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Report 154 / Asia

Indonesia: Communal Tensions in Papua

Indonesian Papua has seen periodic clashes between pro-independence supporters and goverment forces, but conflict between Muslim and Christian communities could also erupt unless rising tensions are effectively managed.

Executive Summary

Indonesian Papua has seen periodic clashes between pro-independence supporters and goverment forces, but conflict between Muslim and Christian communities could also erupt unless rising tensions are effectively managed. Violence was narrowly averted in Mano­kwari and Kaimana in West Papua province in 2007, but bitterness remains on both sides. The key fac­tors are continuing Muslim migration from elsewhere in Indonesia; the emergence of new, exclusivist groups in both religious communities that have hardened the perception of the other as enemy; the lasting impact of the Maluku conflict; and the impact of developments outside Papua. National and local officials need to ensure that no discriminatory local regulations are enacted, and no activities by exclusivist religious organisations are supported by government funds.

The Manokwari drama, played out over more than two years, illustrates some of the changes. It started in 2005, when Christians mobilised to prevent an Islamic centre and mosque from being built on the place where German missionaries brought Christianity to Papua in the mid-nineteenth century. Muslim anger went beyond Papua; many Indonesian Muslims, newly conscious of the history of Muslim traders in the area, saw Islam as Papua’s original religion and found the rejection of the mosque intolerable. Local church leaders, seeing the reaction, believed they needed to strengthen Manokwari’s Christian identity and in 2007 drafted a regulation for the local parliament that would have infused the local goverment with Christian values and symbols and discriminated against Muslims in the process. It was never enacted but generated a furore in Muslim communities across Indonesia and increased the sense of siege on both sides. It remains to be seen how a new draft that began to be circulated in late May 2008 will be greeted.

It is not just in Manokwari, however, that the communities feel themselves under threat. Many indigenous Christians feel they are being slowly but surely swamped by Muslim migrants at a time when the central government seems to be supportive of more conservative Islamic orthodoxy, while some migrants believe they face discrimination if not expulsion in a democratic system where Christians can exercise “tyranny of the majority”. The communal divide is overlain by a political one: many Christian Papuans believe autonomy has not gone nearly far enough, while many Muslim migrants see it as a disaster and are fervent supporters of centralised rule from Jakarta.

In some areas latent tensions have been kept under control by pairing a Papuan Christian district head with a non-Papuan Muslim deputy, with political and economic spoils divided accordingly. That may work in areas like Merauke, where the migrant population has already exceeded 50 per cent, but is not a solution where the majority feels itself under threat.

Where the risk of conflict is high, indigenous Papuan Muslims, largely concentrated in the Bird’s Head region of north western Papua, can play a bridging role, particularly through a new organisation, Majelis Muslim Papua. This organisation is both firmly committed to universal Islamic values and deeply rooted in Papuan culture and traditions. They have a demonstrated capacity to cool communal tensions, working with their Christian counterparts. But the indigenous Muslim community is being divided, too, as more and more have opportunties to study Islam outside Papua and come home with ideas that are at odds with traditional practices. It would be in the interests of all concerned to support a network of state Islamic institutes in Papua that could produce a corps of indigenous religious scholars and reinforce the moderation long characteristic of Papuan Muslims.

Several mechanisms are available for dialogue among religious leaders in Papua, including the working group on religion of the Papuan People’s Council (Maje­lis Rakyat Papua, MRP), a body set up to preserve Papuan rights and traditions, but they do not necessarily have any impact at the grassroots. More effective might be programs designed to identify com­munal hotspots and work out non-religious programs that could benefit both communities.

Jakarta/Brussels, 16 June 2008

Briefing 139 / Asia

Indonesia: Tensions Over Aceh’s Flag

A dispute over a flag in Aceh is testing the limits of autonomy, irritating Indonesia’s central government, heightening ethnic tensions, reviving a campaign for the division of the province and raising fears of violence as the 2014 national elections approach.
 

I. Overview

The decision of the Aceh provincial government to adopt the banner of the former rebel Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, GAM) as its official provincial flag is testing the limits of autonomy, irritating Jakarta, heightening ethnic and political tensions, reviving a campaign for the division of Aceh and raising fears of violence as a national election approaches in 2014.

On 25 March 2013, the provincial legislature adopted a regulation (qanun) making the GAM’s old banner the provincial flag. It was immediately signed by Governor Zaini Abdullah. The governor and deputy governor are members of Partai Aceh, the political party set up by former rebel leaders in 2008 that also controls the legislature.

The central government, seeing the flag as a separatist symbol and thus in violation of national law, immediately raised objections and asked for changes. Partai Aceh leaders, seeing the flag as a potent tool for mass mobilisation in 2014, have refused, arguing that it cannot be a separatist symbol if GAM explicitly recognised Indonesian sovereignty as part of the Helsinki peace agreement in 2005 that ended a nearly 30-year insurgency. Partai Aceh believes that if it remains firm, Jakarta will eventually concede, as it did in 2012 over an election dispute.

Indonesian President Yudhoyono’s government is torn. On the one hand, it does not want a fight with the GAM leaders; the 2005 peace agreement is the most important achievement of a president who, in his final term, is very much concerned about his legacy. It also is unwilling to provoke GAM too far, fearful that it will return to conflict, a fear many in Aceh discount as unwarranted but one that Partai Aceh has exploited with relish. On the other hand, it does not want to be branded as anti-nationalist as the 2014 election looms, especially as some in the security forces remain convinced that GAM has not given up the goal of independence and is using democratic means to pursue it. The president and his advisers also know that if they allow the GAM flag to fly, it will have repercussions in Papua, where dozens of pro-independence activists remain jailed for flying the “Morning Star” flag of the independence movement.

GAM leaders see little to lose by standing their ground. The flag is a hugely emotive symbol, and defying Jakarta is generally a winning stance locally. Some individual members of parliament see it as a way of regaining waning popularity for failing to deliver anything substantive to their constituencies. Also, Partai Aceh took a controversial decision to partner with Gerindra, the party of former army General Prabowo Subianto, for the 2014 election. Leaders like Muzakir Manaf, deputy governor and former commander of GAM’s armed wing, may want to use the flag issue to show they have not compromised their principles by allying with a man whose human rights record is often questioned.

Within Aceh, adoption of the GAM flag has sparked protests from non-Acehnese ethnic groups in the central highlands and south west. The GAM heartland has always been along the east coast; to highlanders like the Gayo, the flag thus represents the domination of the coastal Acehnese at their expense. The issue has revived a dormant campaign for the division of Aceh into three by the creation of two new provinces, Aceh Leuser Antara (ALA) for the central highlands and Aceh Barat Selatan (ABAS) for the south west. If GAM does not back down on the flag, support for that campaign by the intelligence services is likely to rise, and with it, the probability of increased ethnic tensions.

The options for breaking the stalemate seem to be as follows: the government concedes; GAM concedes, making slight changes to the flag by adding or removing an element; GAM agrees to limits on how or where the flag can be displayed; or the dispute is taken to the Supreme Court, thereby delaying any resolution.

In the meantime, the power of the GAM machinery in Aceh continues to grow.

Jakarta /Brussels, 7 May 2013