Papuan autonomy: the blocked road

The Indonesian state’s promise of empowerment to Papuans has proved inadequate. A new focus is needed, says Charles Reading.
Charles Reading
7 December 2009

In the easternmost provinces of Indonesia, the first day of December each year has come to represent the day when those calling for a separate Papuan state take to the streets and make their voices heard. The date holds historical significance: it was on 1 December 1962 that the Dutch allowed the Papuan Bintang Kejora (morning star) to fly next to their own flag as a step to preparing Papua - the eastern half of New Guinea, the second largest island in the world - for independence. But in 1969, Indonesia annexed Papua (formerly also known as West Papua or Irian Jaya) through the vehicle of a controversial referendum. Since then, 1 December has become a focal point for Papuan resentment towards the Indonesian state.

This year was no different. 1 December 2009 was marked by demonstrations, flag-raisings, bouts of repression and nervous police ambiguously applying the law in the name of state security. At the same time, there is something misleading about seeing the Papuan cause (as parties on both sides of the divide tend to do) mainly through the lens of an ethnic Papuan nationalism or of a civic Indonesian nationalism. For the talk of nationalism, as of states and ideologies, tends to distract attention from the more immediate realities of social, political and economic disempowerment. These are vital triggers of protest against the Indonesian state and its regulations, and provide a valuable if neglected guide to the condition of the Papuan struggle.

The failure of reform

Indonesia’s Otonomi Khusus (special-autonomy law, known colloquially as otsus) of 2001 aimed to address the structural problems faced by Papuans.  Eight years on, an increasing number of Papuans believe that it has failed to deliver. A group of Papuans were arrested on 16 November 2009 in Jayapura for raising the Bintang Kejora flag - an illegal act that can incur up to fifteen years’ imprisonment, according to a presidential regulation of 2008 that bans separatist symbols - for handing out flyers condemning the flaws of the otsus law. More widely, otsus has moved from a proposed solution to the deprivations faced by many in Papua to the heart of people’s disillusion. Why then has it proved incapable of delivering on its promise?

When the Otonomi Khusus was first implemented, Papuans hoped it would concentrate on developing the territory, relieving poverty, guaranteeing to Papuans demographic and cultural representation in their own politics, and addressing the human-rights atrocities of the “new order” era under Indonesia’s former president, Suharto. Its scope covered many of the demands made by the Papua Presidium Council in the early years of Indonesia’s reformasi transition period - with the exception of independence itself. Yet, almost immediately, its impact was hampered both by a reluctance of the state-security forces to change their security-centric ideology and by a neglect of the process essential to implementing it.

True, otsus has increased the amount of funds transferred from Jakarta to Papua’s two provincial governments (to an estimated at Rp 20 trillion [$1.7 billion] per year) - more than any other region in the country. Yet the two provinces are still listed as the poorest in the country; the World Bank and Indonesia’s central board of statistics estimate that 37% of the population live below the poverty-line. In the absence of adequate regulation of how funds are allocated, much of the money ends up in political pockets or in Indonesia’s notoriously corrupt construction industry.

The current Papuan provincial governor, Barnabas Suebu, has managed to distribute some of the wealth to the village level through his Rural Development Strategic Programme (RESPEK); although the usefulness and transparency of doling out lump-sums to village heads, rather than (for example) investing in education or health facilities, is questionable.

Otsus also requires cultural and political representation of indigenous Papuans, through the creation in 2005 of the Majelis Rakyat Papua (Papuan People’s Council [MRP]) and the reserving of eleven seats for indigenous Papuans in the Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat Papua (Papuan provincial parliament). But the actual ability of the MRP to promote cultural laws has been limited; and on 29 October 2009, on the fourth anniversary of the council’s inauguration, student protesters in Jayapura denounced its ineffectiveness and demanded that it be disbanded. So far, otsus has been incapable of becoming a vehicle for Papuan political empowerment.

In addition, a “unity and reconciliation” law passed in 2000 by the Indonesian parliament’s upper house provided for a truth-and-reconciliation commission (TRC) that would examine past human-rights abuses by the Indonesian security forces in Papua and other regions throughout the archipelago). This has still not been established, and the military and police remain covered in a cloak of impunity. With no checks and balances or self-criticism by the Indonesian security forces, Papuans are vulnerable to extortion and abuse of power by underpaid soldiers and police personnel.

The Indonesian army chief-of-staff George Toisutta stated on 12 November 2009 that a new military command will be set up in West Papua province (the northwest peninsula of the territory) in addition to the Cenderawasih regional command in Papua province). This inevitably will lead to an increase in troops stationed in remote areas who are able to abuse their power and cause misery for many citizens.

A new focus

Perhaps most disturbing of all about the years 2001-09 in Papua is that, despite a huge flow of funds into the region, little educational and health infrastructure has been created. The governor’s annual promises to grant free access to both these primary services have not been fulfilled. Children living in rural areas (and even parts of Jayapura) often attend understaffed schools that lack basic infrastructure, including electricity. Meanwhile, access to basic medicines and treatment is difficult at best; hospitals work amid frequent power-cuts, a lack of doctors, and shortages of up-to-date medicines. A lack of health education is prevalent, with HIV/Aids becoming a problem amongst the indigenous Papuan population. The provincial governments’ approaches to HIV/Aids - including a plan (soon abandoned) to install microchips in all HIV/Aids sufferers so their movements could be tracked - do little to educate people appropriately to the dangers.

These problems facing the people of Papua highlight the need to look beyond state-centric and historic debates revolving around Papuan independence or Indonesian security-ideology, and focus more on the material and development challenges faced in the region. There is a tendency, in Papua and comparable situations, to romanticise or denounce agencies of resistance; it may be more valuable to examine the everyday structures that lead to the economic, social and political disempowerment of an indigenous population. This in turn could become part of a much needed dialogue about how the people of Papua can partake in the future of their homeland.

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