Zehner: The Hidden Occupation

Indonesia's goal is unity at all costs.

by Callum Zehner | 10/10/19 2:05am

‘Unity in Diversity’ has been Indonesia’s tagline ever since its independence from the Dutch over 70 years ago. In many respects, this has not just been a soft rhetorical move, but a highly tactical one. With the multitudes of ethnicities, languages and religions that reside within Indonesia’s borders, the government in Jakarta has, since its inception, utilized this phrase to placate its population, to assert the singularity of the Indonesian people. 

Recently, however, the flimsiness of this notion of togetherness has been revealed by the vehement protests of the people of West Papua, one of Indonesia’s provinces. Jakarta’s reaction to the protests has shown that the idea of ‘Unity in Diversity,’ if it was ever alive, is now firmly dead. It is clear from the actions of the Indonesian government in West Papua that diversity was never on the table. Indonesia uses diversity as a ploy to exploit Papua, while unity, no matter the cost, has become the actual goal.

The most recent string of protests began in August, when a number of Papuan students in Java were attacked with tear gas and mocked with racial slurs by security forces. Accused of burning the Indonesian flag, the students were referred to as “monkeys” and “dogs.” This event was captured on video and led to widespread protests across urban centers in West Papua and the rest of the country. 

The outrage has been used by Papuans to propel demands for independence, even in the face of government crackdown. The slurs simply illustrate the day-to-day derision and racism faced by the indigenous Papuans from the Javanese, the largest ethnic group in the country. But there are many other grievances that have been recently revealed to the wider world, showing that Jakarta’s track record on the treatment of Papuans has been far from illustrious.

West Papua, with its vast natural resources, has been a prime target for plunder by Jakarta. As of 2013, the Papuan GDP per capita is $3,510, significantly higher than the Indonesian average of $2,452, yet the region’s poverty rate is three times that of the national average. The vast majority of profits from the area’s mineral reserves are eagerly collected by multinational mining firms, such as Freeport and Rio Tinto, and, crucially, the Indonesian government. Although the current president, Joko Widodo, has made a point of investing substantially in the region’s infrastructure over the last few years the poverty rate remains at a disappointing 20 percent.When placed alongside the highest child mortality rates and lowest literacy rates in the country, it is clear that the Papuan people have simply not been a part of the process of wealth generation in the region.

Indonesian leaders also see the country’s easternmost provinces as a big open space, and, therefore, as a way to relieve the mounting population pressures faced in the rest of the country. Government-sponsored transmigration programs have seen the indigenous Papuan population be inundated by large numbers of immigrants — mostly from the island of Java. In 1971, non-Papuans made up only four percent of the total population of the region, while, in 2010, this figure had grown to 52 percent, making the native population a minority in their own land. These new arrivals have served to dilute the voices of the native population, with the immigrants in control of many of the provinces’ high-ranking political positions. Consequently, there are precious few channels for Papuans to express their political wills.

The government response to the ongoing protests gives the most pertinent view to the treatment of Papuans. Phone and Internet lines in Papua were cut so as to prevent the organization of protests and to restore order. Journalists’ access to the two provinces was also restricted, and 6,000 extra security personnel were deployed. And at least seven Papuans have been made casualties at the hands of government forces. All of these reactions make it plain to see that Jakarta views West Papua as a restive colony with a population to be controlled, not as an equal member of a singular Indonesia.

 The publicity that has followed the Papuan protests has been invaluable, pointing the spotlight on a long neglected conflict. Despite Jakarta still paying lip service to the idea that its diversity belies its unity, the West Papua situation suggests the exact opposite. Papua is seen as an area to exploit, with the mineral and land resources to further propel the growing economic and popular might of Indonesia — or, at least, the might of the Indonesian metropole. The Papuans, in Jakarta’s view, are merely a subordinate people who serve to make trouble and disrupt the unity of the state. So then, unity is the end goal, and diversity is the biggest obstacle to it. 

As West Papuan leaders attempt to leverage public support around the world in support of their cause, it is critical to listen to them. While the international community decries the current abuses in Hong Kong, West Papua sees no attention as Indonesia presents itself as a nation amenable to all peoples. Yet, it is now obvious that ‘Unity in Diversity’ is just a mirage that masks the colonial status suffered by the Papuans. It is time to stop taking Indonesia for its word.