Father Neles Tebay was one of the leading advocates for dialogue between Papuans and the Indonesian government. Photo by Ryan Dagur/UCA News.


Father Neles Tebay, who died of cancer in Jakarta on 14 April, was a champion of peace in Papua. Born on 13 February 1964 in Godide, in the western highlands of Papua province, Neles was a leading Catholic intellectual, who founded the Papua Peace Network in 2010 and was the head of the Fajar Timur School of Theology in Jayapura. He earned his doctorate at the Pontifical Urbaniana University in Rome.


Neles was widely admired across a broad range of Papuan leaders, from former Golkar legislator Simon Morin, to Victor Yeimo, spokesman for the pro-independence National Committee for West Papa (KNPB).


Those who worked closely with Neles in the peace and human rights movements held him in the highest regard, respect and affection. Latifah Anum Siregar, one of the key figures in the Papua Peace Network, remembered his humour, commitment and consistency in the struggle for peace, despite the many difficult situations he faced.


Interviewed just before the presidential elections, Anum noted that, with Neles’ passing, a chapter in the history of the struggle for peace had closed. “Tomorrow there will be new presidential elections, but the president for Papua as a land of peace is Father Neles”, she said.


Dr Adriana Elisabeth, Neles’ principal research partner at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), noted Neles’ capacity to listen to the opinions of others before deciding his own views, which he would then pursue tenaciously. Neles recognised the political elite in Jakarta were reluctant to engage in dialogue, but he sought to convince the vested interests in Jakarta that dialogue was the way to resolve the problems in Papua.


Neles set out his approach to bring peace to Papua in his 2009 book, Dialog Jakarta-Papua: Sebuah Perspektif Papua, written to complement LIPI’s Papua Road Map. He started from the understanding that the violence, which had persisted in Papua since Indonesia took over administration in May 1963, had not resolved the conflict but rather exacerbated problems, adding to the number of victims, mostly Papuans in isolated communities.


Neles asserted that the Indonesian government had not consistently implemented the Special Autonomy Law of 2001, with the consequences that Papuan trust in the Indonesian government and international support for Indonesian sovereignty in Papua had both declined.


Neles recognised that the Indonesian government regarded its sovereignty in Papua as final and non-negotiable – harga mati. While many Papuans, particularly the Free Papua Organisation (OPM), considered that independence for Papua was the only solution, Neles’ approach was to keep the focus on creating Papua as a land of peace.


He advocated three phases of dialogue – internal dialogue among indigenous Papuans, dialogue between Papuans and non-Papuan residents in Papua, and dialogue with the Papuan diaspora – leading to a dialogue between Papuans and the Indonesian government.


In July 2011, Neles and the Papua Peace Network organised a Papua Peace Conference with the slogan “Let’s Make Papua a Land of Peace”. The conference was opened by then Coordinating Minister for Politics, Law and Security Djoko Suyanto, and seemed to have had the endorsement of the government.


The gulf between the expectations of the government and the aspirations of the 600-800 Papuans who attended was evident when Brigadier General Indra Hidayat, representing the Indonesian Military (TNI), ended his speech by exclaiming “Papua!”, to which the audience responded “Merdeka!” (Independence!).


With Neles as facilitator, the conference produced a declaration reflecting the values of Papuan nationalism. It appointed five exiled pro-independence figures as negotiators and called for international mediation. The conference turned out to be more a reaffirmation of Papuan national aspirations than an attempt to convince the government to forego its reliance on military force and seek a resolution through dialogue.


In November 2011, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono announced his government’s willingness to conduct a dialogue with Papuans. This announcement was followed by meetings of the president with Papuan church leaders in December 2011 and February 2012. Neles attended the latter meeting.


President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo demonstrated his interest in Papua and commitment to resolve the conflict during the 2014 campaign and with his early visits as president. Yet, early in his administration, Jokowi was dismissive of dialogue. He thought as he had talked to community and religious leaders and heads of local government that was enough. “Isn’t that dialogue?” he said. “There is no longer a problem in Papua. What’s dialogue for?”


In August 2017, however, Jokowi seemed to revive the dialogue approach at a meeting with Papuan traditional and religious leaders. The dialogue approach was recast as “Sectoral Dialogue”. The “sectors” identified were education, health, forestry and other sectors of the economy and society. There was no mention of the political, human rights, economic and historical issues that were central to the dialogue approach earlier advocated by Neles and the Papua Peace Network.


Jokowi appointed Neles, Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Wiranto, and Teten Masduki of the Presidential Office, to coordinate the dialogues. Whatever the merits of the Sectoral Dialogue approach may have been, little happened after the August meeting. One factor was that Neles insisted on a written mandate from the president, arguing that without one there was no basis to work.


Indeed, within a couple of months of the meeting with Jokowi, Neles reverted to his earlier approach to dialogue, arguing that with the government’s experience of successful negotiated settlements in Aceh, Ambon and Poso, a dialogue with the armed resistance, as partner rather than enemy, could address the five decades-old conflict in Papua.


With both Yudhoyono and Jokowi there were moments when dialogue seemed part of the government’s agenda. Neles understood from the beginning that there was great aversion to dialogue with Papuan leaders, but he underestimated how entrenched that opposition was.


The killing of construction workers in December 2018 on Jokowi’s signature infrastructure project, the Trans Papua Highway, and the military operations that followed, confirmed Neles’ argument that the security approach exacerbates rather than resolves Jakarta’s problems in Papua.


In response to the death of Neles, Jokowi expressed his condolences and sent a generous bouquet of flowers. Perhaps a second Jokowi administration might be able to distance itself from the supporters of the status quo in Papua.


The struggle to convince a re-elected Jokowi government to abandon its dead-end policies will be much more difficult without the faith, vision and determination of Neles Tebay.


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