Mistrust at heart of Jakarta-Papua tensions

Mistrust at heart of Jakarta-Papua tensions

The Straits Times (Singapore), 5 August 2010


The long-standing discontent in Papua has been threatening to boil over for months but it was only last week that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono made a public comment on the issue.

He said his administration would conduct an audit of how government funds were spent and disbursed in Indonesia's westernmost province, where many claim that the special autonomy status accorded to the province in 2001 has failed.

Back then, Jakarta chose to assuage a pro-independence movement by promising Papuans more say over the province's development.

Almost a decade later, Papuans say things have not improved.

They point to high HIV and poverty rates, and the unrelenting pace of transmigration of non-Papuan Indonesians into the province. This move by Jakarta to solve overcrowding on Java has crowded out indigenous Melanesians, they allege.

In June, members of the Papuan People's Assembly, an Upper House of tribal leaders recognised by Jakarta, voted to reject Papua's special autonomy status.

There was no immediate reaction from the central government. Last week, Dr Yudhoyono tasked his Cabinet with looking into the issue, and said, as quoted by The Jakarta Post: 'There have been so many letters sent to me, as if Jakarta were neglecting the issue, as if there were not enough funds.'

Dr Yudhoyono's response is reflective of how Jakarta has dealt with Papuan dissatisfaction over the years. Officials have framed the issue in economic terms - arguing that there cannot be too much that is wrong when Papua is now getting the most money, of Indonesia's 33 provinces, from the state budget. It must be inefficient local officials who are not managing and disbursing the funds well, they say, adding that Papuans should hold their directly elected leaders more accountable.

Home Affairs Minister Gamawan Fauzi, for one, told reporters last week that Papuans receive the equivalent of 10 million rupiah (S$1,500) per capita per year from Jakarta, compared with about one million rupiah per capita per year on Java.

But as many activists - and the latest report from the think-tank International Crisis Group (ICG) - have pointed out, the issue is not one of money. It is about the glaring lack of trust and respect between Jakarta and the Papuans, which could be addressed through continuous dialogue between both sides.

Papuans have long believed that their value to Indonesia lies in the region's rich mineral deposits. But they also point to inherent racism and bias that non-Papuan government and law enforcement officials have towards them.

Said one activist to The Straits Times recently: 'Jakarta thinks that Papuans are stupid, primitive monkeys, something like that.'

Earlier this year, a group of Papuan politicians was reportedly left waiting in vain when they tried to get an audience with the central government. They had wanted to discuss implementing a ruling that would allow only indigenous Papuans to stand for local elections for high-level posts. The Home Affairs Ministry was reportedly against the move.

Jakarta officials believe that efforts like these are challenges to national law and Papuans have no basis for seeking independence. They feel that a dialogue could be interpreted as a sign of giving in to unreasonable demands.

The ongoing mistrust has frustrated activists like Dr Benny Giay, a religious leader and secretary-general of the United Papua People's Democracy Forum.

'If they could sit down and talk to the Acehnese, why not to us?' he said, referring to the 2005 peace treaty brokered in Helsinki after two decades of conflict between Acehnese separatist fighters and the Indonesian army.

The ICG report, released on Tuesday, offers a solid reason for Jakarta to engage the Papuans as soon as possible.

Militant activism in Papua - in the form of diehard independence fighters - has always been present. A strong military and police regime - arguably harsh and reportedly in violation of human rights - has rendered them relatively impotent. But it is impossible to rule out future mass uprisings in support of a referendum.

It would be unfortunate if the long-running issues boiled over and cast a stain on Indonesia's efforts to build a national identity.