Papua Shrouded by Misperception
Papua Shrouded by Misperception
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Op-Ed / Asia 3 minutes

Papua Shrouded by Misperception

The crisis with Indonesia over Papuan asylum seekers is over for now, but the core problem hasn’t gone away. Many Australians continue to see Indonesia as a giant jackboot crushing valiant Papuan freedom fighters; many Indonesians continue to see Australia as the secret patron of Papuan separatists. In the midst of these suspicions, some important truths get lost.

Papua today is governed by Papuans

The area that politically correct Australians call West Papua is split into two provinces, Papua and West Irian Jaya. Both have indigenous governors, directly elected last March in reasonably fair elections with high turnouts. At the next administrative level down, there are now 29 regencies or municipalities, every one of which is headed by a Papuan. These officials are not puppets: they have real authority and real access to resources, indeed, sometimes too much. One common complaint now is not that Jakarta exercises too much control but too little, and shows no inclination to exert any oversight over absentee or corrupt local executives. Former president Soeharto did a miserable job of providing basic services outside urban areas, but Papuanisation of local government has produced its own set of problems, highlighting the woeful lack of skilled civil servants and the pull of ethnic and tribal loyalties.

Papua is awash in cash

The annual budget for all of Papua for fiscal year 2006 is 4 trillion rupiah (about $578 million, far more than the annual budget of East Timor) for a population of about 2.3 million. (Non-Papuan migrants constitute about 35 per cent of that total, according to UN figures.) All this money, much of it made possible by a 2001 law on special autonomy, has made Papua one of the wealthiest provinces per capita in Indonesia, yet its people remain the poorest, with close to half living below the poverty line. Obviously something is very wrong, but it’s not clear independence would fix it. The problem isn’t that Jakarta’s hoarding the money; it’s that there’s no capacity to introduce development programs that work, or to monitor local government spending.


It’s probably true that most Papuans, if asked, would favour independence, as an alternative to what they have now: poverty, disease and condescension, sometimes bordering on outright racism from many of the non-Papuans they encounter, particularly in the security forces. But independence is as much the idea of instant prosperity and freedom from abuse as it is the creation of a separate state, and there is little to suggest that either the small guerilla movement, the OPM, or the radical proindependence student movement responsible for recent protests in Jayapura, the Papuan capital, represent the Papuan people. The challenge for Indonesia is to allow a genuinely representative body to emerge that can articulate aspirations and grievances, and ensure that both will be heard in Jakarta.

The Indonesian military is not genocidal

The Indonesian armed forces have a largely deserved reputation for abuse and rapaciousness in Papua, but over the last five years, serious human rights violations have become more infrequent and usually in response to the use of violence by others. The real problem is not so much widespread killing and disappearances but chronic, low-level extortion and humiliation that could be addressed by better training, fewer troops, greater reliance on locally recruited civilian police, and attention by the Yudhoyono government to the lack of military accountability. Not only do many Australians seem to see the Indonesian army as evil incarnate and incapable of change, but, in rooting for the underdog, they also tend to see the OPM as credible and somehow pure. It’s not: the OPM is no more a reliable source than the military in terms of reporting on incidents, often less, and its members are no angels they have also engaged in hostage taking and other attacks on civilians.

Indonesians have got it wrong, too. Those who blame independence activities on Australian incitement have made no effort to understand the source or extent of Papuan resentment, and the malfeasance of every Indonesian administration since the Dutch handed over responsibility in 1963. Yudhoyono has promised much and thus far delivered little. It remains to be seen whether his government, and the two newly elected Papuan governors, with significant resources at their disposal, can turn things around.

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