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23/03/2006 | Papua: The Dangers of Shutting Down Dialogue

International Crisis Group Staff

The Papuan People’s Council, the key institution charged with easing tensions between Papuans and Indonesia’s central government, may be about to collapse, with grave consequences given the region’s current volatility. Created in late October 2005 as the centrepiece of the autonomy deal, the Council was almost immediately confronted with two major crises: stalled talks over the legal status of West Irian Jaya and riots over the giant Freeport mine. If the Council can now manoeuvre its way through the two crises, it may yet be able to take on other outstanding grievances and become what Papua has always lacked, a genuinely representative dialogue partner with Jakarta. If it fails, local resentment against the central government will almost certainly increase. The central government should realise it is in its own interest to help the Council succeed.

 

OVERVIEW

There is serious risk the long-awaited Papuan People's Council (Majelis Rakyat Papua, MRP) is about to collapse, only five months after it was established, ending hopes that it could ease tensions between Papuans and the central government. The MRP was designed as the centrepiece of the autonomy package granted the country’s easternmost province in 2001. Almost as soon as it came into being, however, it was faced with two major crises – stalled talks over the legal status of West Irian Jaya, the province carved out of Papua in 2003, and violence sparked by protests over the giant Freeport mine – while Jakarta marginalised its mediation attempts. To revive genuine dialogue and salvage the institution before autonomy is perhaps fatally damaged, President Yudhoyono should meet the MRP in Papua, thus acknowledging its importance, while the MRP should move beyond non-negotiable demands and offer realistic policy options to make autonomy work.

Papuan leaders had envisaged the MRP as a representative body of indigenous leaders that would protect Papuan culture and values in the face of large-scale migration from elsewhere in Indonesia and exploitation of Papua’s natural resources. Jakarta-based politicians saw it as a vehicle for Papuan nationalism and deliberately diluted its powers, then delayed its birth. By the time it emerged, the province had been divided into two, many Papuans were disillusioned with autonomy and some were already questioning how the MRP could function under such circumstances.

The MRP’s authority remains uncertain. If it can manoeuvre its way through these two crises, it may yet be able to take on other outstanding grievances and become what Papua has always lacked, a genuinely representative dialogue partner with Jakarta. If it fails, not only will its own legitimacy be diminished, but local resentment against the central government will almost certainly increase.

The signs are not good. As negotiations between the MRP and the central government were underway to resolve the disputed legal status of West Irian Jaya (Irian Jaya Barat, IJB), Jakarta suddenly authorised gubernatorial elections there, cementing its status as a separate province outside autonomy. The MRP, despite its hard-line rhetoric, had begun to show signs of willingness to compromise, but rather than reciprocate, the central government sidelined it. The MRP is now grappling with whether continued negotiations are possible, and if not, whether it should disband. But with large local turnout in the West Irian Jaya elections, and the local support that implies for the province, the bigger question is whether the MRP is still a relevant actor.

Meanwhile, student-led demonstrations in Papua and by Papuan students in Java and Sulawesi demanding closure of the Freeport mine in Timika and the withdrawal of military forces there, which had been escalating since late February, culminated in a violent clash in Abepura on 16 March, in which four police and an air force officer were killed and several civilians seriously injured. The subsequent police sweeps have been heavy handed, and the atmosphere remains tense. The MRP's attempts to engage the central government on this issue were quickly brushed aside.

Successful MRP mediation of these tensions is becoming more crucial as the chances of it happening become more remote. The MRP has not made its own case any easier but it is now up to the central government to bring it back on board. If sufficient trust can be reestablished to resume dialogue, a compromise on West Irian Jaya is still possible, building on the baseline consensus reached by the central government and top Papuan provincial leaders in late November 2005. The essence of that agreement was that Papua would remain a single economic, social, and cultural entity, regardless of the administrative division. That is, there would be a single MRP, and the autonomy funds from the central government and revenues raised in each province from resource exploitation – from the gold and copper of the Freeport mine in Papua and from the BP natural gas project in West Irian Jaya – would be shared by both.

Since the elections, the MRP’s bargaining position has been further weakened, but it is critically important now to reach a compromise on the issue – not just in the interests of resolving two crises, but to make the MRP a functioning institution. Failure to bolster the MRP would almost certainly deal a fatal blow to an autonomy package in which many Papuans are already losing faith. Given the current volatility in Papua, it is in everyone’s interests to make sure this does not happen.

 

International Crisis Group (Organismo Internacional)

 

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