Life is an everyday tragedy for Papuans

Life is an everyday tragedy for Papuans

The Sydney Morning Herald, 13 August 2010

Chris Chaplin and Carole Reckinger

West Papuans and Papuans are not only fighting for independence but also to live free of poverty. Photo: AP

While Indonesia's continued economic growth, democratisation and peace in Aceh have been praised by the international community, ongoing grievances in its eastern most provinces of Papua and West Papua remain a tragic reminder of its violent past.

The western half of the island of New Guinea has remained in a state of simmering conflict since its inclusion into Indonesia in 1969, and the two provinces remain the poorest in Indonesia. Aside from genuine and very real grievances, Papua also suffers from a lack of constructive national and international debate. International non-government organisations and advocacy groups often view the provinces through a pro-Indonesia versus pro-Papuan independence dichotomy, grounded in the controversial Act of Free Choice of 1969.

However, the reality is far more complex and, as the recent Papuan demonstrations demanding a referendum show, are hinged on an interaction between grievances, recent populist action and (in)actions from Jakarta. Without any constructive dialogue between the demonstrators and Jakarta, the above-mentioned dichotomy will continue to simplify and misconstrue the "Papuan issue" which, in the long run, can only perpetuate the current cycle of violence.

Last month, more than 2000 protesters occupied the Papuan Legislative Assembly (DPRP) in the provincial capital of Jayapura. Despite requests from armed police to disperse, these activists remained and continued to voice their demands that the Special Autonomy Law, granted to Papua in 2001 be handed back to the central government in Jakarta. This is a symbolic move showing the Papuan rejection of a special autonomy law that they believe has failed them. They want to hand it back to the authority that delivered it to them, pushing it to take responsibility for the lack of welfare and development in the two provinces.

Such a protest is neither spontaneous nor "ordinary" but rather is the culmination of populist moves initiated by the government Papuan Customary Council (MRP) and civil society. (Civil Society is the best term to use, as the media is quite weak and largely controlled by the military and police in Papua)

The immediate roots of the growing discontent can be found in a series of events that started last year. In November 2009, the MRP, tasked with upholding Papuan cultural rights, passed law 14/2009, which affirmed that only indigenous Papuans were allowed to run for local regent and mayoral offices within the provinces. The MRP decision has no legal basis, however, and only the central government can decide to incorporate it into the special autonomy law. Despite less than enthusiastic responses from the Papuan governor's office and the local electoral committee, civil society, in April 2010, was able to lobby provincial bodies to delay upcoming elections to discuss the law. The new popularity and cohesion between the MRP and civil society resulted in a meeting in June that concluded that Special Autonomy (Otonomi Khusus or better known as Otsus) had failed and announced 11 recommendations aimed at bettering the lot of indigenous Papuans, most prominently asking for a referendum on independence.

By asking to hand back Otsus the protesters have focused their grievances on more mid-term relations with the central government. The Law was enacted in a move to ease Papua's desire for independence, and rectify some of the passed abuses within the province. After nine years of implementation, Papuan civil society seems to agree that it has failed to bring about the sweeping changes it was aimed to inspire. While greater power has devolved to the provincial and local governments and affirmative action programs been implemented in government civil services, it has failed to address rampant corruption, abuse of power, economic disparity between indigenous and migrant communities as well as heavy-handed security actions.

Meanwhile, the political elites in Jakarta see Papuan political interests as marginal compared with economic development. While Jakarta allocates Rp30 trillion ($A3.6 billion) to Papua it pays little attention to how this budget is used. While Otsus has dissolved power to Papua, it has also created a new indigenous political elite and rampant corruption. A prime example is Johanes Gluba Gebze, regent of Merauke, who has ruled the regency like a personal fiefdom with his own militia to silence civil society opposition to his rule. Indeed, the recent murder of Adriansyah Matrai, a journalist investigating financial irregularities in several government projects, signifies just how open civil society is to direct intimidation and violence.

Poor governance is a major problem and likely to remain unless education is improved. However, The Indonesian Institute of Sciences argues that the Papuan education system is worse off now than in the 1970s, largely due to the closing of church-run schools and a failure of the government to replace them. Furthermore, despite the governor's ambitious RESPEK program, a strategic Village Development Plan where each village in Papua receives a block grant of Rp100 million ($A12,000) to use themselves for community development, 35 per cent of its 2.6 million inhabitants live below the poverty line, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, against a national poverty rate of 14.15 per cent in 2009. Social and human indicators remain far behind other provinces, with poor health care, high rates of infant and maternal mortality and epidemic levels of HIV/AIDS.

The recent protest is not impulsive nor has it evolved in isolation. Yet in light of these demonstrations, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has made promising remarks by asking parliamentarians to examine the current demands of protesters, a process expected to take place next year. Yet, in order for such an initiative to be successful, it must include the MRP and Papuan civil society. Importantly, the government must actively dissuade police and security forces from violently intervening or intimidating the protest leaders, as is all to frequent in Papuan history.

Indeed, what is needed is a new security paradigm that holds people and their welfare as the referent object and not solely the integrity and unity of the state; a shift that is duly needed if Indonesia is to live up to its democratic credentials in its eastern most provinces.

Chris Chaplin and Carole Reckinger are freelance analysts and researchers who have spent the past two years living and working in Papua provinces.