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Briefing 108 / Asia

Indonesia: The Deepening Impasse in Papua

The Indonesian government needs urgently to address discontent in Papua, its easternmost region, and recognise that the root of the problem is political, not economic.


The two sentiments that define the political impasse in Papua are frustration on the part of many Papuans that “special autonomy” has meant so little, and exasperation on the part of many Indonesian government officials that Papuans are not satisfied with what they have been given. The gulf between the two might be reduced by dialogue, but any prospect of serious talks is hampered by an unwillingness of Jakarta to treat the problem as essentially a political, rather than an economic one. To move forward, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono needs personally to take the lead in recognising that autonomy means more than increased budgetary allocations or accelerated economic development. He needs to explore directly with credible Papuan leaders how political autonomy can be expanded; affirmative action policies strengthened in all sectors; and Papuan fears about in-migration addressed. Unless these three issues are tackled head on in face-to-face meetings, the impasse is unlikely to be broken and increased radicalisation is likely.

Frustration and exasperation crystallised over a decision in November 2009 by the Papuan People’s Council (Majelis Rakyat Papua, MRP), a body set up under special autonomy legislation to protect Papuan cultural values, that all candidates for elected office at the sub-provincial level had to be indigenous Papuans. The decision stemmed from fears that Melanesian Papuans were being rapidly swamped by non-Papuan Indonesians who in some towns already were a majority. As one Papuan put it, “Every day planes come in, vomiting migrants”.

The decision, known as SK14, had wide support in the Papuan community and was seen as an example of affirmative action. It was also seen as a natural extension of a provision in the autonomy law stating that the governor and deputy governor had to be indigenous Papuans. In Jakarta, however, the Home Affairs Ministry rejected the decision as discriminatory and in violation of a national law on local government.

It was not just the flat rejection that irritated the Papuans who were privy to the process, it was how it was done: without any acknowledgment of the concerns behind SK14; without any effort to understand that “special autonomy” meant something different than the blind application of national law; and without any attempt to meet them half way. Jakarta’s reaction underscored the powerlessness of the MRP and the contemptuous disdain of officials toward its attempt to assert authority.

As the anger built, advocacy groups in Jayapura saw the issue as reflecting the deeper problems of special autonomy – in Indonesian, otonomi khusus or otsus – and looked for a vehicle to express those concerns publicly. In late May, they approached the MRP about holding a semi-public consultation that would evaluate its work as the end of the members’ first five-year terms approached. MRP leaders agreed, sent out 200 invitations only days before the target date, and on 9-10 June, hosted an event billed as a Consultation of MRP and Indigenous Papuans (Musyawarah MRP dan Masyarakat Asli Papua). About three times as many people showed up as had been invited.

To the discomfiture of some MRP members, the consultation produced eleven recommendations that included a rejection of otsus, a demand for an internationally-mediated dialogue and a referendum on independence, and a recognition of Papua’s sovereignty as proclaimed on 1 December 1961. The organisers then asked the MRP to formally turn the recommendations over to the provincial parliament (Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat Papua, DPRP) for further action.

The MRP did so on 18 June, by which time activists from Papua’s central highlands had organised thousands of protestors for a “long march” from the MRP office to the provincial parliament to symbolically “hand back” special autonomy. They held a second mass demonstration on 8 July to pressure the parliament to hold a special session to determine how to follow up the recommendations. Several smaller street actions followed.

Non-Papuan officials from the police and military regarded not just the demonstrations but the consultation as unlawful because the MRP’s role is supposed to be cultural, not political. Local intelligence operatives were almost certainly behind a slew of crude text messages sent to religious leaders, elected officials, academics and others across Jayapura, and probably across Papua, insinuating that those involved in the protests were actually raking in large amounts of money on the side. In the view of the security forces, the protests were neither legitimate nor sincere but they allowed them to go ahead as long as they stayed peaceful.

The anger over the fate of SK14 obscured several other political developments in Papua that are taking place simultaneously. One is Governor Barnabas Suebu’s Strategic Plan for Village Development (Rencana Strategis Pembangunan Kampung, RESPEK), an initiative to get block grants to local communities that can then decide on their use within certain parameters. Few Papuan leaders in Jayapura have anything bad to say about RESPEK or anything good to say about the governor, a directly-elected Papuan, whom they see as inaccessible and focused only on his own agenda. But it is almost certainly a different story in the villages where RESPEK has had an impact, and not all its beneficiaries would see eye to eye with the protestors in Jayapura.

The second development is pemekaran or the dividing of Papua into more and more administrative units: districts, subdistricts and villages. There is supposed to be a nationwide moratorium on this fragmentation but the centrifugal impetus in Papua seems too strong to hold back. Villages are dividing up so that smaller units can get RESPEK funds; the same impetus, combined with the desire of minority ethnic groups to become dominant in their own territory, fuels the creation of new districts. Twenty local elections are being held in Papua in 2010, one of the factors that prompted SK14 in the first place. The candidates have no desire to throw away special autonomy because it underpins their chance for political and economic power. There is thus a disconnect between the urban protests on the one hand, and local elite interests and village-focused development initiatives on the other.

That said, there are also widely shared grievances, over discrimination, unfulfilled promises and past injustices. The longer Jakarta refuses to discuss them, the stronger the radical voices will become.

Jakarta/Brussels, 3 August 2010

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