The Gus Dur way: The disregarded treasure in embracing West Papua

The Wawawa Journal
6 min readDec 14, 2019

The Indonesian government is expected to see some great example that has been paved by some great past figures in navigation issues related to West Papua. A few individuals have shown the way to embrace the West Papuan identity including its cultures and customs, instead of clinging into a never-ending debate over aspects like historical dispute. One of these great figures is the fourth Indonesian President, KH Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur).

According to NU Online, a respected Native West Papuan Indonesian leader Mr. Manuel Kaisiepo has a unique story about Gus Dur and Papua (or West Papua as you wish). The Native West Papuan statesman happened to be the State Minister for the Acceleration of Eastern Indonesia in the era of President Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Respecting the example, principle, and courage of Gus Dur, Mr. Kaisiepo said that when certain West Papuan groups would hold the West Papuan People’s Congress, many opposed the initiative. The opposition mainly came from the Jakarta elite. And yet, Gus Dur, in the end, approved of the congress. Moreover, Gus Dur would also help the implementation of the congress event, namely, by providing funding assistance.

This unsusual approval was a Gus Dur’s move, which many people think was odd, different than what others would have thought. The President even met with the group at the congress.

Gus Dur emphasized that every single man in West Papua, especially those of West Papuan ethnicity, were his own brothers, countrymen and fellow humans. NU Online writes that this emphasis was a genuine move taken by the Islamic leader to build the trust of the people of West Papua to the government of Indonesia.

Gus Dur’s figure cannot be separated from his role in providing the spirit of humanity in the land of West Papua from all forms of discrimination, marginalization, and crisis in all fields. Until now, the people of West Papua continuously look up to President Gus Dur.

West Papuan should speak first

On 30 December 1999 or precisely 2 months 10 days after being sworn in as the 4th President of the Republic of Indonesia, Gus Dur visited the West Papua region (then named Irian Jaya) for two purposes, namely to dialogue with various elements in there and see the first sunrise of the second millennium in West Papua on January 1, 2000 morning.

On 30 December 1999, at 8 pm, a dialogue with various elements was held at the Governor’s meetinghouse in Jayapura. Although knowing that not everybody could speak directly to the president, which means through the way of representation, a lot of West Papuans still came because the security was not that strict (This act of less security is the one the current Indonesian administration should see and learn from).

Gus Dur invited many West Papuan representatives to speak first. Their opinions and voices ranged from being very strict with demands for independence and not trusting the Indonesian government anymore to those who praised the government but coming with various requirements.

Then the President spoke in response to them. Many things were responded to, but the important thing was, “I will change the name of Irian Jaya to Papua,” Gus Dur said. “The reason?” “First, the name Irian is bad,” Gus Dur said. “The word comes from Arabic, which means naked. In the past, when the Arabs came to this island found the people were still naked, so it was called Irian.”

Of the matter of the name Irian, historical accounts vary. But this article is not to get involved too much into that matter, of course.

Gus Dur then continued, “Secondly, in the Javanese tradition, if a child is ill, the child will be renamed to recover. Usually, the name is Slamet (which means safe and sound). But I am now changing Irian Jaya to Papua.”

A Melanesian anthropologist, as NU Online writes, has searched for the origin of the word Irian that Gus Dur had told him, but never found it. What Gus Dur said to West Papuans about the name was is really the smart, if not simple, way Gus Dur solved the complex and significant problems like the West Papua problem.

The writer of the book about the president, titled ‘Gus Dur, Islam Nusantara dan Kewarganegaraan Bineka: Penyelesaian Konflik Aceh dan Papua 1999–2001’, Ahmad Suaedy suspected that the way Gus Dur included the discourse of Arabic and Javanese traditions into his effort to solve the Papuan issue was that he also tried to ‘calm’ the hearts of Muslims and Javanese who also had the potential to protest.

Gus Dur’s attention to the potential further vertical conflict, including how the central government called some West Papuans as separatists, was actually not only applied in Indonesia but also some conflicts in neighboring countries, such as in Pattani, Southern Thailand and Mindanao, Southern Philippines.

Gus Dur not only facilitated dialogue and sought a peaceful path, but also accompanied them as friends and relatives, without spreading provocation nor violating the ethics of interstate relations. As a matter of fact, Gus Dur was also actively involved in bringing about the peace of other nations of the world, which suffered from conflicts.

Indonesia should learn how the complex conflicts in West Papua as an issue of citizenship-centered. Right now, the conflicts are not only between factions like the government and the pro-independence fighters but also between various communities within the West Papuan community itself.

The principal value of citizenship is equality, which means as also the same Indonesians as other people across the country, West Papuans should be treated equally.

The approach taken by Gus Dur was mainly a direct but genuine dialog with almost every faction within the West Papuan community, including those of west Papuan and non-west Papuan ethnicities, of course, those of various groups, especially customary leaders and youth representatives. Emphasizing genuineness is crucial, which the current administration lacks, to strengthening civil society.

Then, the government should conduct various meetings, negotiations, and dialogs. It is crucial to establish collaborative actions then and finally formulate an agreement, to the point of ‘a zero degree,’ which means there is no more dispute.

With such a robust personal approach, President Gus Dur successfully accommodated the mention of the name Papua where previously, anyone who called Papua would be considered a separatist. The previous administration gave the name Irian Jaya, while the people wanted Papua because Papua is a name that has been around West Papua for a long time and has become the sacred identity of people there.

The restoration of the name of Papua by Gus Dur proceeded without conditions, without any consensus, it was immediately permitted to mention the name of Papua. On another occasion, Gus Dur ever said that as cultural and local-political aspiration identity, a Morning Star flag could be raised by West Papuans, as long as it would not go higher than the National Red-And-White flag, which similar condition has already worked in Aceh.

Peace trajectory continued

As reported by Tribunnews, at this time, the West Papua peacemaking trajectory that has been built by Gus Dur is likely to continue. The family of the fourth President of Indonesia, represented by his daughter, Yenny Wahid, has initiated peacemaking and revitalization efforts in West Papua through dialogs with West Papuan leaders.

“In our earlier meetings and dialogs, many religious leaders, community leaders, as well as political figures, and millennials of West Papua were representatives attending at the meetings,” Yenny said (Tribunnews).

Yenny Wahid explained that one of the concrete efforts was that peace in West Papua would be achieved if all elements of the West Papuan society were united. Besides, informal leaders especially the customary leaders (pemimpin adat) must be actively involved. It is these informal leaders who must be champions in the revitalization and peace efforts in West Papua. So, don’t just rely on the security forces to Papua.

Yenny emphasized that involving many West Papuan religious and adat leaders in dialogs that are based on values of partnership, family, and equality is the best solution that we have to endeavor to bring peace in West Papua. (*)



The Wawawa Journal

Enriching discourse and understanding. A protest to Indonesian govt that unsuccessfully serves the world fair info about West Papua.