Can Infrastructure Development Be a Way to Prevent Conflicts in Papua?

Papua is the largest province in Indonesia. After undergoing regional expansion in 2003, there are two Indonesian provinces in Papua Island, namely Papua and West Papua. Papua was formerly known as Irian Jaya Barat. The integration of Irian Jaya Barat into parts of Indonesia was not easy and has a long history.

It became part of Indonesia after the ‘Act of Free Choice’ was held in 1969 where a referendum was done to determine the status of Papua, either joining Indonesia or the Dutch. The voting was done by 1,025 men and women of local people (which was acted as the council of elders meeting) who were selected by the Indonesian military. There were some parties who did not admit the representative method done in the referendum process as they felt the result did not represent the voice of Papuan people as a whole. However, ever since the ‘Act of Free Choice’, Irian Jaya Barat was an integral part of Indonesia.

The difference in perceptions about Papua integration into the Republic of Indonesia through PEPERA in 1969 was one of the reasons why the conflict in Papua keeps happening until now. Papua Liberation Organization or Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM) established during 1965. To date, the organizations have constantly conducted demonstrations and protests and strive for international support for its independence from the Indonesian Republic. Sometimes, the conflict between OPM and Indonesian people or Indonesian army caused fatal casualties.

Apart from that, some parties assume that special autonomy that has been given to Papua and West Papua to manage their own regions was failed to give economic prosperity and improve the health and education level of Papuan people. Although Papua and West Papua have the second largest copper mine, aside from having the largest gold mine in the world, the economy of local people is growing in a slow pace, even after 30 years Freeport-McMoRan company has been operated in Papua.

In 2017, Papua and West Papua are considered as the poorest province in Indonesia based on Indonesian Central Bureau of Statistics (BPS). BPS also recorded that in March 2017, 914,900 people are living below the poverty line in Papua province and the total of 228,380 people in West Papua. This is very contradictory to the fact that Papua has abundant natural resources, from timber, minerals, to the amazing landscape that is very potential to increase local economy through tourism.

It was also thought that there are still discrimination and marginalization of the indigenous people by other ethnic groups in Indonesia. Moreover, the Papuan people are still feeling traumatic by the repressive actions taken by the authorities which violate human rights but have not been investigated thoroughly until now.

Fortunately, the current Indonesian president, Joko Widodo, is committed to improving the development of the underdeveloped regions in Indonesia. Two of the most prioritized one are Papua and West Papua. The president targeted an infrastructure improvement, including 24 seaports, 15 airports, and 35,000 megawatts capacity power plants, as well as developing nine million hectares of agriculture land throughout Indonesia. The infrastructure being built in Papua is not only about roads and bridges, but also the improvements of a previously established project. The government is planning to improve the quality of electricity, health facilities, and also the educational infrastructure in Papua.

The infrastructure development is the government efforts to reduce the inequality of welfare of Papua to other regions in Indonesia. The roads and railways are hoped to be able to create an interconnection between remote areas, boost the local economy and raise the living standards of local communities. It is also expected that by the increase of the welfare of Papuan people, they would no longer felt secluded. Conflict and separatism movement will no longer be a central issue so that the public will turn away from the movement and focus more on other important things.

However, the problem in Papua is complex. It is not only about poverty. And building infrastructure may not be the only solution to solve the problem as the conflict is affected by many factors, as what has been mentioned before.

A dialogue between the Indonesian government and the Papuan people should be increasingly put forward to generate a common vision and mission on special autonomy implemented in Papua. Resolving cases of human rights violations and intensify the trauma healing programs due to structural violence that the Papuan people have been experiencing for decades can be a way to build Papuan people’s trust. In the end, it will help the government and the Papuan people to reach the same vision and mission about the Papua and West Papua development in the future.

More than that, the government should be able to engage Papuan people in the development through the empowerment program, respect their rights to control their own economic resources, increase clean-and-responsive institutional capacity, both in the central and local governments, and respect the equality and diversity of socio-cultural life of the people in Papua.