Papuan struggle enters new phase

The Papuan movement is acting with a new strategic maturity in its quest for autonomy, argues Jason MacLeod.
Jason MacLeod
26 July 2010

Protest in Papua is nothing new. Since Suharto was overthrown more than twelve years ago, every week there are demonstrations in Jayapura and in other cities of Indonesia’s restive Pacific periphery. There is no freedom of expression in West Papua. Students go onto the street and the police either or arrest or beat them. Often they do both, filling the jails with political prisoners whose only crime is nonviolent protest. But this time things seem different. Students are not the only ones demonstrating. They are joined by church pastors and NGO workers normally reluctant to get involved in mass action. Papuans talk about a new feeling in the movement. Even the various competing civil resistance groups – the Papuan Presidium Council (PDP), West Papua National Authority (WPNA), and the West Papua National Coalition for Liberation (WPNCL) – are working together towards the same goal: a rejection of Special Autonomy legislation, commonly known as Otsus, a package of finance, laws and policy introduced in 2001 to quell Papuan demands for independence from Indonesia.

Yesterday some twenty thousand indigenous Papuans, many in indigenous dress, walked and danced their way through the streets from Kotaraja to the city centre in Jayapura. Shops shut in the busy student suburb of Abepura and in the downtown business centre, unwittingly turning the march into a strike. Thousands more travelled by truck from Keerom and Arso near the PNG border and converged on the Provincial Parliament building in the capital, occupying it over night. Delegates from other cities travelled to the capital and/or organised their own demonstrations. Demonstrators completely overwhelmed police through their sheer volume of numbers. This is the largest civilian based mobilisation since the Papuan Spring of 1998-2000.

The occupation of the parliament building has been brewing for years but the plan took shape over the last month. On 9-10 June the Papuan Peoples Assembly (Majelis Rakyat Papua or MRP), a kind of rubber stamp Indigenous senate, held an open forum to evaluate Otsus. The conclusion was that Otsus had failed, or “totally failed” as Papuans emphasise. The reasons are clear. Otsus promised protection and prosperity. Instead torture and human rights violations by the security forces worsened, migrants continued to pour into the province, further marginalising indigenous Papuans, and the multinational oil, gas, mining, and timber companies (like BP and Freeport-Rio Tinto) continue to operate business as usual, safe in the knowledge that the military is keeping a repressive lid on boiling Papuan anger. As Benny Giay, a spokesperson for Forum Demokrasi Rakyat Papua Bersatu (the Democratic Forum of the United Papuan People or FORDEM for short) who organised the demonstration says, “Otsus threatens the existence of indigenous Papuans in the land of their ancestors. That is why we say Otsus has totally failed.”

Then on 15 June the MRP publicized the results of the public deliberations. On 18 June 15,000 Papuans from 7 districts coordinated by the United Democratic Forum of Papuan People converged on the DPRP to officially hand over the people’s decision. This was received by the deputy of the DPRP, Yunus Wonda and head of parliamentary commissions Ruben Magai, and Carolus K. Bolly as well as by other parliamentarians. FORDEM leaders demanded that were that the DPRP sign an agreement that they would hand back Otsus in no less than three weeks. Failure to do so would result in a mass demonstration on 8 July by Papuans from both Papua and Papua Barat provinces. This peaceful demonstration would “show the seriousness and determination of the Papuan people to reject Otsus” said Benny Giay. Yesterday the DPRP’s time was up.

In the past the Papuan movement has been targeting Jakarta and the international community, demanding independence. For years students have been asking others to give them independence while their own political representatives wait on the next injection of cash from Jakarta, and the majority of ordinary Papuans are too scared to take action. This time is different. Papuans are targeting their own leaders. And what FORDEM wants is a special session of the provincial legislature in Papua (the DPRP) to agree to return Special Autonomy to Jakarta. The goal may be more modest, but it is more achievable as well. Papuans are getting their own house in order.

That doesn’t mean it will be easy. Papuan political parties are banned. All the political parties represented in Papua are national Indonesian parties with their head office in Jakarta. Papuan political interests are marginal to elites in Jakarta. At the grassroots Jakarta may have lost its legitimacy years ago but Papuans political representatives sing to Jakarta’s tune. They get paid by Jakarta and the military keeps a close on eye them. If FORDEM can secure the DPRP’s agreement to hand back Otsus then Papuan noncooperation with Jakarta will be total.

Papuans understand Jakarta will do everything they can to derail and dilute Papuan demands including using force if they believe they can get away with it. The pretext for this will be to prevent a referendum on Papuan independence, Jakarta’s worst nightmare. A number of Papuan leaders know this but are under intense pressure from grassroots constituents to accept nothing less. But to push for a referendum now could mean risking losing everything else as well. The challenge for Papuan strategists is to secure tangible victories that Jakarta will concede to, but also one they can sell to the restive masses that have come to the capital to usher in independence. That could mean a re-badged version of Special Autonomy but one that includes concessions like opening up Papua to international journalists, releasing political prisoners, and ensuring there is freedom of expression.

Publicly, Provincial Parliamentarians are still refusing to meet with the protesters, although privately a block of ten have said they support FORDEM’s demand. This morning after negotiation with protest leaders police have extended the permit to protest for another day. As one protest leader says, “We have won one day. We are building the Papuan spirit to struggle.” Whether the Papuan protesters win their immediate goal for a special parliamentary session to return Otsus to Jakarta is not yet clear. But for now Papuans have won valuable political space.

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