely known as Gus Dur.

The change was not merely about names. It was also about different visions of Papua.

Sukarno envisioned the liberation of Irian Barat from the Dutch. Suharto promised a glorious and prosperous Irian Jaya. Gus Dur simply showed respect for Papuans and listened to their wishes by restoring the original name of the territory into the original name. As a result, among the three names, Papuans highly appreciate only the last change.

Friends in the Pacific

Papuans have been subjected to various framings without proper consultation with them. So, it is understandable that they have shifted their attention from the national government to the Melanesian Spearhead Group.

Although the Western world may never hear about this forum, Papuans found genuine dialogue and a warm welcome from the members of this sub-diplomatic forum in its neighbourhood: the Pacific.

They found ample space to express themselves as members of the Melanesian family. They have no worry about being judged or measured against foreign criteria any more because they have their own say and can speak for themselves despite all formal procedures.

Listen to Papuan voices

This is what we missed in the discussion of opening access for Papua: let Papuans speak for themselves. It is not a romanticism. Rather, it is a call on national and international policy-makers that Papuans should be given space to speak for themselves, whether with the national government, foreign governments, foreign journalists or international observers, so they are no longer framed as a problem.

Gus Dur set a clear example of how to engage Papuans with respect. This example can be translated into some form of governance that accommodates Papuans’ concerns in a comprehensive policy based on justice, peacemaking and a spirit of reconciliation.

Found this article useful? A tax-deductible gift of $30/month helps deliver knowledge-based, ethical journalism.