Portraying a threat for a reluctant government

Portraying a threat for a reluctant government

A response to ICG report No. 188
Budi Hernawan

Budi Hernawan OFM, a Franciscan friar, a former director of the Office for Justice and Peace of the Catholic Church in Jayapura, Papua. Currently he is a PhD scholar at Regulatory Institutions Network, the Australian National University, Canberra, Australia.
It might have simply been a coincidence that 22 members of KNPB (the West Papua National Committee) were arrested by the Papuan police during a peaceful demonstration only 11 days after the International Crisis Group (ICG) released its report on the situation in Papua (no. 188) on 11 March 2010. The announcement by the Indonesian Military (TNI) of a plan to deploy four additional infantry battalions to Papua 2 weeks after the publication of the ICG report may also be coincidental.

However, it is unquestionable that the report has prompted a flurry of commentary and debate. Some critics of the report have focused on the ICG’s use of the term ‘radical’, which they argue misrepresents the current situation in Papua. Other commentators are preoccupied with the way in which the report portrays a link between KNPB and/or OPM and recent violence in the territory. What these comments and critiques indicate is that the report has galvanized public debate and has helped to break down the silence on Papua.

In this article, I would like to discuss three major issues: the key contributions of the report; my own perspective, as a scholar on the issues raised by ICG; and, briefly, the methodology employed by ICG in its study.

ICG provides four key insights into the situation in Papua in its report. First, it urges policy makers in Jakarta to take Papua seriously by raising the issue of radicalisation, particularly among the highland students and Papuan resistance. Second, it eloquently portrays KNPB as the prime example of radicalisation in Papua. Third, it emphasises the complex nature of violence in Papua, which cannot be attributed to one single source and forewarns Jakarta against underestimating the potential for the situation in the territory to deteriorate. Finally, the report importantly emphasises the need for dialogue.

In my own view, the ICG report is a laudable attempt to address these key issues, but it does suffer from several limitations.

First, on the issue of radicalization, ICG argues that it has three key causes in Papua:
The radicalisation stems from a sense that peaceful methods have brought no political dividends in terms of movement toward the review of the 1969 UN-supervised Act of Free Choice that brought Papua into the Indonesian republic; that international support is critical if a review is to take place; and that the international community will only pay attention if Papua is in crisis, with convincing evidence of state repression and Papuan resistance.
In other words, ICG holds the view that the so-called radicals believe that peaceful means have failed and they might say, “Let us create another Santa Cruz in Papua to win the so-called international support.” Radicalization is not a new topic; it was hotly debated in various working group discussions at the Second Papuan Congress in 2000. Nevertheless, the report is an important reminder that the issue is real and that the possibility that Papuan people would resort to violence in order to win international attention is not inconceivable.

However, one can delve further than the ICG has and ask why violent methods are adopted by resistance groups in the first place. Jim Della-Giacoma, South-east Asia Project Director of ICG, argues that it is in the very nature of armed groups”. This does not go far as an explanation. One should also look at the existing and ever growing military presence in Papua that represents the state’s power to exert sanctioned violence. I would argue that for more than four decades, this presence has induced a mimetic pattern on the part of Papuan resistance. A dialectic between state oppression and Papuan resistance has developed in which both sides feed off one another.

ICG fails to situate its analysis in this broader context in which there is not only a correlation between the two sides of the conflict but also a self-perpetuating cycle of violence. Over forty years, the relations between Papua and the state have become much more complex than they were in the 1960s when Indonesia had just begun its administration of the territory. Despite some lingering legacies, Suharto is long gone and Jakarta is now home to a wide variety of political actors that have various and sometime conflicting interests. Papua itself has also been dramatically transformed. All local governments are in the control of indigenous Papuans that have real power over fundamental issues, such as budgeting, development policy and regulation. One aspect of Papuan society that the ICG report does explicitly recognise is the fact that the resistance movement has never been monolithic. A broad spectrum of groups with a variety of views and tactics are involved. It is not unthinkable that some of these groups embrace violent means but so far none of them has ever made a public statement to abandon the decision of the Second Papuan Congress, which stipulates that peaceful methods are the only appropriate path for Papuan political struggle.

Second, on the issue of KNPB, the ICG report emphasises that the group’s tactics are not widely shared or approved of by the rest of Papuan society. However, the ways in which the report portrays the group’s evolution, role and links with a number of violent incidents suggests that KNPB does play a leading role in promoting violent means of resistance in Papua. The use of the term ‘evolution’ itself suggests there is a linear continuity within the Papuan student movement since 1998 that has helped form KNPB. Moreover, KNPB has been portrayed as a new actor capable of posing a significant threat to the Indonesian state. My impression is that the report tries to portray KNPB’s role in Papua as equivalent to that of various terrorist groups that engage in asymmetric warfare against state authorities in other countries.

There are two possible responses that such a characterization of KNPB might evoke. On the one hand, for opponents of KNPB (not only various security services in the government but also other Papuan organizations) it might suggest the need for pre-emptive action against the group. On the other hand, for supporters of KNPB it might confirm their belief that KNPB’s tactics are likely to be successful in raising the profile of the Papuan political struggle. For my own part, I would question whether the KNPB, or any other Papuan resistance group, has ever really posed a military threat equivalent to insurgencies in other parts of the world that have solid financing, tactical training and media savvy.

Third, on the issue of the complexity of violence in Papua, what some commentators appear to miss in their reading of the ICG report is that there is recognition of the fact that “there is no single source of violence in Papua”. The report identifies various roots of violence, such as “land dispute, inter-clan wars and struggles over local political powers”. Such an approach plays an important role not only in understanding the whole picture of Papua but also in imagining threat. Any misrepresentation and misunderstanding of the situation could largely contribute to a misleading policy to tackle the threat.

Many scholars, activists, and government officials have subscribed to a ‘black and white’ framework for understanding the relations between national government policy and the dynamics in Papua. However, under the newly emerging democratic regime, policy makers in Jakarta must learn to accommodate a wide range of views to formulate a way forward for Papua, rather than focusing on specific critiques and labeling them as separatist’. Similarly, non-government actors need to accommodate the changing reality in Papua into their analytical framework.

In this context, I argue that it is not enough to explain the dynamics in Papua by simply singling out a few actors such KNPB or Jakarta. What is Jakarta? Is it merely the government? One needs to take seriously pluralised actors that influence decision-making at all levels such as the business sector and local governments.

Fourth, the report concludes with a clear message that dialogue between Papuan leaders and the Indonesian government is indispensable. ICG strongly endorses the LIPI-Tebay initiative to pave a way for a dialogue. It identifies a number of high ranking figures that have expressed support for this idea. However, ICG also explicitly points out that President Yudhoyono has not made a decisive step to endorse a dialogue. Having learnt from an Aceh peace process that required the commitment and involvement from the top level, ICG implicitly suggests that such indecisiveness will not only jeopardise a peace initiative but also will allow for continued aggression on both sides. I would agree that the President’s inaction sends the message that Papua is not a priority for his administration and, thus, leaves room for escalating violence.

I turn now, briefly, to the issue of methodology. In the midst of the Indonesian government’s actions to clamp down on various international organisations working in Papua (ICRC, PBI, Bill Gates Foundation), ICG has managed to maintain a unique position that enables it to have access both to the key state actors in Jakarta and various actors in Papua. This is no easy task. Despite its worldwide network and influential board of trustees, the Indonesian authorities are not always receptive to the group. ICG was even forced to leave Indonesia for a period some years ago.

As other commentators have pointed out, this particular ICG report relies heavily on interviews, public statements and online media. Such methods are not unusual in strategic studies, but it is important to note that they rely on a fundamental assumption: that utterances and acts are consistent. In other words, what people say is what they actually think and is reflected in how they behave.

Such an approach might be very relevant in many situations but can be misleading in the Papuan context. If one looks to Melanesian warfare traditions, one might be able to begin to grasp the strategic nature of the Papuan people. Language in Papua does not necessarily correlate with action. Posturing is very different from action. This is not a matter of inconsistency or different moral values, but instead represents an alternative worldview. Outsiders, therefore, need to carefully cross-check their findings from interviews with public events and local customs and knowledge. In other words, an anthropological perspective that pays serious attention to participant observation is a conditio sine qua non.

In conclusion, I cannot agree more with ICG’s position that the Indonesian government should take Papua not only seriously but also respectfully. It is nothing new that policy makers in Jakarta are failing to fully understand the vibrant dynamics of Papua and are thus misrepresenting the situation there. Although the ICG report has done little to provide an alternative model to the traditional dichotomy framework, the well-researched analysis clearly shows that Papua must be a top priority for the leadership in Jakarta. The ICG strongly recommends an open door policy for Papua as a serious gesture of an emerging democracy instead of deploying additional troops.