Last month, the Free Papua Movement held a meeting in London, attended by a number of lawyers, parliamentarians, and activists. In the main, the meeting discussed the land of Papua, which the delegates believe has been occupied illegally by the Indonesian government since it took over from the Dutch in 1963.
However, this is not a new concern. The same contention has been voiced repeatedly by the Free Papua Movement. Moreover, it has become the subject of much debate by many parties. Some even believe that the issue of Papua is identical to Israel's illegal occupation of Palestine. Recently, the Free Papua Movement's main figure, Benny Wenda, published an article questioning Indonesia's support of Palestine, but not West Papua. Nonetheless, by exploring the historical, social, economics, and political contexts of the Papuan issue, three main reasons can be identified as to why equating the issue of Papua with that of Palestine is absurd.
First, the recognition of Papua as part of Indonesia is not determined by illegal occupation or violence against civilians. The acknowledgement was achieved through the referendum Act of Free Choice, known as Penentuan Pendapat Rakyat (PEPERA). This process was accepted by the United Nations with Resolution 2504 in 1969, in which 82 member states agreed, 30 abstained and zero disagreed.
History demonstrates that the tension that occurred at that time was actually between the Indonesian government and the Dutch colonialists, who were adamant to leave Papua. Jakarta even received support from the local populations of Papua, and it was reported that they cooperated to end Dutch occupation.
Second, since becoming part of Indonesia, every Papuan is afforded the same rights as any other citizen of the country. Every five years, Papuans democratically elect their leaders and heads of the regions. In fact, following the reform in 1998, Papua was granted a Special Autonomy status; whereby 70 percent of oil and gas royalties are directed towards the well-being of Papuan people. This fact highlights the difference between Papua and Palestine.
Third, unlike Israel's inhumane occupation of Palestine, whereby social institutions such as schools are frequently attacked, the government in Jakarta exerts efforts to develop human resources in Papua. Currently, the education in Papua, from elementary to high school, can be enjoyed for free. Through the Secondary Education Affirmation Program (ADEM), Indonesia offers scholarships to outstanding students in Papua to continue their studies in high-rank schools. Up to 2015, ADEM has sent 1047 students to various regions to attend better schools. Furthermore, scholarships are available for high school graduates to continue to university, known as ADIK. It is reported that 434 students received ADIK last year.
In addition, the government offers graduate-level scholarships through the Indonesia Endowment Fund for Education (LPDP). These are allocated to the largest number of students in Papua and West Papua; as many as 163 individuals, compared with other regions. Besides education, the government is also pouring resources into Papua's infrastructure development. For example, a 4,325-kilometre Trans-Papua Highway is currently under construction. A railway and a power plant are also being developed.
Undeniably, these three reasons demonstrate that the political, social, and economic circumstances of Papuan issue cannot be equated with what is currently taking place between Israel and Palestine. However, it also cannot be denied that the development in Papua is facing challenges. Data from the UN reveals that the biggest obstacle faced by Papuans today is the lack of human resources. Gender inequality, especially the lack of women's rights to poverty and high dropout rates, remains an acute issue. In the health domain, maternal and infant mortality rates remain relatively high. Even the number of HIV-affected individuals in Papua is fifteen times higher than the national average. Unfortunately, these social predicaments are often untouched and covered by security issues. Instead of resolving the development and social issues, the government is divided between issues of security and violence.
Until today, at least three factors make Papua identical in terms of violence. First, the existence of movements that call constantly for Papua's independence; indeed, a reported 166 cases of violence have involved the Free Papua Movement. Second, the social conflicts related to mining activities in Freeport have exploited Papua's natural resources for many years. The continuously rampant shootings and violence are associated largely with illegal mining in Freeport's gold mining residues or tiling. The third reason is the violence linked with political tensions during elections. A study reveals that the level of violence as a result of elections in Papua is one of the highest in Indonesia. The democratic elections for the heads of regions have not been able to produce leaders with honesty and integrity. In recent years, eight regional heads have been suspected of corruption. This certainly causes a crisis of public confidence towards the government, which results in violence between candidates' supporters and oppositions.
With all of Papua's complex problems, it is important to understand the real conditions. What is needed now is for all parties to work together to develop Papua and to stop spreading provocations that could potentially ignite violence.
Simultaneously, the Indonesian government must create a more holistic development approach that emphasises indigenous Papuans. There is a need to think about long-term efforts for the natural resources to be managed by local populations and be used for the prosperity of the people.
But there is no need for alarm, because since Papua returned to the bosom of Indonesia, Papuans have already gained their independence. This is significantly different from the situation in Palestine.
This article is co-authored with Media Wahyudi Askar, a Ph.D scholar at the University of Manchester and the President of Indonesian Student Association in the UK. He is also a contributing writer of a book on Papua.