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Papua’s response to the gift of Special Autonomy plus

Many Papuans are concerned about what the impact will be of the current president’s so-called “gift” to the province, ‘special autonomy plus’ or 'Otsus plus'.

Indonesia’s easternmost province Papua has long been the scene of political discontent. Former President Abdurahman “Gus Dur” Wahid restored the name, Papua, in place of ‘Irian Jaya’, the name chosen by former longstanding ruler, Suharto. His successor, Megawati Soekarnoputri passed what is known as the 2001 Special Autonomy Law No.21 (Otsus) as part of his plan to improve the welfare of the Papuans. Otsus is meant to transfer political, economic and cultural authority to the Papuans, the majority of whom however, regard Otsus at best as the pouring of an abundance of cash into the province.

What will be the legacy of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) for the Papuan people? Given the fact that SBY will remain in power for only less than a year, many Papuans are concerned about what his so-called “gift” to the province, ‘special autonomy plus’ or Otsus plus.  It is his gift because this regulation was proposed following a meeting between local leaders and President SBY on April 2013 in Jakarta. This regulation would modify previous policy dealing with Papuan issues in the political and security spheres.

During his 10 years in office, SBY has been undertaking a number of policies to solve Papuan problems ranging from poverty, education, health, and corruption to security. In 2011, in order to calm the growing distrust among Papuans toward the central government, SBY launched The Unit for the Acceleration of Development in Papua and West Papua (UP4PB). UP4PB’s main duty is to build a basis for sustainable development, in line with the aspirations of local communities, leading toward social integration. Another high profile programme is The Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate (MIFEE), initially aimed at providing sufficient food and energy for Indonesians. These two programmes have been amplified by a vast amount of money per year.

Such programmes and extensive funding have so far been ineffective when it comes to tackling Papuans’ basic problems, in particular, the aspiration for independence from Indonesia. Otsus plus was widely rejected by the Papuans themselves as one way to silence their aspirations for Merdeka (freedom), as can be seen from a rising number of social and student protests.

Internationally, the Free West Papua Campaign conducted by leading figures, such as Benny Wenda and Timothy Mote, have succeeded in raising concern about what is happening in Papua. On the local side, the Papuans regularly launch protests against the central government, but have been continuously muffled by the government’s security apparatus. This activity has been exacerbated by the central government’s tight censorship of international media over Papuan issues.

One crucial demand by Papuans is to set up a dialogue between Papuans and the central government. There are many contesting factions in Papua, but they share one ambition: the need for a constructive dialogue. Central government, however, will not accept the referendum which would be the logical end result of such a dialogue. The central government knows full well that its every single policy initiative in Papua has to be assessed according to the effect it has on separatist feeling. So, late in his tenure, SBY is trying to give Papuans more authority to manage their daily activities.

However, the majority of Papuans suspect that this is yet another trick to suppress the idea of independence. They have witnessed the fact that so far, implementation of special autonomy amounts to no more than the handing over of vast amounts of money that ironically end up in the hands of corrupt local political leaders, bureaucrats, and their cronies. In addition, Papuans see in Otsus plus an attempt to divide Papuans into several provinces, regions, districts and villages, without a strong political will from the central government to amplify the local capacity to govern.

Otsus plus is also seen as a covert method of further increasing the massive militarization of Papua.  After the military operation zone (DOM) in Papua was dismantled in 1998, the hope was that the level of militarisation would slowly decrease. However, the military presence in Papua has steadily increased. By imposing Otsus plus, Papua would be divided into three more provinces, giving the military the excuse to put more combat troops into each. This would in line with Indonesian army structural command. The army is able to maintain a presence and administrative structure that parallels the civil administration, from the provincial all the way down to the sub district and village levels – a presence extending deep into very isolated areas in Papua.  

The estimated combat troops in Papua are already roughly 12,000 under the Trikora Military Command (Davies, 2007 & Imparsial, 2011). With the enforcement of Otsus plus, each new region automatically gains its own military and policy company, and each further province gains their own battalions of military and police. Even today, military soldiers are more frequently to be seen in remote areas than the presence of teachers, doctors, and nurses. Deliberately or not, this fact will steadily lead to increasing clashes between the military and civilians. In addition, as is well known, the military in Papua has been associated with human rights violations.

The growing distrust among Papuans cannot be solved merely by extending the current policy. Otsus plus should be reconsidered. If the central government wants to build trust, there are two feasible solutions worth immediate consideration.  First, imposing a moratorium on pouring money into local governments until people’s representatives can control the use of the money. The second solution is to reduce the number of military troops in Papua. In doing so, the central government will create the basis for a mutual trust which is essential for a successful modification and implementation of the current special autonomy regulation. 

About the author

Hipolitus Yolisandry Ringgi is a 2012 Arryman Fellow and Visiting Scholar in the Equality Development and Globalization Studies Program at the Buffet Center for International and Comparative Studies, Northwestern University. 


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