INDONESIAN intelligence agencies went into overdrive in recent days to cushion the spillover effects anticipating an announcement by President Joko (Jokowi) Widodo during this week’s visit to West Papua that he will offer a referendum to decide the future of the Melanesian province.
Papuan leaders have been calling for a referendum to decide the province’s future since the ‘Papuan Spring’ of 2000.
Jokowi (pictured here in contemplative pose)) has to walk a fine line on the issue of allowing Papuans a plebiscite which could threaten to break up the unitary state of Indonesia.
There are other secessionist movements seeking to separate from Indonesia in 17 other regions of the Indonesian Archipelago, and the referendum option for West Papua to decide its political future and separate from Indonesia could create momentum for other regions to follow suit.
According to a security assessment, which faults President Jokowi for accommodating Papuan aspirations for self–determination, the promise of a referendum formed Jokowi’s main campaign platform in West Papua during the Indonesian presidential elections.
Political analyst Arbi Muslims has confirmed the policy shift is already in the pipeline.
"If you look at it, the referendum proposal had been circulated when Joko Widodo built his presidential campaign on the promise for a referendum for Papuans,” he told Indonesian national security organs last July.
“President Jokowi is trying to prove something now. His solution to deal with outstanding issues at the time came down to the promise of referendum for Papua."
Calls for a referendum picked up a lot of momentum in the highlands of West Papua when Papuans took President Jokowi’s word that, after he got elected, they would decide their own political future to continue as part of Indonesia or to separate.
“The calls for referendum for Papua are final, and Indonesia must anticipate turmoil if the option for referendum is delayed or denied any further," Arbi Muslims said.
"President Jokowi should provide the details and clarify the deal reached with Papuans in return for the outstanding issues affecting West Papua to be resolved through the promise of referendum,” he said.
The Indonesian Parliament has yet to resolve how to deal with the West Papua issue and says it does not have enough information on the referendum.
But according to Arbi Muslims, the Indonesian parliament needs to move fast.
“Papua is a very sensitive issue and many foreign interests are stakeholders in the Papua Conflict, and are manipulating the outcome,” he said.
For example, the United States has economic interests which are best served by having Indonesia’s occupation continue in West Papua and keep it as part of Indonesia because of the great wealth of natural resources.
West Papua has the largest tract of rain forest outside the Amazon, the world’s largest gold and copper deposit and it has one of the world’s largest natural gas deposits.
But West Papuans are not reaping the benefits from this economic development. They are among the poorest people in Indonesia as are their health standards, including a huge HIV epidemic.
Indonesia is not taking care of the West Papuan people, who have been struggling for self-determination for 54 years in circumstances where it’s one of the world’s forgotten conflicts.
The history of West Papua and its long struggle for self-determination from Indonesia is a story of failed decolonisation. In the 1960s, West Papua was due to be given independence as a former Dutch colony. Then Indonesia invaded.
As a result of negotiations between the US, the Netherlands and Indonesia, Indonesia was to take custody of the territory on condition it gave a vote for self-determination. That vote for self-determination took place in 1969 in sham circumstances where a handful of West Papuan leaders were forced to vote under threat of violence.
Since becoming part of Indonesia against their will and in breach of international law, the West Papuan people have suffered widespread human rights abuses.
It is now 2015, and President Obama’s record on the West Papua issue continues to fall short of the expectations of Papuans. He recalls in his book, Dreams of My Father, the stories his stepfather told him about the oppression of the West Papuan people. And he took lessons from that.
His stepfather had said to him, "If you can’t be strong, find friends to be strong, because stronger people will take your land and take your women and take your resources." Obama has direct personal experience of how devastating the Indonesian military occupation was through his own stepfather.
When he came into the presidency, Obama said, because of his experience, that he would be able to say things to Indonesia that other leaders had not been able to. But on West Papua, he has failed.
Yet, as the country that brokered the deal between Indonesia and the Dutch which sealed West Papua’s fate as part of Indonesia, the US has a historical duty to do the right thing
Jokowi is courting the destruction of his own nation if the referendum option for West Papua is put away. West Papua’s history of integration into Indonesia stands to be rectified. The evidence of Indonesia’s failure to formalise the decolonisation thesis after the Dutch left demands a verdict today.