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Papua riots reflect deep dissatisfaction with Indonesian rule

Jokowi needs to address economic, political and social grievances

In August, riots which started in East Java, Indonesia, in response to the involvement of soldiers and security officers persecuting Papuan students, spread to the provinces of Papua and West Papua. The students had been demonstrating to express their disappointment and dissatisfaction toward Indonesian government policies in Papua.

The riots took hold fast in Papua because it has faced a long period of discrimination, not only sociocultural but also economic and political, by central government, especially under President Suharto. In 2014, a member of the Papuan Consultative Assembly told me that "it was wrong to be born as a Papuan."

Even once the riots were put down by the police and army, the central problem still remains. Indonesian government policies have not touched the roots of the Papua conflict, which include -- for some -- the desire for independence. If the government would like to avoid a repeat, it needs to start talking to Papuans.

My 2009 book "Papua Road Map" highlighted four sources of conflict in Papua: marginalization of and discrimination against Papuan people; the failure of development; human rights violations; and the history and political status of Papua.

Central government has only partially solved those problems through the development of infrastructure and connectivity, such as a trans-Papua road, schools and markets. More problematic, the government does not want to recognize any other problems except welfare and economic development.

The military carried out human rights violations in Papua between 1962 and the fall of Suharto's regime in 1998, as several reports into the violence have shown. As a result, Papuans carry the trauma of this along with bitter memories, and the central government needs to acknowledge and atone for this.

In the government's mindset, conflict will stop if Papuan financial welfare is guaranteed. It forgot that problem of human right violations and political status -- which inflamed the recent riots -- cannot be solved only through an economic approach.

Relations between Papua and Jakarta are strained by their different views of history, so central government does not acknowledge dates important to Papuans. Some factions in the Free Papua Movement, or OPM, celebrate July 1 as Papua's independence day, while others pinpoint December 1.

August 15, when the violence flared, commemorates the start of -- as pro-independence people see it -- Indonesian colonization in Papua.

The government approach is not changing, still stressing security in Papua. When the armed conflict in Nduga, a highland area in Papua, between the military and the separatist movement caused many civilians to flee from their house in late 2018, several reports showed around 140 of the refugees died due to malnutrition.

However, the government denied this and said the reports were a hoax. To worsen the situation, the government tried to solve this problem with a military deployment. This approach will only cause Papuans more trauma after past human right violations.

Similarly, it is unfortunate how the central government responded to the recent riots by deploying security forces from outside Papua. Many academics and human rights activists were worried that this approach will lead to other violations.

Indonesian soldiers stand guard during a protest in Timika, Papua province on Aug. 21.   © AP

Moreover, the Indonesian government seems to avoid talking about human rights problems in Papua and has left this problem untouched, breeding distrust of Jakarta.

Dialogue is the peaceful way to resolve conflict in Papua -- if central government is willing to resolve it. The coordinator of the Papua Peace Networks, a civil society group, said: "If Indonesia or Papua insisted on their own ideals -- either Indonesia nationalism or Papua nationalism -- without compromising, the price is death on both sides."

Dialogue cannot directly solve the conflict in Papua -- that will take concrete measures -- but it can bridge different beliefs and reduce the distrust between Papua and Jakarta. It is necessary to respect and recognize the rights of Papuans in Papua. Papuans could be both subject and masters in their own land within the Indonesian republic.

Talks should address all the problems in a comprehensive and simultaneous manner, without being reduced only to development problems, such as health and education.

President Jokowi and his administration need to put politics on an equal footing in these talks, within the context of Indonesian sovereignty. It needs his political will, or the conflict and violence will continue.

Dr. Rosita Dewi is a researcher at the Centre for Political Studies, Indonesia Institute of Sciences, and co-author of "Papua Road Map: Negotiating the Past, Improving the Present and Securing the Future."

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