Indonesia’s easternmost province of Papua saw an upsurge in political violence in 2009, continuing into 2010. One factor was the increased activity of militant activists from the central highlands, many of them members of the West Papua National Committee (Komite Nasional Papua Barat, KNPB). They decided there was no longer any hope of achieving their main objective – a referendum on independence – through peaceful means, and led some to advocate violence and in some cases directly participate in violent acts. Their tactics are decried by many Papuans, but their message resonates widely, and the frustrations they articulate are real. A dialogue between Papuan leaders and central government officials, if carefully prepared, offers the possibility of addressing some longstanding grievances, without calling Indonesian sovereignty into question.
The KNPB had its origins in the growth of pro-independence student activism in Papua following the fall of Soeharto in 1998. As various coalitions formed and fissured, KNPB emerged as a group of mostly university-educated students and ex-students who adopted a militant left-wing ideology and saw themselves as revolutionaries, fighting the Indonesian state and the giant Freeport copper and gold mine near Timika. There were two main consequences to their increased militancy. They moved closer to their highland counterparts in the guerrilla army of the Free Papua Movement (Tentara Pembebasan Nasional/
Organisasi Papua Merdeka, TPN/OPM) and they increasingly saw that the only hope of achieving their cause lay in showing the world that Papua was in crisis – and that meant more visible manifestations of conflict.
Violence rose in 2009 in part because it was an election year, and the polls provided a focus for action. It was also because activities abroad – particularly the establishment in October 2008 of a then tiny group called International Parliamentarians for West Papua (IPWP) – encouraged the militant activists to believe that more international support could change the political dynamics at home. Several violent incidents in the provincial capital Jayapura and the university suburb of Abepura in April, around the time of legislative elections, are directly attributable to the KNPB. Its members may also have helped spur violence in the highland district of Puncak Jaya, through communication and coordination with the local TPN/OPM commander, Goliat Tabuni.
In other areas where violence took place, the KNPB either claimed responsibility when it apparently had no direct role, as in the occupation of an airstrip in the village of Kapeso in Mamberamo Raya. The most dramatic violence in Papua over the last eight months has been the series of shootings along Freeport’s main mining road linking the towns of Timika and Tembagapura, aimed at either Freeport vehicles or those of the paramilitary police, Brimob. Many inside and outside Papua believe the security forces themselves are responsible as a way of increasing their numbers and therefore their rent-seeking opportunities in Timika. Crisis Group believes there is a stronger case to be made for the involvement of one or more TPN/OPM commands, because of statements claiming responsibility for some but not all of the attacks and various witness testimonies. But the possibility remains that multiple parties were involved, in what the Papuans refer to as “one plate, two spoons”.
The violence, combined with the activities of the KNPB, has succeeded in raising the profile of Papua both at home and abroad, and has increased interest in the possibility of dialogue between Papuan leaders and Jakarta on a range of issues aimed at resolving the conflict. The path toward dialogue is full of pitfalls, and there are potential spoilers and much distrust on both sides. Many in the central government believe that any discussion of non-economic issues such as greater autonomy or historical grievances will only fuel the push for independence and obscure the positive changes taking place. Not only has there been “Papuanisation” of local government and a commitment to accelerated development, they argue, but the police have gradually replaced the military as the front line of response to separatist activity.
Some Papuan activists believe that dialogue should only take place with international mediation and with the political endgame left open, rather than accepting autonomy and not independence as final. Even some of those who accept Indonesian sovereignty as a given believe that Jakarta has a history of promising but not delivering, and that if it does agree to dialogue, it will be as a public relations effort without any intention of changing the status quo. But the radicalisation of the KNPB is proof of the dangers of leaving political grievances to fester. Moreover, though many of the Papuan elite disagree with its tactics, the KNPB’s message resonates more widely than its small numbers would suggest.
A joint initiative of Papuan intellectuals and researchers at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (Lembaga Ilmu Pengetahuan Indonesia, LIPI) to outline a road map that would form the basis of a dialogue between the two sides is potentially the most fruitful option on the table to end the conflict. If it is to succeed, it will require acknowledgment that the solution for Papua is more than just economic development, though that is critically important. It will also need public backing from Indonesia’s president, Soesilo Bambang Yudhoyono. ***