Oct 01, 2023 Last Updated 8:24 AM, Sep 13, 2023

Papua - The Indonesian debate

Peter King

It is a moot point whether there is an Indonesian learning curve on Timor, Aceh and Papua, or only a 'forgetting curve' that blithely overlooks a generation or more of failed repression. Yet there are a few (admittedly very few) commentators who advocate or would tolerate the limited, or even the extensive, breakup of the unitary republic. We may call them soft liners. They think that both Papuans and Indonesia itself would be better off if Papua were allowed to break away. Proposals are circulating not just to free the most aggrieved provinces of Aceh and Papua, on the East Timor precedent, but for the whole of Indonesia to devolve into a group of cooperating independent states.

George Aditjondro urged the Jakarta Post's readership in November 1999: 'Let go of the [1945] constitution and the reality is that Indonesia might become a commonwealth of states.' Political observer Soedjati Jiwandono agreed. Papuans and others have a right to independence: 'Unity is something you cannot force and everybody should have the right to determine what they want, including the right to be free.' Ultimately, he said after the Papuan People's Congress, 'unity should bring prosperity and thus it might be better if Indonesia split into three or four prosperous countries, rather than a single unity that is not thriving and costing the people more.'

Well known political commentator and (after October 2000) presidential press secretary Wimar Witoelar supported this pragmatic attitude in mid-1999: 'Human dignity and liberty are far more important than any arrangement of statehood. For the younger political generation it does not matter too much what form of autonomy, what form of federalist status or even what form of independence is granted to the provinces. As long as the people of Aceh are good friends with the people of Indonesia, it is fine.'

Professor Merle Ricklefs of Melbourne University disagreed. He spoke for many Indonesians when he told the Jakarta Post in mid-2000 that the costs of 'losing' Aceh and Papua would outweigh any benefits for Indonesia. But this view assumes that the giant resource projects in these provinces will continue to be cash cows for Jakarta in the teeth of local resentment. The closure of the Bougainville copper mine in Papua New Guinea should be recalled here. In fact Exxon Mobil's natural gas production in Aceh has already been severely affected by the military and police offensive launched there early in 2001. And plausible threats to close the huge Freeport mine in Papua have proliferated since a crackdown on the Papua Presidium Council began in November 2000.

If Papua and Aceh's resources can no longer be extracted by force, then the costs for Indonesia of clinging to sovereignty in terms of repression, loss of reputation and remilitarisation may indeed outweigh the benefits. These costs are moral and political as well as economic, and they are already onerous.

At the other extreme from the soft liners are military and civilian hard liners, among them Golkar diehards and most of Vice President Megawati's PDI-P nationalists. For them, the unitary 1945 constitution is an almost spiritual given which the state and the army must defend to the death. The view that even 'ordinary' autonomy might reinforce ethnic and regional exclusiveness and threaten the integrity of the republic is particularly favoured by the military.

What has happened in Kalimantan since 1997 gives superficial support to this view, particularly the ethnic cleansing inflicted by Dayaks on Madurese settlers in Central Kalimantan during March 2001. But the brutal way in which Suharto's centrally directed development marginalised the indigenous Dayaks is the deep underlying cause of Kalimantan's problems.

Soft hard line

In between the extremes of soft and hard we have a large group of people I shall call soft hard liners. These are strongly determined to preserve Indonesian unity, but not at any price and not necessarily the unitary state. For the Indonesian government generally, independence demands are to be assuaged above all by the offer of 'regional autonomy' to all provinces and 'special autonomy' to the most troublesome ones, Aceh and Papua/ Irian Jaya.

The government portrays the new laws on 'ordinary' autonomy as a large concession not only to Aceh and Papua but to all the other resource rich provinces which are showing secessionist symptoms, West Kalimantan and Riau in particular. Aceh and Irian, for example, have in the past received around one per cent of the enormous revenues generated by 'their' mining, oil and natural gas projects. Under the Habibie administration's Law 25 on fiscal balance between the central government and regional administrations promulgated in April 1999, they (and all other provinces) will receive fifteen percent of 'their' gross oil revenues accruing to the state, thirty percent for gas, and no less than eighty percent for mining, forestry and fishing.

Unfortunately for Papuans and Acehnese, however, whose national aspirations are focussed at province level, Law 22/ 1999 on regional autonomy places the emphasis on devolving power to the lower levels of regency (kabupaten) and city (kotamadya) rather than to the province. However, although the Jakarta government has displayed both lack of preparation and backsliding in embarking upon decentralisation, the process has nevertheless introduced a new, even if rather chaotic dynamic to the provinces.

The federal option in decentralisation would go much further. It would confer not merely fiscal and other rights under ordinary law but rights of 'substantive independence' from the centre under constitutional law, thus ending the unitary state of the 1945 constitution. Mohammad Hatta, Sumatran co-father of independence with the Javanese Sukarno, was actually a 'federalist' in principle. (He also opposed the inclusion of Papua in the fledgling republic.)

There was a lively debate about federalism in the aftermath of the overthrow of Suharto's New Order. MPR (People's Consultative Assembly) chairperson Amien Rais was still saying in November 1999 that he was committed to federalism in principle as 'the middle option [between the unitary state and secession] which is the best way the dissatisfaction of the regions can be resolved.' The Jakarta Post editorialised in December 1999, at the time of a million strong demonstration in Banda Aceh for a referendum on independence, that federalism 'could in the end become what saves our national unity.'

However, Jakarta seems to have lost the will to experiment. By the time Papua presented its own proposals on special autonomy in April 2001 - albeit often seen at home as too weak - they were being widely dismissed in Jakarta as a flirtation with 'dangerous' federalism.

But the only alternative to 'dangerous' federalism and even more dangerous self-determination is repression, and repression in Papua and elsewhere is a blind alley for Indonesia. The challenge of West Papuan self-determination is also a challenge to resume genuine reform in Indonesia itself. Only a revival of reform will make it possible to begin a more constructive discussion of all the options for Papua.

Peter King (p.king@econ.usyd.edu.au) is a research associate in government and international relations at the University of Sydney, Australia.

Inside Indonesia 67: Jul - Sep 2001

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