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The elusive dialogue

An initiative to address the complex conflicts in the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua seeks to learn from past failure by extending the understanding of dialogue.

The understanding of “conflict resolution” has increasingly shifted away from traditional state-centric approaches towards multi-level mediation that recognises the importance of dialogue, not just between warring parties but between communities who bear the brunt of the conflict. Such dialogue can be an important mediation tool, but it is a also a dubious concept that can refer to high-level, mid-level or even grassroots negotiation. Within the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua, a recent initiative of “dialogue” has aimed to encourage debate along all these levels, yet the challenges it faces are daunting and complex.

The Indonesian Institute of Sciences (Lembaga Ilmu Pengetahuan Indonesia / Lipi) and Papuan intellectual Neles Tebay have embarked on an initiative to use active dialogue to rectify ongoing historical, economic, cultural and political grievances in the eastern half of the island of New Guinea - which for decades has been the site of violent political contest accentuated by conflict over resources, environmental degradation, colonial legacies and constitutional argument.

Both institution and individual have produced documents outlining a way forward - the Papua roadmap (Lipi) and Dialogue Jakarta-Papua (Neles Tebay). They seek to employ the ideas therein to encourage a culture of dialogue that does not presuppose the roots of the conflict but rather engages different levels of society. By holding workshops within the province as well as lobbying the national government for support for the enterprise, their strategy is to push for a positive environment in which dialogue can take place from both a top-down and bottom-up approach.

This is only the first phase of dialogue-preparation, for the authors of these initiatives acknowledge that constituencies need to be built and support gained. Indeed dialogue itself is not an end-goal but an evolving process aimed at facilitating a new paradigm for development that can help to counter discrimination and build reconciliation. It is no quick-fix solution.

A wall of mistrust

Yet the challenges it faces are complex and numerous, and awareness of these issues is needed if this dialogue is to succeed where other initiatives have failed. Within Papua itself, dialogue has been called for from different groups within the community, although little consensus exists on who should mediate or what should be offered on the bargaining-table (see Evi Mariani, “OPM military wing calls for UN-mediated dialogue”, Jakarta Post, 15 March 2010). Papuan society remains fragmented and bringing the many interested groups together will be challenging. Without a clear consensus within Papua what the “Papuan” negotiating position should be, it would be difficult to reach any amenable position that satisfies all sectors of Papuan society.

The issue concerning dialogue within Papua is especially prominent in two areas. First, different activist groups, NGOs, organisations and even armed separatists differ in their opinions and goals ; second, dialogue between the provincial and regency governments and the people of Papua remains an unresolved issue. Members of the executive, legislative and regional governments are directly elected, but public confidence in their ability to act on behalf of the population has dropped (see Radicalisation and Dialogue in Papua, International Crisis Group, 11 March 2010).

A prime example is the vigorous civil-society campaign that has persisted since 2001 to build a market in Jayapura where indigenous Papuan women can sell produce. The governor of Papua, Barnabas Suebu, has made promising statements concerning the market project ; but years of squandered budgets and half-hearted promises from the provincial legislature leaves trust between government and society in a precarious state.

Second, dialogue within Papua would need to address the enduring misperceptions and mistrust between the indigenous Papuan population and non-Papuan residents from other areas of the archipelago. The Lipi roadmap estimates that in 2005, non-ethnic Papuans made up 41% of the population - a proportion that indicates their great stake in the future of the province. Yet relations between the two groups remain weak and are often based on essentialist stereotypes of the other.

This problem is reinforced by the way that voting patterns reflect these ethnic divisions (for example, in Indonesia’s national election of 2009 in Papua). True, the ethnic clashes that occurred in Wamena in 2000 and left over thirty people dead - triggered by police attacks that then prompted retaliation - look unlikely to be repeated any time soon. But dialogue between different ethnic groups in Papua is necessary in order to overcome mistrust amongst the population.

A path to empowerment

The prospect of forming a consensual Papuan programme would be difficult, but it is not impossible. Perhaps Papua’s eastern neighbour of Papua New Guinea (PNG) can offer a viable example. In Bougainville, a province racked by a separatist war from 1988-97, an autonomy law was agreed in 2001 between the central government and Bougainville representatives. However, before negotiations could start it was necessary to reach a joint position between all parties representing Bougainville (including pro-integration and pro-independence) ; and this became possible when a series of advisors held talks with all parties and analysed their position in relation to nine possible scenarios they envisaged for the province.

The results were used to find a broad position which all parties could agree to, and thus created a united position that held throughout negotiations with the PNG central government. Notably, such a consensus also increased people’s sense of ownership over dialogue and creates greater communication between different factions.

However, challenges exist at the national level as well as within Papua ; primarily on how serious the central government is in being prepared to address lasting grievances within Papua. It is only the central government that can override potential spoilers arising from nationalist camps, from within both the political and the security elite. Yet, it seems unlikely the government is willing to allow either of two common demands from Papuan civil society : international mediation, or a review of Papua’s special-autonomy law of 2001. The “power-asymmetries” of dialogue lean in Jakarta’s favour, and it will be challenging to find any lasting solution without compromise from all parties (see Carmel Budiardjo, “The Prospects for Papuan-Indonesian Dialogue”, Peace Magazine, January-March 2010).

Somewhat worryingly however, the head of the military’s regional command in Papua, Major-General Hotma Marbun has expressed his hostility towards dialogue, stating that it undermined the integrity of the Indonesian state (see Markus Makur, “Security condition conducive : Military chief”, Jakarta Post, 13 April 2010).

Furthermore, the arrests of fifteen protestors on 22 March 2010 during a demonstration in Jayapura, and the continued use of subversion charges to subdue leaders of demonstrations, increases distrust of security personnel.

Dialogue here needs to move beyond peace through law-enforcement or power-balances (often refereed to as “negative peace”) and promote a more inclusive “peace” based on positive initiatives. Thus if the government wishes to take dialogue seriously, it needs to subdue such heavy-handed approaches.

The above examples show the difficulty of finding an all-encompassing agreement to solve the problems facing Papua. At the same time, no one can be satisfied with a status quo that disempowers people on a daily basis. The combination of historical, economic, political and cultural factors involved make finding a solution to Papua’s problems a complex task. Any dialogue would need to touch on all these issues. In this respect, the current initiative is perhaps the most promising concept for dialogue to emerge for a long time. With resolve and commitment from all sides, it can perhaps succeed where previous chances have failed and offer a new consensus where Papuans are further empowered to take their own future into their own hands.

Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.