Sat, 02 Dec 2000

Cry freedom

The much anticipated clashes between security forces and the pro-independence movement in Irian Jaya on Friday failed to materialize, thanks to cool heads prevailing among leaders on both sides. The commemoration of the anniversary of the 1961 declaration of independence proceeded in Jayapura and other major towns in Irian Jaya -- or West Papua as locals prefer to call their homeland -- peacefully, albeit on a much scaled down level at the insistence of the authorities.

Both organizers and security forces exercised restraint. Pro- independence supporters and their leaders (minus those arrested by the police earlier in the week) had their say and held their prayers for peace and independence. They complied with the authorities' request not to read the declaration of independence and to only briefly raise the Bintang Kejora (Morning Star) flag, behind which the pro-independence people have been rallying.

Security forces, including fresh reinforcements sent in anticipation of trouble, allowed the ceremony to go ahead. Clashes occurred instead in Jakarta on Friday, between police and pro-independence Papuans who marched to the Dutch and U.S. Embassies.

While we can all breathe a sigh of relief that the day passed without a major incident, it would be a gross mistake to assume that the problem has been resolved. Jakarta's tough talking against the pro-independence supporters may have something to do with the muted celebration on Friday, but the government would be wrong to think that it has won over the hearts and minds of the Papuans, or that it has broken their fighting spirit. All the government has done is to defuse a potentially explosive situation. The government should not take all the credit either, because leaders of the pro-independence Papuans played their part in preventing violence from erupting.

The government, however, has not addressed the problem of what to do about the aspiration for independence in West Papua. The aspiration is real and is probably growing stronger now after the arrests of leaders of the Papuan Presidium Council, Jakarta's tough talking, and the deployment of more troops in the province this week. In the absence of any referendum, it is difficult to gauge how prevalent is the demand for independence among West Papuans, but we know that it is strong enough not to be easily ignored or dismissed, as the government is trying to do now.

Supporters of an independent West Papua state have become more assertive over the last two years in voicing their aspirations, taking advantage of the greater political openness. They were even allowed to hold their congress, and for a brief moment until last month, to hoist their Morning Star flag.

The government now seems to have rolled back the carpet, and begun to suppress independence aspirations among the Papuans once again, resorting to old repressive practices such as deploying the military to intimidate the participants in any activity that smacks of separatism, from peaceful political gatherings to raising their flags.

Deprived of formal political outlets, these aspirations will likely manifest themselves in other forms. Going by the experience of three decades of president Soeharto's tyrannical rule, some will resort to armed rebellion.

Irian Jaya, like Aceh, is the litmus test of the administration's true commitment to political reforms and democratic values, which include freedom of expression. All that the Papuans wanted to do on Friday was to express their independence aspirations, by peaceful means. Yet, the government, which was elected on a reformist platform, has now begun to suppress these aspirations, invoking the need to preserve the territorial integrity of this unitary state.

National unity, and not democracy, has become such an infatuation of this administration that it is even willing to deny people their basic rights, including freedom of expression. Today it is Irian Jaya. Next week, the government will again invoke national unity in trying to suppress a planned political rally to call for a referendum on self-determination in Aceh.

By the same logic, the government would suppress people's basic rights anywhere else in Indonesia, if and when it feels it necessary to preserve national unity and stability. That is a scary, but now real prospect after what has happened in Irian Jaya. By suppressing the freedom aspirations of the Papuans, the government may have turned back the clock on the march to democracy not only in Irian Jaya, but also the rest the country.