3 Oct 2019

Any talks with Jakarta must feature referendum - Papuan group

4:58 pm on 3 October 2019

The West Papuan pro-independence movement is insisting that genuine talks with Indonesia's government must address self-determination.

Victor Yeimo of the West Papua National Committee

Victor Yeimo of the West Papua National Committee Photo: Info West Papua

President Joko Widodo and his chief of staff have both told Indonesian media in recent days that they were prepared to meet anyone to discuss problems in Papua.

The president, known as Jokowi, was responding to a question from the press about whether he would hold a dialogue with pro-independence Papuan leaders.

Jokowi has appealed for calm in West Papua which has been gripped by weeks of large protests, a security forces crackdown and violent unrest that have left dozens of people dead.

While Indonesia has deployed over six thousand extra military and police to Papua, tensions in the region, as well as pro-independence sentiment, remain high.

It has added to pressure on a government also struggling to contain public discontent in Jakarta over several new laws which critics say undermine democracy.

In the interests of forging a way forward in Papua, the president's office was urged by representatives of the Papua and West Papua regional legislatures to have talks with the leading pro-independence groups, the West Papua National Committee (KNPB) and the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP).

The KNPB's international spokesman, Victor Yeimo, said they had been seeking meaningful talks with Jakarta for years without getting a response. He was cautious over the prospect, expecting Jokowi's usual emphasis on economic development in Papua to continue to be the focus.

After the widespread protests kicked off in late August, Jokowi invited a number of community and religious leaders from Papua to his palace. The meeting was billed as a way to discuss accelerating prosperity in Papua and West Papua provinces.

Mr Yeimo noted a discrepancy between the president's words and the actions of his government in employing a security approach to the peaceful expression of Papuan independence aspirations.

According to the KNPB, while Jakarta sees Papua as strictly an internal issue, in reality it's an international issue. Mr Yeimo said West Papuans seek intervention for a legitimate self-determination process under international law which they were denied in the 1960s when Indonesian took control of the former Dutch New Guinea.

"For us, we will not stop to demand the right of self-determination in West Papua," Mr Yeimo said.

"So, if Jokowi wants to dialogue, the main point for the dialogue is a referendum for the self-determination in West Papua, under the United Nations' supervision, mediated by a neutral or third party."

Mr Yeimo's comments echo those of the ULMWP's UK-based chairman Benny Wenda, who said at the United Nations last week that a deepening humanitarian crisis in his homeland underlined the urgent need for UN intervention.

While Jakarta has repeatedly stated that the incorporation of Papua into the republic is final, demonstrations by Papuans are becoming harder to ignore, even when the government resorts to cutting the internet in Papua as a response.

West Papuans protest against racism in Wamena, August 2019.

West Papuans protest against racism in Wamena, August 2019. Photo: Supplied

Indonesian authorities have fingered the KNPB and the ULMWP as being provocateurs, alleging that the groups stirred the recent unrest in an attempt to disrupt the unitary republic by seeking independence.

Mr Yeimo denied this, saying the Papuan independence struggle belonged to neither group, but rather the people.

"The leaders, even KNPB and ULMWP, cannot determine the future of the people of West Papua. The only way is to give the people democratic space - hold a referendum so they can choose what they want for their future."

While Jokowi's response to the press question did not single out any particular group who he might meet for talks, mistrust between Jakarta and Papuan leaders remains the main stumbling block.

A senior government source told RNZ Pacific that the president's primary objective was to restore "full normalcy, stability and security" in Papua.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs