The Indonesian Government: closing window for peace in West Papua

Just as Indonesia’s president Susilo Bambang Yudhuyono was being feted globally for being a democrat, the Indonesian government was entrenching Papua’s reputation as Indonesia’s last bastion of authoritarian military rule. Now Peace Brigades International has finally been forced out.
Jason MacLeod
14 March 2011

The latest casualty in the Indonesian Government’s efforts to seal off West Papua from international scrutiny is Peace Brigades International (PBI). In January this year the international non-government organisation was finally forced out of Indonesia. Since 1981 at the invitation of local people, PBI has been providing unarmed protection to human rights defenders at risk in conflict zones around the world. International accompaniment is literally the embodiment of the international community’s concern. The presence of internationals increases the cost of attacking human rights workers and expands the political space for local activists. All this is made possible by an elaborate communication network. PBI staff meet with local police and military personal as well as their superiors in regional and national capitals to let them know exactly who is being accompanied. This acts as a deterrent. The PBI volunteers are the eyes and ears of the international community, communicating the human rights situation on the ground to an international network of governments and civil society actors. It is a tried and tested approach that has worked in places as diverse as El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia, Haiti, Sri Lanka and Nepal. 

Members of the PBI Indonesia Project were invited by Acehenese activists to accompany them through the darkest days of martial law. Acehenese civil society organisations like Flower Aceh and Koalisi HAM (the Human Rights Coalition) were able to continue their work because of PBI protective accompaniment. It gave local workers a sense that the international community cared about their situation and sent a clear message to the Indonesian army that they were being watched. PBIs protective accompaniment helped expand the space for peace in Aceh in the lead up to the historic Helsinki Peace Agreement. But in West Papua, home to Indonesia’s longest running separatist conflict, the world’s oldest international nonviolence organisation has finally met its match. After years of harassment from the Indonesian security forces the PBI Indonesia Project was closed down.

My colleagues and I helped set up the PBI West Papua project in 2003. I left the organisation in 2004 but kept in close contact with many of the organisers and staff members. One of the reasons PBI responded to an invitation from Papuan human rights defenders was because for years the Indonesian government has closed off access to West Papua to humanitarian organisations, journalists and even diplomats. It is important that Papua is opened up to the international community if human rights are to be addressed. But while the rest of Indonesia moved towards greater democracy, Papua slid back into an authoritarian backwater ruled by the Indonesian security forces as if it was their own private fiefdom. Since PBI established a presence in West Papua Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Dutch NGO CordAid and even the Red Cross have all been denied access. This level of hostility by a State to international scrutiny of a human rights situation is unusual. Even during the height of apartheid, the South African government permitted the Red Cross access to political prisoners. Not so in West Papua.

Prior to being forced out of West Papua, PBI was the only international human rights organisation with a permanent presence in Indonesia’s restive Pacific periphery. A group of long-term international volunteers based in Jayapura, the capital and in Wamena, in the troubled highlands, provided unarmed protection for Indonesian and Papuan human rights defenders and monitored the situation on the ground. PBI helped protect human rights defenders and lawyers trying to expose police brutality during the ‘Bloody Abepura’ trial in 2004. PBI also protected Papuan human rights defenders who were investigating the security forces after they cracked down on Papuans in the wake of the March 16 2006 blockade of the main road outside the University of Cendrawasih in Jayapura.

PBI is governed by a strict mandate. The organisation only supports unarmed actors, they do not take sides and they do not tell Papuans how they should run their struggle. Despite this the Indonesian government was petrified of PBI. I experienced this personally. When I was taken in for questioning in West Papua in 2007 after observing a demonstration in Papua, the very first question the Indonesian police intelligence agent asked me – even before enquiring whether I was a journalist or spy – was “Are you PBI?” By then I had left the organisation but it revealed the depth of the intelligence services concerns about PBI.

Almost from the moment PBI started work in West Papua the Indonesian government acted to restrict PBI’s access and ability to work. In 2009 the organisation was pressured to close the Wamena office in West Papua’s remote highlands, the scene of frequent human rights violations by the Indonesian military. PBI staff were refused permission to work as the police and intelligence services launched an official investigation into the organisation’s status. National Indonesian staff started to receive threatening phone calls. They felt increasingly vulnerable.

By late 2009 all one-on-one protective accompaniment had ceased. In an effort to stay in Papua protective strategies were reduced to regular check-in calls with PBI clients who felt threatened by state security forces. Then on 30 July 2010 Ardiansyah Matra’is’s naked, handcuffed body was found in the River Gudang Arang. His arm had been tied to a tree to prevent his body from floating downstream. Matra’is was a journalist working for Papua’s only national independent paper, Jubi. Matra’is had been critical of illegal logging operations run by the Indonesian military in Merauke and had taken photos of their activities. Matra’is was also a PBI client. His murder was the first time in Indonesia that a current PBI client had been killed.

The writing was on the wall: PBI was no longer making space for peace in Papua. In fact the opposite was happening. The Indonesian government was closing space for peace in Papua, and PBI appeared powerless to halt the slide into greater military impunity. Just as Indonesia’s president Susilo Bambang Yudhuyono was being feted globally for being a democrat, the Indonesian government was entrenching Papua’s reputation as Indonesia’s last bastion of authoritarian military rule.

But the Indonesian government’s restriction of access to West Papua is not just confined to grassroots international nonviolence organisations. Jakarta is even willing to snub the US government. In late 2010 the US Ambassador, Scott Marciel asked the Indonesian government if staff from the Embassy could observe the trial of three soldiers involved in torturing Papuan civilians. The torture, which including burning a man’s genitals with a stick, was filmed on a mobile phone camera and leaked to transnational human rights networks. When the footage was uploaded on to YouTube and featured on domestic and international news networks it generated massive moral outrage not just internationally but inside Indonesia as well. When the trial went ahead last month, Mr. Marciel was notified by the Indonesian government only 24 hours beforehand, not enough time to apply for a surat jalan, a letter of permission to travel to West Papua required by the Indonesian government. It was not an official denial from the Indonesian government but it may as well have been.

The Indonesian government is blocking access for all those who want to shine a light into West Papua. The problem for the Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhuyono is that he has allowed the Indonesian intelligence services to dominate decision-making processes in West Papua. The intelligence services determine who gets access into West Papua and who does not. They are the ones who assess the applications of foreign NGOs, journalists and even diplomats who want to travel to West Papua. Access to West Papua should be subjected to the rule of law and not to surveillance principles. If democracy and rule of law was present in West Papua, the surat jalan regime would be abolished altogether.

The Indonesian government cannot have it both ways. The human rights situation in West Papua cannot be fine while at the same time the Indonesian government and its intelligence and security forces insist the territory is off limits to foreigners. Either human rights are respected in West Papua or they are not. The closure of PBI in Indonesia only sharpens the international community’s perception that the Indonesian government has something to hide in West Papua. 

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