Recently, Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Politics and Security, Luhut Panjaitan, made a three-day visit to Papua. His trip to the nation’s easternmost region stood out for two key reasons.
First, Papua is a priority for the current administration, and the visit by one of Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s closest trustees follows the President’s earlier travels to the disaffected area. Clearly, this latest trip was important — not only for the central government but also for Papuans.
Second, Luhut’s visit showed a strong commitment to ensuring that Jokowi’s policies for the region are fulfilled — especially the special autonomy law, which has been widely criticised as ineffective when it comes to improving the welfare of Papuans.
Across the board, however, Luhut’s visit was nothing more than a symbolic gesture, and totally meaningless for Papua’s many powerless indigenous people. The key issue was whether Luhut’s visit would thoroughly address the fundamental concern of most Papuans – genuine trust for Jakarta. In this, the trip was an utter failure.
Since becoming part of Indonesia through the deeply flawed Act of Free Choice, facilitated by the United Nations in 1969, Papua has been treated poorly by the government and many Indonesians. This mistreatment includes inefficient policies, intensive and brutal ‘security’, and racial prejudice – all of which has led to distrust and limited sympathy on the part of Papuans toward the Indonesian government. Thus, a visit by a political figure as prominent as Luhut made locals skeptical rather than optimistic.
Their cynicism was warranted, as Luhut’s visit did not touch on Papua’s fundamental problem: its political status. Instead of addressing Papua’s aspirations for independence, Luhut preferred to discuss the progress of developmental programs. And the more he avoided talking about Papua’s political problems, the more the current administration showed to the international community its inability for handling ethnic-based conflict.
Adding salt to the wound, the concept of dialogue, which many have repeatedly vowed to be an important and long overdue step for resolving longstanding grievances, did not receive the minister’s attention at all.
In contrast to this Papua visit are Luhut’s recent trips to PNG and Fiji, two supporters of Indonesia’s ‘internalisation’ of the Papua issue.
Using economic diplomacy, in the form of ad hoc economic assistance and bilateral agreements, the primary objective of these visits was to defuse the Papuan issue in the Pacific — particularly the role of the United Liberation Movement of West Papua (ULMWP), which was granted observer status in the Melanesian Spearhead Group in 2015. In exchange for Jakarta’s support, the Indonesian government hopes PNG and Fiji can either contain the Papua issue or keep it on the sidelines in the Pacific region.
Luhut’s visit to Papua also failed to make any breakthrough in the security sphere. Given his background as a former army general and his current position related to security matters, he was expected to tackle one of the most contentious issues in Papua — initiatives to build a new army territorial command in Manokwari and a police brigade headquarters in Wamena.
Another key security issue overlooked was the so-called joint expedition involving the Army, or TNI. While the expedition includes civilians, it is dominated by 670 military personnel, including the Special Armed Forces Command (Kopassus) – a group that has been accused of gross human rights violations in the region.
Supposedly, the expedition is conducting research and collecting data related to Papua’s natural resources and its people – even though this is at odds with the Army’s primary duties as stated in the TNI law Number 34/2004.
Instead, Luhut merely promised to resolve past human rights cases, without giving any details on how such a promise would be met. This commitment can mostly be seen as lip service, particularly since two prominent cases involving security forces from the past two years remain unresolved — the shooting of civilians at Paniai in 2014, and a raid, burning and arrests at Timika in 2015.
Luhut’s visit also failed to address the contentious problem of massive investment across Papua. Investment-driven policies have been widely criticised as not improving Papuans’ quality of life. In fact, many “giant” private investors — mostly palm oil plantations and massive agricultural projects such as the Rajawali group, Sampoerna Group, Medco Group, Sinar Mas Group, Salim Group, Musim Mas Group — have been exploiting many local forests after receiving forest utilisation licenses (HPH) from Jakarta.
Many indigenous Papuans have lived in these forests for centuries. In many cases, these “giants” have bypassed and sidelined local tribes to run their businesses. Additionally, such investment is useless as the bulk of Papuans lack sufficient skills to take benefit from these projects.
Migration was another issue overlooked by the minister. According to the Justice and Peace Secretariat of the Jayapura Bishopic Mission, huge numbers of people transmigrating on a daily basis has negatively affected the indigenous population by subordinating Papuans in the cultural, political, and economic spheres. This shift in population leads to never-ending conflict between settlers from outside islands and indigenous Papuans. If not addressed, the transmigration policy will only exaggerate the current demographic structure in Papua, further straining relations between the central government and locals.
Without discussing any of these crucial issues, Luhut’s visit casts doubt on how the government is handling the area and most importantly whether it can build trust for Jakarta among Papuans.
Accordingly, his visit will be seen by Papuans as another ‘show’ by government officers rather than as genuine and meaningful action. All in all, Luhut’s trip to Papua remains merely symbolic for many indigenous people. It would seem that once again pomp and ceremony has trumped the needs of Papuans.
Hipolitus Yolisandry Ringgi Wangge is a researcher at the Marthinus Academy, Jakarta.