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Waruno Mahdi E-Mail: mahdi@FHI-Berlin.MPG.DE 


The National West Papua Congress held some weeks ago in Numbai (officially: Yajapura) was without doubt a memorable occasion in the history of West Irian/Papua (officially: Irian Jaya) and its people. It has left strong impressions both of a tremendously gratifying nature, as well as of a somewhat disquieting one.

The political maturity and organizational skill with which West Papuan leaders carried out the congress is actually highly instructive for the rest of the country. In view of the traumas accumulated in more than three decades of state terror by Suharto's New Order regime, this had not at all been a self-evident prospect.

The congress was a great organizational achievement that brought together representatives from all districts and ethnic groups. More impressive still was perhaps the interconfessional harmony with which Muslim and Christian Papuan leaders cooperated. This cannot be highly enough praised in view of the adverse situation in neighboring Maluku.

The moderate leaders at the congress passed their toughest test with flying colors, when they succeeded in negotiating a compromise with the hardliners. In view of accumulated post-traumatic stress resulting from three decades of state terror, it was already remarkable that there hadn't been an even larger hardliner faction, and that this had not been even more adamant in its stand.

Emotions ran high, and only recently, a representative of one faction was killed by those of another in exile in PNG. Bringing everyone together under one roof was therefore a masterly piece of organization. It also explains the extreme tenor of the resulting compromise, which obviously tested the government's patience to the utmost, but which really could not have been expected to fall short of that.

The organizers also had to cope with a wide range of cultural diversity, which included sizable delegations of tribesmen from the interior, armed with spears, roaming the streets and threatening with action in the event of an unsatisfactory outcome. This situation too they mastered in a most commendable fashion.

All in all, even if the congress should not bring about anything else, then its overall organizational success alone has provided a very much deserved moral boost to the self-consciousness of the West Papuans. As paradoxical as this may sound, but this is in fact a vital condition for perspectives of continued integrity of the unitary Indonesian national state.

Indonesian unity can only survive as a unity of equals. After three decades of humiliation under Suharto's New Order regime, the West Papuans need the restoration of their human dignity even more urgently than the Acehnese. Without that, they will never regain their feeling of belonging, which they were so thoroughly rid of by the brutality of Suharto's repressive apparatus.

There also are other remarkable aspects which deserve mention. The peaceful and unintimidated organization of the congress is a telling indication of the progress that has been achieved so far in restoring a semblance of democratic government in the country. The government did not just tolerate a major political manifestation, which from the very start left no doubts about its secessionist sentiments, the President actually helped finance it. The very building in which the congress took place, a large sports stadium, was apparently state-owned.

The most significant achievement of the government in this matter appears to have been its success in keeping the military and police, or "rogue elements" in their ranks, from reacting with the usual kind of brutality against the population as so often in the past. The population roamed freely through the streets, demonstrating the Morning Star flag, without anyone being arrested, let alone getting shot at. Nothing unusual in a democratic state, but quite unimaginable in the country even in the most recent past.

It remains to be seen, how well the military and police have learned their lesson, and whether they will also let the country benefit from this in other regions, particularly in Aceh. That they are not yet really willing to fully give up their past ways, is suggested by the police in Jayapura interrogating leading organizers of the Congress on suspicion of "treason". Actually, those leaders should be thanked and praised for having headed off a crisis in West New Guinea similar to that in Maluku. By accusing them of "treason", the police is actually provoking new unrest which could very much endanger the unity of the country. So, if anyone needs to be suspected of treason, it is more likely the responsible chief of police (I'll return to this in section 6), rather than the organizers of the West Papua Congress.

The most important message of all, to my mind, is to be learned from the enthusiastic support, which the Congress enjoyed in wide layers of the indigenous population throughout the province, which also guaranteed its success. It was an immediate indicator of the thoroughness, with which Suharto and the military had alienated the population. It demonstrated the total bankruptcy of Suharto's "wisdom" of rule by terror. Oppression engenders resistance. Here, West Papuans (like Acehnese, and Indonesians in general who forced Suharto to resign) have provided yet another convincing proof of that fine quality that is ingrained in mankind, in all the nations and races around the world.

The unanimous enthusiasm and solidarity of the West Papuans during the preparations towards the Congress, and throughout its progress, landed such a strong shock effect on all factions of the establishment in Jakarta, that everybody suddenly remembered democratic decorum and political culture of government by rule of law. Most significant of all, interfactional bickering was laid aside long enough for everyone with any say to put on his nicest Sunday smile and reassure that only civil and democratic methods should henceforth apply in all dealings with the popular movement, respecting the basic human rights of the population. They even forgot to lambaste the President for his wise tacit but candid promotion of the West Papuan Congress.

The most gratifying result of the Congress was, therefore, that the West Papuans had in this way made an eminent contribution to the restoration of democracy in Indonesia as a whole. Why is this so important? It was indicated above, that true unity can only be achieved in a unity of equals. Subjective judgment on equality can be very utilitarian, boiling down to the question "what good does it bring me?" The present West Papuan contribution to the nation will not be so easily equaled by the others, and social and political groups all over the country, committed to setting up democracy in Indonesia, owe them sincerest gratitude for this.

The circumstance also has a complementary opposite aspect: one is generally inclined to subjectively value those things the most, in which one has invested the most of one's own effort. The history books have omitted the West Papuan share in the Indonesian struggle for national independence. The re-unification of West New Guinea with the rest of Indonesia was depicted as some glorious deed of swashbuckling militaries (I'll return to this in section 3), the very same militaries which West Papuans experienced in daily life more than 30 years long as oppressors and humiliators.

As the irony of history will have it, in the very moment that they collectively straightened their backs to jointly face up to their oppressors by claiming their right of secession from the Indonesian Republic, they actually in fact repulsed the intimidations of those oppressors, and reasserted their equal right of belonging as full-fledged co-possessors of this archipelagean community together with all the others who have faced or are still facing up to remnants of the old military regime.

Through their valiant feat, the West Papuans brought home an important lesson to all civilian and military factions in Jakarta, as well as to the entire nation: that democracy is government FROM the people FOR the people; that democracy represents a material force not to be dismissed as ephemeral idealism of goody-goody intellectuals.

To a nation that was brainwashed by the Suharto regime to believe that power is maintained at the point of a bayonet, and which still couldn't believe its own eyes when unarmed students brought Suharto down from his despotic pedestal, they demonstrated that the common man may seem small and frail in his vulnerable physical isolation, but integrated in manifold social and economic ties of the community, he holds in his hands the actual socio-economic basis of political power. The military, not contributing to the national productive resources, can only meet its reason for existence as a force of national defense when it serves the community, not when it tries to command it. Otherwise it turns into a gang of scavengers that is a parasite on the community.

Another lesson which the West Papuans brought home is a sore point in the whole of Indonesian history: "united we stand, divided we fall". Indonesia could be colonized because it was divided against itself. It regained its independence because Indonesian leaders managed for a short moment to convince the nation to be united, an extremely difficult undertaking with such an unparalleled range of diversity as in this country. The call for unity is therefore an evergreen of Indonesian patriotic tradition.

The masterly handling of the Congress by West Papuan leaders, maintaining unity in spite of widely disparate ethnic, social, economic, cultural, and political identities of the participants, was an instructive example for other ethnic and social groups in the whole country, particularly groups which have been deprived of their traditional lands in favor of forestry and mining enterprises with connection to Suharto's New Order apparatus. Last but not least, the President himself could use some support from the West Papuans in handling recalcitrant Muslim minority parties that are misusing their few mandates the way they once tried to blackmail the election committee by threatening to debunk the results of the 1998 elections.

In short, having thanked the West Papuans for their invaluable contribution to the cause of Indonesian democracy, the next thing all committed and interested sides should do is to cordially welcome them back in Indonesia, as equals among equals.

But take care, to many of them this comes as a surprise, so they may need some time to realize what they have actually achieved.

(To Be Continued)

...2. Rectifying History ...3. From West New Guinea to West Irian ...4. Is West Irian an Indonesian Colony? ...5. Is West Irian Part of Indonesia? ...6. Prospects for the Future

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