On July 4, 2020, the spokesperson for the National Committee of West Papua (KNB), Victor Yeimo repudiated a unilateral deliberation of the West Papua autonomy bill in Indonesia’s House of Representatives. Indigenous Papuans – the subject of this bill – were not included in the discussion. Sixteen groups in Papua have voiced their opposition under the Petisi Rakyat Papua (Petitions by the Papuans) movement over their concerns of the potential continuation of its special autonomy (Otsus) status. They are demanding a referendum that would let them determine their own fate; whether they want the special autonomy continued or become independent.
Former Papuan prisoner Sayang Mandabayan has refused to acknowledge this proposal, condemning the political decisions that have pitted the Otsus against Jakarta’s elites. John Gobay, head of the Papuan Students Alliances, stated, “ever since before the Otsus until today, almost 20 years after the Otsus, racism towards Papuans, land grabbing, military operations, rights abuse, and social and economic inequality keep happening in Papua.” Despite the government’s sizable US $7.4b funds to improve Papua’s economy, according to the National Development Planning Agency, Papua is still home to almost one million impoverished people and more than 6,000 underdeveloped villages. Statistics Indonesia (BPS) has also noted that Papua and West Papua have the lowest human development index in the country.
On July 9, Benny Wenda the chair of the United Liberation Movement of West Papua expressed the concerns of West Papuans “Under this so-called Special Autonomy, we have only been further killed, marginalized and ethnically cleansed. Our environment and way of life [have] been destroyed in an unrelenting ecocide – our mountains have been mined, our rivers polluted, our forests turned down.” She also called for the European Union, World Bank, United States, Britain, New Zealand and Australia to cease funding of the Indonesian occupied forces and to help address the conflict’s root causes in accordance with the Asian Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) resolution – which seeks for the Papua human rights situation to be a standing item on the United Nations Human Rights Council Agenda.
While the secessionist development in the region has been attracting attention from human rights activists and even politicians, the problem cannot be solved unless the involved parties adopt a radical approach towards the current political and economic climate. International affairs expert, Vladislav Gulevich speculated it could even hang off the possibility of tipping the current balance of power in the Pacific region. Being one of ASEAN’s founding members, holding a large population and having one of the biggest economies in Southeast Asia, Indonesia is influential in shaping the organization’s agenda in the Pacific.
Since Papua New Guinea and Australia both acknowledge sovereignty over West Papua, Papua New Guinea is constrained by its aversion to impacting its relations with Australia. Although Papua New Guinea provides refugee assistance to West Papuans, it still works with Jakarta to contain this problem within the region. Port Moresby on the other hand, is aware of the growing separatist sentiment but holds little incentive to upset the status quo. Australia reflects this position, reluctant to ignite regional instability for a state that “lacks the socio-political strength to ensure its sovereignty.” Conclusively, only a state with no incentive to maintain agreeable relations with Australia or Jakarta will be in a position to support West Papua’s secessionist goals. As Benny Wenda said, “The only autonomy that exists is the autonomy of [the] Indonesian military and police to kill.”
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