Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Briefing / Asia 4 minutes

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

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