Indonesia: the only solution for Papua is an independence referendum

This is a translated editorial statement from Militan Indonesia, first published on 22 August 2019, at the beginning of a wave of mass demonstrations across Indonesia and Papua. Since then, reaction has reared its head. The Indonesian government deployed an additional 6,000 police and military personnel to Papua. The internet was blocked. A pro-Indonesian militia was mobilised to terrorise Papuan people. Dozens of Papuans have been killed, with hundreds being rounded up.

Terror, violence and racism once again descended upon the Papuan youth who are studying in Indonesia, this time in Surabaya, Malang, Semarang and Ternate. News of how these youth were treated like animals sparked mass demonstrations across Papua, as the masses know full well from their own daily experience what these youth went through, being derided as “monkeys” and treated as such.

These events put anti-Papua racism, and consequently the Papuan national question, under a national spotlight, particularly as they took place during the Indonesian Independence Day (17 August). The annual celebration of patriotism and national unity was suddenly disrupted by the stark reality of the racist treatment that befalls Papuan people. The portrait of Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (the national motto, which means “unity through difference”) is no longer as beautiful as imagined by many Indonesians.

This is why the regime has been trying its hardest to downplay the event, claiming it is just a tempest in a teacup. The chief of the national police, Tito Karnavian, said in his statement that: “the riot in Manokwari started from a small incident [!] in Malang and Surabaya.” But this “small incident” – the siege, raid, arbitrary arrest, accompanied with racial slurs of “monkey” – reflects Papuans’ experiences in their daily lives for more than 50 years. The riot, following mass demonstrations in Manokrawi, was therefore not the result of “hoax photos” or “special interest groups” as stated by the national police chief. The persecution against Papuans is not a hoax. There are no “special interests” but the general, collective interests of Papuans to demand their rights and freedom.

Recently it has become too typical of a response for the authorities to lay the blame for any social conflicts on hoaxes and social media, and close their eyes to the roots of the problem. If a hoax is to blame, then it is only natural that the proposed solution is to clear up any misunderstandings from these “alternative facts”, and seek forgiveness.

The recently re-elected President Jokowi said in response to the conflagration in Papua: “I know there are people who are offended[!], that is why, as fellow citizens of one nation, the best course is to forgive each other.” If someone is being told he’s ugly, or that his face is “ndeso” (hillbilly-like) – as personally experienced by our president – then it is a question of offence. But if a large group of people are not only being called “monkeys” but also treated as less than human – oppressed, exploited, their homes ransacked, repressed when voicing their aspirations, not just once or twice but for more than two generations – it is no longer a matter of mere offence. What we have here is systematic oppression. We are beyond forgiveness.

The problems facing the Papuan people are not ones that can be solved through simple forgiveness, respect, or dialogue, as proposed by the regime and many political pundits. All of these so-called solutions assume that there is simply a misunderstanding between the two sides. They say that, if only the two sides, with clear hearts and minds, can sit together and reach a consensus then all will be well. But 50 years later we have yet to reach this state of clarity, and the people of Papua have no desire to wait for another 50 years.

Therefore we have to condemn in the strongest terms any approach to the Papuan problems based on forgiveness, reconciliation, and social dialogue. Such an approach is not simply a matter of naivety but a deliberate and systematic attempt to cover up the real roots of the problem. There is an oppression of one nation by another, there is colonisation in Papua, and that this colonisation is a feature of imperialism and capitalism. While the regime sent its heartfelt apologies and made loud promises to punish racist officers, it also deployed more than 1,000 soldiers to Papua (which increased to more than 6,000 in the next few weeks) and cut internet access. This is the time-honoured tactic of saying one thing and doing another.

Papuan “priayi”

To restore order and maintain control, the regime swiftly mobilised their Papuan priayi (Papuan elites and bureaucrats sitting in the government, tribal leaders, priests, etc.) The national police chief explained how they have “involved all society leaders, [and] then local tribal chiefs to work together to provide education and clarification to Papuans about the real situation.” Here, “clarification” in reality means distorting the matter.

One of these Papuan elites is Lenis Kogoya, Presidential Special Staff for Papua and Chairman of the Institution for Papua Indigenous Community. He warned Papuans who are demonstrating not to voice their aspirations in a violent manner. He said: “To people of Papua, I ask not to destroy government facilities. If you are destroying them, it is the same as destroying your own home.”

He needs to look in the mirror. If Papuan people feel the need to destroy public properties in order to raise their voices, then it means that, for the longest time, their voices have not been heard, and violence is the only thing they feel will draw the attention of Jakarta. Thus, Kogoya has failed miserably in his job. As a matter of fact, how could the needs of Papuan people be heard by our Special Staff and “tribal chiefs” who are the closest to the centre of power, if his ears are deaf, his eyes blind, and his mouth no longer carries the voice of Papua, but of Jakarta?

The regional parliamentary building that was burnt down was never seen by the Papuan people as their own home, but as the home of their conqueror. Meanwhile, their own home has been destroyed, trampled by soldiers’ boots and scarred by the giant shovels of mining industries. If Lenis Kogoya said that the parliamentary building was “our own home” this only betrays that he has been too comfortable living in opulent Indonesian government buildings.

West papua Image Veronica KomanThe inspiring militancy of Papuan youth and the escalating mass demonstrations over the past week are the results of their strength alone, not that of their fattened and co-opted 'traditional' leadership / Image: Veronica Koman

There are many tribal chiefs and local figures like Lenis Kogoya nowadays. They have been co-opted and fattened by the central government to serve as apostles of peace in the midst of continuing oppression in Papua. Their message of mutual forgiveness and respect assumes that the two sides are equal. But it is enough to see photos of the siege and raid of Papuan student dormitories in Surabaya to shatter this illusion of equality. In fact, there are oppressed and oppressors. This illusion of equality is a personal dream of Papuan elites, who want a standard of living and social status equal to those of their master-oppressors. Since time immemorial, such is the character of priyai, who are content to play the role of stooges wherever they are. Co-opting local leaders is a time-tested tactic of colonialism, and Indonesian rulers in Jakarta remember quite well that they were once loyal servants of the Netherlands and Japan, and today they remain so for foreign capital.

In Jayapura, thousands of people gathered in front of the Papuan governor’s building to confront him. Victor Yeimo, of the National Committee of West Papua (KNPB), a mass organisation that has been at the centre of mass movements for Papuan independence in the past period, addressed the crowd and correctly said that, “in this building, our ‘people’ [referring to the Papuan elites sitting in the government], this governor, this regional legislative council, for the past 19 years of Special Autonomy, have been puppets for Jakarta.” To be more exact, these people willingly choose to play the part of puppets for Jakarta.

Then, pointing to the Governor of Papua, Lukas Enembe, who was sitting beside him (and clearly feeling very uncomfortable with Victor’s radical speech), condemned him and the other Papuan elites and demanded they should “never again sell the issue of Papua independence for special autonomy status… don’t ever exploit the genuine aspirations of the Papuan people.” The masses responded with approving cheers. Papuan elites have been cynically using the issue of Papua independence as a bargaining chip for their interests. The people of Papua will be much better off not giving even an ounce of trust to these vile creatures, and should trust only their own power. The inspiring militancy of Papuan youth and the escalating mass demonstrations over the past week are the results of this strength, and not of these priayi.

The interests of capital in Papua

There is a saying, “follow the money”. In Papua, we just need to follow the gold to find the roots of the problem. The interests of mining corporations in Papua are served and defended by the Indonesian government. This goose laid $3.1 billion worth of golden eggs (and copper eggs, as well) in 2015 alone, and thus cannot be inconvenienced by the democratic rights of Papuan people. All democratic demonstrations that could threaten this golden goose must be dealt with swiftly and brutally.

The so-called “Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia” (NKRI) maintains its hold on Papua not only through bayonets, but also through the abject service of the Papuan priayi and a small layer of emerging Papuan capitalists, growing fat off the existing relations of oppression. The demand for the right to self-determination, which concretely means an independence referendum, is therefore the most basic democratic right for the Papuan people. They have the right to be asked if they still want to be part of Indonesia or if they want to chart their own course as a sovereign nation.

Papua demoThe national liberation struggle in Papua has the prospect of breaking away from capitalism and moving toward socialism / Image: fair use

The interests of mining corporations like Freeport are wholly opposed to the exercise of Papuan right to self-determination, as this could open the prospect of a movement to nationalise their operations. After deciding to be free from Indonesia, it is very possible that the people of Papua will also decide to be free from Freeport, especially because Freeport has played a central role in the colonisation of Papua since the beginning.

Furthermore, the right to self-determination is not a right that stands on its own, but it is also related to the question of the economy. To solve the issues of poverty and underdevelopment, the riches of Papua would have to be dedicated fully to social programmes and ambitious public works, not shipped off to New York and London stock exchanges. Here we can see how the struggle for the right to self-determination poses a great threat to the interest of capitalism, in particular American and Australian capital.

Therefore, the national liberation struggle in Papua has the prospect of breaking away from capitalism and moving toward socialism. Of course, this prospect will remain a theoretical possibility if there is no organisation and leadership that is consciously pushing for a socialist programme.

The so-called International Community

We have made the case that the Papuan national liberation struggle is a threat to the interests of international capital, thus we have to be critical toward any approach that rests on the support of what is often called the “international community”. If what is meant by “international community” is rallying the support of working people around the world, then this is an effective method. The solidarity of the oppressed and toiling masses is a powerful weapon against colonialism. For instance, a campaign can be waged to rally solidarity from the American labour movement, with the aim of exposing the crimes of the US mining company Freeport in Papua, and also how the US government is complicit in protecting Freeport.

However, oftentimes hiding behind appeals to the “international community” is lobbying for the support of the United Nations (and other such imperialist institutions), and capitalist governments. The United Nations is a den of thieves, established specifically to maintain the continuity of world imperialism: an aim that it conceals with the slogan of “keeping peace”.

The UN is the very same institution that was responsible for the 1962 New York Agreement and 1969 Act of Free Choice, the legal basis for Papua’s colonisation. Therefore, when Benny Wenda and ULMWP delivered a petition to the UN – that he later claimed as the most historic day for Papua – it runs contrary to the real history of Papua’s colonisation, in which the UN played a central role. An argument is sometimes made that this petition to the UN was done solely to bring international attention to the problems in Papua. But there are many other ways of achieving the same goal that do not rest on the UN, which are also more effective. Furthermore, what we want is the attention of the toiling masses in order to expose the crimes of imperialism, in which the UN is at the centre. This attention from the working class can be obtained through the workers’ mass organisations (trade unions, workers’ parties, peasant unions, etc.)

UN Image US Dept. of StateThe United Nations is a den of thieves, and no friend to the Papuan people / Image: US Dept. of State

Even if there are members of the UN who nominally offer their support to the cause of Papuan people, this is merely an empty diplomatic gesture. Didn’t Indonesia express its support through the UN for the Palestinian struggle against the Israeli occupation? Dozens of resolutions have been issued by the UN General Assembly to condemn Israeli occupation of Palestine, but these resolutions are toothless. There has yet to be anything of significance that the UN has done to truly liberate the Palestinians. Since 1993, the UN General Assembly has repeatedly condemned the stifling embargo against Cuba. But these condemnations are not worth the paper they are written on, as the United States remains steadfast in continuing its embargo against Cuba. These empty UN resolutions and statements are drafted and proclaimed, often with much fanfare, as part of a cynical diplomatic game to confuse the masses and sow illusions in the UN. In reality, they do not disturb existing imperialist relations between the oppressed and the oppressors.

Throughout history, the victory of oppressed nations has never been won through the work of the UN. Independence has been won by the masses themselves, through mass action and armed struggles. The UN’s role is to ensure that national liberation struggle does not go beyond capitalism and to maintain the continuity of imperialist relations. The UN is an imperialist tool to confine the national liberation struggle to “legal” channels, in which it can act as a “mediator”, much as when it handed over Papua to the New Order regime.

Such is the true character of the UN and many other international institutions. The Papuan national liberation struggle can only rely on the strength of the people, and the only ally they can rely on is the solidarity from workers, peasants, and urban poor all over the world, and especially the Indonesian toiling masses.

The genuine ally of Papuan national liberation struggle

Given the racism and patriotism that plagues a wide layer of the Indonesian toiling masses, it would seem absurd to assert that the Indonesian masses are the best ally of Papuan people in their independence struggle. But in reality it is patently more absurd to imagine that the UN, this den of imperialist thieves, can solve the national question.

It is true that racist prejudice is poisoning the minds of a large layer of Indonesian people. We have to admit this and combat it resolutely in every instance. But this racism does not fall from the sky. It does not manifest spontaneously from the depths of Javanese people’s minds. Anti-Papuan racism is not the natural character of non-Papuan people. It was created, developed, and perpetuated by the regime to divide the people so that it could maintain the exploitation of Papua. In other words, these racist sentiments are not everlasting and can be overcome.

800px Free West Papua Protest Melbourne August 2012 Image Nichollas HarrisonThe only real allies of West Papua are the workers and youth of Indonesia, and throughout the world / Image: Nichollas Harrison

The task of overcoming this racism falls particularly on the shoulders of the Indonesian proletariat movement by putting forward a perspective of class unity. Trade unions and their leaderships have a duty to continually educate Indonesian workers that they face the same common enemy as the Papuans: the Indonesian central government, with its police and soldiers who defend the interests of capital. The government that passed Regulation No. 78, which robbed workers of their right to negotiate for minimum wages, and is now attempting to revise the Labour Law to make it more investor-friendly, is the same one that represses the democratic rights of the Papuan people. The same police and army arrested labour activists who were demonstrating against the revision of the Labour Law, and also Papuan activists in Surabaya. Profit-hungry capitalism bears the same fangs in Indonesia and Papua, and the consequences of its hunger are the same: workers’ exploitation, land grabs and environmental destruction.

For all these reasons, the prospect of overcoming the poison of racism and patriotism amongst Indonesian people is far more realistic than convincing imperialists to recognise, not only in words but in action, Papuans’ right to self-determination. In the last analysis, it is about which you believe in more: the revolutionary capacity of the Indonesian toiling masses or the besuited ladies and gentlemen sitting in the offices of the UN.

Through a common struggle against capitalism and imperialism, the toiling masses of Indonesia and Papua can build class unity amongst themselves. It is not an easy task, but we know that the working-class unity of the Papuan and Indonesian people is the one thing feared the most by the Indonesian ruling class.

“There is no other solution but a referendum in West Papua”

Before the Papuan masses, Victor Yeimo of KNPB ended his speech by declaring: “There is no other solution but a referendum in West Papua.” This was answered by the masses with a passionate cry of “Free Papua! Free Papua!”

The only solution to the Papuan national question is full recognition of the Papuan right to self-determination, which today concretely means an independence referendum. Many argue that what is needed is a better and wider dialogue between Papua and Jakarta, and dismiss a referendum as an excessive measure. PRD (People's Democratic Party) for example demands a “wide and democratic dialogue.” But a genuine dialogue between two equal sides can only be guaranteed by recognising the Papuan people’s right to choose to stay within the framework of the Republic of Indonesia or leave it as a sovereign nation.

What is the purpose of a discussion and a dialogue when it has been determined a priori that the people of Papua must stay within the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia? By way of comparison, consider a dialogue or mediation between a married couple where the wife is a victim of domestic abuse. What use is this mediation when it has already been decided that the wife has no right to divorce the husband should the dialogue fail? Any dialogue without full recognition of the right to self-determination is similarly farcical.

It is only through the provision of a free referendum that dialogue amongst Papuan people can take place on as wide and democratic a basis as possible, because it is clear that not every Papuan agrees wholly with the programme of independence, and they have the right to voice their objections. Through the process of a referendum, the people of Papua can discuss what kind of relations they would like to have with Indonesia, what kind of nation they seek to build, and what kind of future they hope for.

Free West Papua Image Flickr AK RockefellerThe demand for the right to self-determination concretely means an independence referendum / Image: Flickr, AK Rockefeller

Only through a free referendum can a genuine dialogue between Papua and Indonesia take place, not one where one side is holding a bayonet against the other’s back. Indonesia has the right to try to convince the people of Papua through rational argument that their future will be brighter inside Indonesia. Of course, this would be a difficult argument to make given Jakarta’s track record and its tendency to employ violence when dealing with Papua.

The main condition for a free referendum is the withdrawal of all Indonesian military personnel from Papua. As long as army boots are still on Papuan soil, there can be no freedom of association and expression, which is crucial for any genuine referendum. Furthermore, the holding of the referendum has to be entrusted fully to the hands of the Papuan people.

The Indonesian workers’ movement has to display its solidarity not just in words but also in action. It must be ready to mobilise mass demonstrations and a general strike that can paralyse the Indonesian government should it attempt to repeat the bloody pogrom in Timor Leste.

But the best guarantee for the recognition of Papua’s right to self-determination can only come when Indonesian workers are in power. Today’s government serves only the interests of capital, and as long as this is the case, Jakarta will always hold Papua, their golden goose, in captivity. On the contrary, a workers’ state has no interest in exploiting others, and in fact has a noble task to end once and for all exploitation of man by man. Hence, only a worker’s state can give the best guarantee for Papua’s right to self-determination, up to secession if that is the democratic will of the people of Papua.

Of course, the people of Papua cannot postpone their struggle until the Indonesian working class is in power. The urgency to realise the slogan of “workers in power, people will prosper” therefore rests on the shoulders of the Indonesian proletarian movement, particularly its vanguard. The best solidarity that can be provided by the Indonesian working class to the Papuan national liberation struggle is to work harder and more resolutely to build a movement that can wrest political and economic power from the ruling class.

During a referendum, the people of Papua can discuss freely amongst themselves what genuine independence means and how they can achieve it. Can Papua be truly independent when foreign mining corporations still dominate it? Does Papua want to repeat the fate of Timor Leste – or even Indonesia – which are formally independent but in reality still colonised by world stock exchanges? Can the people of Papua achieve prosperity under a capitalist economic system that prioritises profit for the few? Would Papuan independence be merely independence for a handful of Papuan capitalists? All of these are concrete questions, the answers to which lie beyond capitalism. Regardless of how the people of Papua answer, they can only be answered in practice if they win their right to hold a referendum.

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