Indonesia’s far east: security and politics

A tide of protest in Indonesia’s easternmost provinces of Papua and West Papua is a challenge to Jakarta, says Charles Reading: find a new security paradigm, or face increasing radicalism in the country’s poorest region.
Charles Reading
18 August 2010

Indonesia’s two easternmost provinces, Papua and West Papua, are facing a deepening political impasse whose heart is the denial of local people’s  political aspirations. Indeed, while Indonesia’s continued economic growth, democratisation and achievement of peace in Aceh have earned it well-deserved praise, the continuing grievances in these two provinces are a tragic reminder of its violent past.

The western half of the island of New Guinea, where the two provinces are located, has remained in a state of simmering conflict since their inclusion into Indonesia in 1969; they remain the poorest in Indonesia.

Aside from genuine and well-grounded discontent, as a whole the Papua situation also suffers from a lack of constructive national and international debate (see "Papua: the elusive dialogue", 23 April 2010). The provinces are often analysed through a simplifying dichotomy - “pro-Indonesia” vs “pro-Papuan independence” - that is rooted in the controversial Act of Free Choice of 1969.  

The reality in the two easternmost provinces is, however, much more complex than this. The most recent Papuan demonstrations demanding a referendum on independence show that a nuanced dynamic is at work, hinging on an interaction between grievances, local populist activism, and Jakarta’s own actions (and inactions).

In the absence of any constructive dialogue between civil society and Jakarta, the “pro-Indonesia” vs “pro-Papuan independence”  dichotomy will continue to simplify and misconstrue the “Papuan issue” - and  thus in the long run, only perpetuate the current cycle of violence (see Indonesia: The Deepening Crisis in Papua [International Crisis Group, 3 August 2010]).

A new populist demand

The protests in Papua in July 2010 have turned on the Indonesian government’s Special Autonomy Law 21/2001 - which established Otonomi khusus (or, as it is better known, Otsus) in the territory. These protests, centring on the demand that Otsus be “returned” to the central government in Jakarta, are neither spontaneous nor routine but rather the culmination of populist moves initiated by the locally governing Majelis Rakyat Papua (Papuan People's Assembly / MRP) and civil society.

The immediate roots of the growing discontent can be found in a series of events that started in 2009. In November 2009, the MRP, charged with sustaining Papuan cultural rights, passed law 14/2009, which affirmed that only indigenous Papuans were allowed to run for local regent and mayoral offices within the provinces. This decision stemmed from a widespread fear among Melanesian Papuans that they are slowly being swamped by the continuous increase of non-Papuan Indonesians, who in some towns already form a majority. But the MRP decision has no legal basis, and the home-affairs ministry rejected the decision as discriminatory and in violation of a national law on local government. 

Jakarta’s reaction underscored the powerlessness of the MRP. This helped fuel a new popularity and cohesion between the MRP and civil society, resulting in a meeting in June 2010 which concluded that Otonomi Khusus had failed and announced eleven recommendations aimed at bettering the lot of indigenous Papuans; most prominently, they included a referendum on independence.  

An unresolved history  

The protestors, by asking to “hand back” Otsus to Jakarta, have focused their grievances on more mid-term relations with the central government. Some protestors certainly belong to a group who view the sole solution for Papua as “independence” and thus reject Otsus from the outset; but the recent civil-society actions are also driven by pragmatic elements of society that focus on welfare and good governance rather than meta-narratives about Papuan sovereignty.

There is a notable shift from popular demands to reject Otsus and central government authority from a “historical grievance” approach to a “failure of governance” focus (although these different levels remain intertwined).

The special-autonomy law was enacted in 2001 as a move to contain Papuans’ desire for independence, and rectify some of the past abuses within the province. After nine years of implementation, Papuan civil society seems to agree that it has failed to bring about the sweeping changes it was aimed to inspire.

While greater power has devolved to the provincial and local governments, and affirmative-action programmes have been implemented in government civil services, Otsus has failed to address rampant corruption, abuse of power, and economic disparities between indigenous and migrant communities - as well as brutal security actions.

There is deep mistrust between indigenous Papuans and the Indonesian security apparatus. This is reflected in the demand of the chairman of the Dewan Adat Papua (Papuan Customary Council), Forkorus Yaboisembut, that there should be changes to the criminal code in order to minimise the possibility of the police and the army (TNI) shooting civilians. The Commission for the Disappeared and the Victims of Violence in Papua (KontraS), says that there has been an increase in criminal activity against Papuan civilians; for their part, the Indonesian police and military all too often accuse people of being separatists.

The authorities' banning of the Dutch NGO Cordaid from working in Papua, on charges of helping separatists - something the agency denies - shows how suspicious Jakarta is in relation to everything that concerns Papua. Meanwhile, the political elites in Jakarta see Papuan political interests as far less important than economic development.

Jakarta allocates Rp30 trillion ($3.3 billion) annually to Papua, but pays little attention to how this budget is used. Otsus may have devolved power to Papua, but it has also created a new indigenous political elite and facilitated rampant corruption. A prominent example is Johanes Gluba Gebze, regent of Merauke, who has ruled as if the area is a personal fiefdom and using his own militia to silence civil-society opposition to his rule. The murder in late July 2010 of Adriansyah Matra'is, a journalist investigating financial irregularities in several government projects, signifies just how vulnerable civil society is to direct intimidation and violence.    

Poor governance is a major problem and likely to remain so unless education is improved. However, the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (Lembaga Ilmu Pengetahuan Indonesia / Lipi) argues that the Papuan education system is in a poorer state now than in the 1970s, largely due to the closing of church-run schools and the government’s failure to replace them. The ambitious Respek programme has invested large sums, yet 35% percent of Papua’s 2.6 million inhabitants still (according to the National Bureau of Statistics) live below the poverty-line, against a national poverty-rate of 14.15% in 2009. Social and human indicators remain far behind other provinces: they include poor healthcare, high rates of infant and maternal mortality, and epidemic levels of HIV/Aids.

A new security paradigm

This context helps explain why the latest protest in Papua is not impulsive, nor has it evolved in isolation. Rather, it is the latest expression of an organised movement fuelled by frustration at the inability of the central government to act in any meaningful way. The military and police in Papua regard the MPR consultation and demonstrations as unlawful because the MRP’s role is supposed to be cultural, not political.

The result of the standoff is that anger in Papua is growing; the longer Jakarta ignores and downplays it, the more that radical voices will come to the fore. Indonesia’s president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, responded to the July demonstrations by asking parliamentarians in Jakarta to examine the protestors’ current demands, a process expected to take place in 2011.

Yet for any such an initiative to be successful, it must include the MRP and Papuan civil society. It is vital too that the government actively dissuades police and security forces from violently intervening or intimidating the current protest leaders, as is all too frequent in Papuan history (see Prosecuting Political Aspiration: Indonesia's Political Prisoners [Human Rights Watch, 22 June 2010]).

It bears re-emphasising that the significance of current populist demands in Papua is that they involve a move away from exclusive “independence” demands based on ethnic or historical claims, and towards a “failure-of-governance” focus that question Jakarta’s ability seriously to address Papuan grievances. The former demands question Indonesian sovereignty; the latter are more pragmatic.

If Jakarta were to engage seriously with governance issues, the result could be beneficial for people in Papua and help to curb the momentum of more radical Papuan demands. Indeed, what is needed is a new security paradigm that holds people and their welfare as the referent object and not solely the integrity and unity of the state; a shift that would in principle enable Indonesia at last to extend its otherwise impressive democratic credentials in its easternmost provinces.

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