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President now holds key to conflict in troubled province

Priest's Papua peace efforts may bear fruit at last

Father Neles Kebadabi Tebay Father Neles Kebadabi Tebay
  • Ryan Dagur, Jakarta
  • Indonesia
  • March 27, 2013
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Having been born and raised in Papua and having spent most of his life working with the people there, Father Neles Kebadabi Tebay can tell many stories about a population that has been living with violence and terror for five decades.

Almost every day Papuans see or hear about neighbors or relatives being shot, attacked or intimidated by security forces, or armed groups, the 49-year-old recipient of the 2013 Tji Hak-Soon Justice and Peace Award says.

Violence has become part of everyday life since Papua, Indonesia’s easternmost province, became part of the country through what many say was a seriously flawed UN-sponsored referendum in 1969.

Since then, not only has fear plagued the people of Papua, neglect from central government has also taken its toll.

“The problems faced by many Papuans for years must end,” said Fr Neles, who is also rector of Fajar Timur School of Philosophy and Theology in Abepura and a member of the Indonesian Bishops’ Conference’s Commission for Theology and Mission.

Dialogue between the central government and the people of Papua to find the root cause of the conflicts is essential if peace and prosperity is to be achieved, he adds.  So far this has proved elusive.

Much of the problem has been a polarization of attitudes, according to Fr Neles.

In the eyes of Papuans, soldiers and police officers are colonizers, invaders who seized the country through the 1969 referendum.

“Shootings are seen by Papuans as a justification and part of their efforts to fight against colonizers,” Neles says.

On the other hand, the national government simply sees every protest or act by Papuans as a separatist issue and justify killings – even of innocent civilians – as part of its fight against enemies of the state.

Neles’ struggle for a peaceful Papua through a meaningful dialogue began 12 years ago by writing articles in newspapers.

Some of these articles were compiled into a book titled Papua: Its Problems and Possibilities for a Peaceful Solution.

Other books have followed including  Angkat Pena Demi Dialog Papua (Raise a Pen for a Dialogue in Papua) and Reconciliation and Peace: Interfaith Endeavour for Peace in West Papua, which were published last year.

Efforts have also included the forming of the Papua Peace Network, a coalition group along with a team of experts from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, initiated in February 2010.

“It consists of young volunteers from various faiths and ethnic groups who strive to promote dialogue” through social actions, Fr Neles says.

His and their efforts may be finally starting to bear fruit.

Last year religious leaders from Papua, including Neles, met with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to discuss possible talks.

It was proposed by the delegation that representatives from the security forces, local and central government and civil society meet with Papuans including representatives from the Free Papua Movement and Free Papua Soldiers – militant groups in the eyes of Jakarta.

The decision is now in the hands of President Yudhoyono. All he has to do is form a team of respected people recognized at both national and international level, said Fr Neles.

This team should make sure that any negotiations will be inclusive and participatory, he said.

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