Jakarta – The Indonesian government, which is just a signature away from ending the long-running conflict in Aceh, may soon have to grapple with another restive province: Papua, which was formerly known as Irian Jaya.
The Papuan issue is back in the limelight after the International Relations Committee of the US Congress on June 19 passed a draft law supporting freedom for Papua. The bill, called HR 2601, was proposed by US Congressmen Donald M Payne and Eni FH Faleomavaega.
The bill questions the legitimacy of Indonesia's 1969 Act of Free Choice on the grounds that the participants in the referendum did not represent the popular will of the Papuans.
Although it remains to be seen whether the bill will get enough support in Congress to become law, the committee's move has upset the Indonesian government and lawmakers.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono expressed his dissatisfaction with the move and urged the US government to support Indonesia's territorial integrity. Members of the House of Representatives called the move a blatant interference in Indonesia's domestic affairs.
Although such official reactions are understandable, there is no denying that the "Papuan issue" is something that can simply be wished away.
The largely-Christian Papua was claimed by Muslim-majority Indonesia as an integral part of its territory since its independence in 1945.
However, until today, many Papuans have yet to feel truly "Indonesian". As members of the Melanesian ethnic group, the Papuans have quite different physical characteristics compared to other Indonesians.
Many Papuans also feel like second-class citizens in Indonesia. "Their rich natural resources are exploited but their living standards do not reflect the huge revenues the state has extracted from their land. Regular, oppressive security operations and human rights abuses by the security forces and the government hurt them. And there are no serious efforts being made by the government to improve the situation," The Jakarta Post said in an editorial.
"Indonesia has failed to convince the Papuans through concrete deeds that they are better off."
The Post quoted a former Indonesian minister as telling President Yudhoyono that Papua will become the next major headache for Indonesia if the government fails to heed the lessons of East Timor, whose separation from Indonesia was accompanied by a bloodbath.
"Do not ever underestimate the Papua problem. If we continue repeating what we did in East Timor, it is not impossible that we will encounter the same problem again," the minister was reported to have said.
* Addressing Papua's problems (The Jakarta Post, Aug 10)
* Reflecting on the internationalization of the Papuan issue (The Jakarta Post, Aug 10)