The day before Scotland voted in its independence referendum last week, West Papuan activist Benny Wenda addressed a Yes campaign crowd in Glasgow, saying that he hoped his people would one day get the same chance at self-determination.
'I hope the Indonesian government will allow my people to vote on their own future, like you here today,' he told the cheering crowd.
Wenda, who lives in exile in the UK, said he wanted to witness and take inspiration from Scotland's referendum. Of course, what he ended up witnessing was Scotland choosing to stay with the UK, with a 55-percent vote for No. The result will surely be taken as a blow to Wenda's 'Free West Papua' campaign, along with other independence movements around the world. However, it's not entirely discouraging for the cause of self-determination in West Papua and elsewhere.
The Jakarta Post noted in an editorial over the weekend that Scotland's peaceful referendum showed Indonesia that in a democracy, 'there are civilized ways of dealing with independence aspirations other than treating them as a security threat', such as respecting cultural differences, engaging in meaningful dialogue, and devolving certain powers to the regions to give them more direct control over their assets and development.
West Papuan aspirations for independence have been framed as a security threat since the territory was brought under Indonesian administration in 1963. A promised referendum on independence in 1969 turned into the widely criticised 'Act of Free Choice', which offered the vote to only 1026 selected local leaders, many of whom are reported to have been coerced into voting for Indonesian rule.
Since then, both armed and civil movements for West Papuan independence have been violently suppressed by Indonesian military and police. Despite being home to Indonesia's biggest gold and copper mine, the province still struggles with poor infrastructure and social support, as well as high rates of poverty. It has become a 'no-go zone' for foreign media wanting to report on political and human rights issues.
With a change in Indonesia's government this year, there is hope that the situation in West Papua will improve. Incoming president Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo has pledged to actively engage with West Papua and improve conditions there as a priority of his presidency. He has stopped short of promising discussions on independence for the province, telling local media that 'the most important thing is delivering prosperity to the people'.
Independence activists like Wenda may not agree that prosperity can quench the thirst for self-determination, a sentiment that Indonesians, as inheritors of a hard-fought battle against colonial rule, should be able to understand. However, as in Scotland, there are plenty of others who believe that Indonesia and West Papua are 'better together'. The Republic of Indonesia is founded on the 'Unity in Diversity' of 17,000 islands, 34 provinces and about 300 different ethnic groups. The 'civilized ways of dealing with independence aspirations' mentioned by the Jakarta Post apply equally to all provinces, regardless of whether they have intentions to separate from the state. Respect, dialogue and power-sharing will go a long way in keeping Indonesia intact.
One bargaining chip used by the Indonesian Government to keep dissenting regions from fracturing the unity of the state has been to grant various levels of autonomy. Since the end of the Suharto era, Indonesians have been able to directly elect their regional leaders, as part of a push for decentralisation of governance. However, a law now being discussed in the House of Representatives (DPR) threatens to put an end to that, by handing the authority from the people over to regional legislative councils (DPRDs), as in Suharto's time.
Departing president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has finally put his weight behind Jokowi's coalition to oppose the bill, which is being pushed by the 'Red-and-White' coalition of losing presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto. Yudhoyono's party has nonetheless put forward a 10-point amendment addressing the major failings of the direct election system, such as widespread vote-buying, inefficient campaign funding and the emergence of 'little kings' in the regions.
In a time when Indonesia is still consolidating its democracy, backtracking on decentralisation reforms would be an unwise move. As the case of Scotland shows, sticking together involves a negotiation of identity, dialogue and power. Despite its flaws, the mechanism of direct regional elections in Indonesia is a platform for that negotiation. With strong institutions, it can also become a self-correcting process, supporting democratic reform from the centre to the regions.
Wenda and other independence activists around the world must surely be disappointed by the outcome of Scotland's referendum. But if there is a lesson to be found for Indonesia and elsewhere, it is that state unity is a constant process of negotiation that finds its strength in shared freedom, not oppression.