Rare Good News for West Papua

New and encouraging developments in the struggle for independence of West Papua have been unfolding in the past week.

First, the election of Joko Widodo and Jusuf Kalla as Indonesia’s presidential team means that the new government will likely take a softer stance toward the province, bringing more aid and infrastructure projects.

Second, the island nation of Vanuatu has agreed to host a conference of West Papuan representative groups in the capital city of Port Vila at the end of August to seek to create a renewed bid for membership in the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG). It is a reversal of last month’s decision to reject the membership application by the West Papua National Coalition for Liberation.

Third, five political prisoners have been freed from prison after having been imprisoned for having publicly read a “declaration of independence” from Indonesia.

Not a time for trouble

Although many Indonesian politicians are dead set against granting any measure of independence to their Papua provinces, Indonesia’s July 6 election can be viewed as a hopeful turn of events for those province’s people. According to the poll results published by the Jakarta Globe, the Joko-Kalla team won 67 percent of the vote in West Papua, where he pledged to support the local’s cause.

While some remain skeptical about the new president’s intentions, it is clear that he took a softer approach to dealing with the West Papuans than his opponent, Prabowo Subianto, who is known for favoring a stronger military approach to the issue. In an interview with Radio New Zealand, Jim Elmslie, of the University of Sydney’s Center for Peace and Conflict Studies, says Prabowo was seen as wanting to take “Indonesia back to a more authoritarian mode of government and that would probably be reflected on the ground by a more hardline approach by the military and police even though they are taking a fairly hardline approach now. Jokowi is seen as more of a people’s person and indeed he doesn’t have a military background.”

The renewed drive for membership to the MSG is also a positive development. When the application was rejected the last time around, the leaders of the MSG said it was because they wanted to see a more unified group. This meant that although membership was not granted, advocates for an independent West Papua were pleased with what they saw as an invitation to reapply.

According to a statement from Powes Parkop, governor of the largest city in Papua New Guinea, it was “an encouraging step for his people’s cause.” Many are thus positive about the upcoming event in Vanuatu.

According to Islands Business, “a Vanuatu Presbyterian pastor has been appointed to head a new committee tasked with organizing the conference. Pastor Alain Nafuki says the aim is to hold discussions among the various groups, and, while there are some divisions amongst the West Papuan groups invited, he hopes that Vanuatu’s chiefs will facilitate a Melanesian reconciliation process.”

This has been touted as a key step in the road to gain recognition for the West Papuan cause. Another step towards a decrease in tensions played out this week with the release of the five political prisoners who had been serving three-year sentences in a Jayapura prison. According to the Pacific Scoop, the activists were arrested in October 2011 for reading out a “declaration of independence” from Indonesia. Those released included prominent tribal leader Forkorus Yaboisembut, who was declared “president of the Federal Republic of West Papua” during the 2011 declaration of independence event; Edison Waromi, who was declared prime minister; as well as Agustinus Sanany Kraar, Selpius Bobii and Dominikus Sorbet.

Advocates for a free West Papua will be encouraged to have these figures among their communities to guide them once again.

Discontent burns subcutaneously

Not everyone is happy about the elections. Benny Wenda, leader of the West Papua independence movement, believes pledges of support by Joko Widodo, known widely as Jokowi, are a tool to gain political support.

“Every candidate makes promises to West Papua,” Wenda told Think Progress, “We don’t trust any of the candidates. These are just empty promises. They look at West Papuans as second class citizens, and West Papua as a colony.”

Also the release of the prisoners has been viewed with circumspection in other quarters. Despite their release, ordinary West Papuans are, in fact, still being targeted and attacked for speaking of independence.

According to the Unrepresented Nations and People’s Organization (UNPO), six activists were beaten and arrested for distributing leaflets calling on the West Papuan population to boycott the elections. Perhaps to avoid having more of his fellow Papuans being put away, Forkorus Yaboisembut, the ex-self-proclaimed president, has stated now that the only solution to the problem is through dialogue with Indonesia, a development which points toward an increase in trust between the sides.

International mining companies are not currently enjoying great relations with the Indonesian authorities. According to Radio New Zealand, “Freeport and rival company Newmont…are still in talks since new mining rules were introduced in an effort to force miners to build smelters and processing plants in Indonesia.”

The companies do not want to have to spend money to build the smelters in the country because doing so faces serious problems, including the fact that smelters require huge amounts of power which at the moment are simply unavailable in the remote regions where the mines are situated. Nonetheless, the government insists. This has made their standing in the nation, which has never been rosy, particularly unstable. This time, however, no trouble should come from the Papuan provinces.

Freeport McMoRan operates the Grasberg mine in Papua, the largest gold mine in the world, and the third largest copper mine. In the past, attacks on at the mine have been attributed to the Free Papua Movement. Given the period of trust we are likely to witness, this type of disruptions might be unlikely too.

Eduardo Zachary is Research Director of Ethnographic Edge, London-based political risk firm. Eric Plese is a senior researcher. Web intelligence provided by Recorded Future