Entering its tenth year since the fall of the authoritarian President Suharto, Indonesia has progressed towards consolidating its democratic system, respecting rule of law and resolving ethnic grievances.

Notably, after a couple of false starts, the direct election of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono helped consolidate Indonesia’s reform process. Yet despite this progress, Indonesia retains a blot on its democratic and human rights record; that of West Papua.

There was some hope after 2001 that Indonesia’s process of political and economic decentralization would allow West Papua a degree of genuine autonomy.

On paper, the “special autonomy” package offered to West Papua, and Indonesia’s other formerly troubled province of Aceh, looked to address many outstanding issues.

Yet as has since been noted by many observers, West Papua’s “special autonomy” status has been methodically undermined until it has become next to meaningless.

In particular, dividing the province into three provinces, later ratified by Indonesia’s constitutional court as two, destroyed much of the substance of its autonomy package. A proposal to create even further provinces even further diminishes the original “special autonomy” package.

Meanwhile, since the redeployment of troops following Aceh’s successfully negotiated peace settlement, West Papua has seen a significant build-up of soldiers and paramilitary police. The human rights situation, while not at record bad levels, has consequently deteriorated.

Underlying West Papua’s problems with Jakarta has been the means by which the territory was incorporated into the state in 1968. In this, a little over one thousand hand-picked village leaders were compelled to ratify West Papua’s forced incorporation into Indonesia in 1963. This process was sanctioned by the UN, but has since been discredited.

West Papua was not only constructed by many Indonesian leaders as central to completing their nationalist project, but the wealth it generates has since underpinned Indonesia’s economy.

As a largely self-funded institution, Indonesia’s military, the TNI, also has a major economic stake in West Papua, and for both reasons is profoundly opposed to its separation.

Yet for a wealthy province, most West Papuans are poor, have abysmally low levels of education, health care and other development indicators.

And, as Melanesians, West Papuans are looked upon by malay Indonesians with attitudes ranging from pity to contempt. Many Indonesians, in particular in the military, regard West Papuans as being less than fully human, which has exacerbated human rights abuses.

Following the Aceh peace agreement which has seen that province prosper in peace over the past two years, many West Papuan political leaders hoped for a similar resolution.

In order to achieve this, last year the province’s disparate political groups, including the Free Papua Organisation (OPM), came together under an umbrella organization, the West Papua National Coalition for Liberation (WPNCL).

The word “liberation” in the WPNCL’s title refers to freeing West Papuans from oppression, not necessarily separating from Indonesia.

However, to date, President Yudhoyono has refused to talk with the WPNCL, at least under international mediation, perhaps fearing political backlash from the often fractious and self-serving politics of Jakarta.

Yet following from Aceh’s relative success, such a process might offer a means of resolving Indonesia’s outstanding separatist issue while significantly improving the lives of a people who have been treated as second class citizens.

From an international perspective, such a resolution would remove a significant impediment from relations with Indonesia, particularly with Australia and the United States.

The West Papua issue retains the potential to destabilize bilateral relations, especially in Australia was faced with accepting another boat-load of West Papuan asylum seekers. Last year’s Lombok Treaty does not trump Australia’s international and humanitarian obligations to legitimate refugees, and the West Papuan issue continues to come up with members of the US Congress.

It is in Indonesia’s interests, and those of its friends, to see the West Papua problem disappear. This cannot happen by sweeping it under the carpet, as with East Timor until the fateful referendum of 1999.

Rather, the problem of West Papua will only disappear when the government of Indonesia decides to seriously address the myriad issues that have bedeviled the territory.

The international community has a role in monitoring events in West Papua, at least as best it can given the continuing restrictions on travel there. And the international community might, as with Aceh, have a role in mediating and overseeing the implementation of any future agreement.

In this, Indonesia can build on its success in Aceh, which brought the government international accolades including Nobel Peace Prize nominations. The question really is, though, whether Indonesia is still serious about reform, or whether the gains of democratization will again be allowed to slip between it political fingers.