Timor Leste-style referendum could happen in Papua too

Cry for freedom: West Papuan students in Jakarta protesting against racism while calling for independence for their region. – AP

ALMOST no one, including Dili Catholic Bishop Carlos Felipe Ximenes Belo and independence fighter Kay Rale Xanana Gusmao, thought their homeland of East Timor could gain independence in such a short time.

While they considered the special autonomy or limited self-governance that Jakarta had offered in January 1999, Indonesia’s third president BJ Habibie gave East Timor the option of breaking free.

One month after Habibie allowed the United Nations to organise an independence referendum for East Timor, I wrote in this newspaper that his startling decision was influenced by a desire to be remembered for East Timor.

At that time, the military was confident the people in the tiny territory would remain with Indonesia.

“I will prove to the world that I can make a major contribution to world peace as mandated by our Constitution, ” one of Habibie’s aides recalled him as saying.

Habibie also hoped the decision would pave the way for his election in the same year. He was wrong, but he was right too, because his name is immortalised in the history of Timor Leste, the new name of East Timor.

You may laugh at me if I forecast the Papuan people will fulfill their dream of independence much sooner than expectated, just like the way Timor Leste separated from Indonesia following the historic Aug 30,1999 referendum.

Many will no doubt blame the United States or Australia if a Papua exit comes to pass.

But seeing the racial abuse against Papuan students and the heightened reactions in Papua, we Indonesians, not just the government, should blame ourselves.

We have treated the Papuans the same way we did the people of Timor Leste.

In a controversial interview with German magazine Der Spiegel after winning the Nobel Peace Prize along with Timor Leste independence fighter José Ramos-Horta in 1996, Belo described the mistreatment from Indonesia the Timor Lesteese endured.

He said Indonesian soldiers treated Timor Lesteese like “scabby dogs”, while the government abused them like “slaves”.

Then-president Suharto was angered by the bishop’s statement but refrained from rebuking him openly. Belo resigned as bishop after independence.

The words “dogs”, “monkeys”, “pigs”, and “slaughter the Papuans”, were loudly chanted when a group that included police, military personnel and hard-line Muslim group members, attacked a Papuan student dormitory in Surabaya, East Java, on Aug 16.

They accused the students of refusing to celebrate the 74th anniversary of Indonesia’s independence.

A similar incident also occurred in other cities such as Malang, also in East Java and in Semarang, Central Java.

Sadly, as Indonesia celebrated its freedom from colonialism, a group of people, in the name of nationalism, displayed the colonial mentality by suppressing others.

What Bishop Belo recounted in the 1996 interview was practiced by the die-hard supporters of the undisputed Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia (NKRI).

Indonesia has witnessed regional dissent, such as in Timor Leste and Aceh, but the conflicts mostly pitted the central government (the state) against local people. We rarely heard about anti-Acehnese or anti-Timor Lesteese sentiments.

This is not the case in the Papua conflict, however. Papuan people not only face the central government but also non-Papuans, as happened around Independence Day. Such horizontal conflict could lead to a civil war if the government fails to handle the hostility with extra care.

In a conversation several months after the majority of Timor Lesteese voted for independence in 1999, the legendary Indonesian diplomat Ali Alatas told me about the situation in Papua.

“Could Papua follow Timor Leste’s path?” I asked him.

“Papua is very different from Timor Leste, ” he said.

First, unlike Papua, Timor Leste was never part of Indonesia until the latter annexed the former Portuguese territory in 1975.

Second, Papua comprises hundreds of ethnic and sub-ethnic groups so that they have to use the Indonesian language for their daily communication with each other. Timor Leste was relatively homogenous.

Third, the majority of Papuans are Protestants, comprising various congregations, and therefore it would be much more difficult to unite them into one big force. Timor Leste was a predominantly Catholic territory.

I concede the validity of the late foreign minister’s strong arguments, but he might never have imagined during his lifetime that we Indonesians could be so brutal toward our Papuan compatriots.

We describe Indonesia as a home for all citizens, including Papuan. That’s why we sing the patriotic song Dari Sabang sampai Merauke” (From Sabang to Merauke, respectively the western tip of Aceh and eastern-most regency of Papua).

We call our home the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia and will not let anyone undermine our unity as a family. In a family, father knows best.

But what happens when other family members feel they receive discriminatory treatment like step- or adopted children but are forced to stay in the family?

We are too lazy to discern the roots of the Papua problem but resort to the use of force to make sure the family is intact, although some no longer regard the country as home. The Papuans will only feel Indonesia is their true home when they find the love and equal treatment that a part of a family deserves.

Remember what happened in Timor Leste 20 years ago could recur in Papua. — The Jakarta Post/Asia News Network

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