Papua's separatist fires burn bright

Papua's separatist fires burn bright
Asia Times, 24 June 2010


JAKARTA - Shootings, protests and violent attacks are on the rise in Indonesia's easternmost Papua province, home to a low-level separatist struggle and the operations of US mining giant Freeport McMoRan.

Security analysts warn of increased radicalization by groups that feel violence is the only way to draw international attention to their suppressed cause. At the same time, human-rights activists say arrests of pro-independence supporters have robbed the movement of moderate voices.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), a US-based rights group, says police dragnets of peaceful separatist campaigners could be setting the stage for more violence. "When you repress free speech and peaceful political campaigns, you're just driving people into the arms of radicals," he said.

HRW released a report on June 23 that condemned the Indonesian government for criminally prosecuting peaceful expression by separatists in the Moluccas and Papua, where locals have grown increasingly resentful of Jakarta's perceived as heavy-handed rule. The loss of ancestral land to centrally imposed development projects has also stoked frustration and resentment.

Displaying symbols associated with separatist movements is a treasonable offence in Indonesia; in Papua, arrest is almost guaranteed for those who dare to hoist the Morning Star flag of West Papua. Protestors often wave it at public rallies in the hope that an unreasonable police reaction will help win their movement international publicity, says Sidney Jones, a senior advisor at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG), which recently released a report on the radicalization of Papua.

HRW argues that governments can justify some restrictions on free speech when secessionist movements pose a serious threat to national security, but the rights group says that raising a separatist flag is not a direct incitement to violence and goes against legal guarantees protecting free expression in the Indonesian constitution.

In 2001, Jakarta granted Papua special autonomy status, which allowed indigenous Papuans more control over tax and other revenues derived from natural resource extraction. The central government has also committed to a program of accelerated development and has worked to replace the military with the police in handling separatist activity.

But Papuans still feel neglected, says Budi Hernawan, former director of the Office for Justice and Peace of the Catholic Church in Papua's capital, Jayapura. Around 2,000 Papuans marched there on June 18 to demand that the government revoke the special autonomy they claimed has been ineffective since local leaders remain at the mercy of Jakarta and have thus done little to alleviate poverty and unemployment.

"While autonomy laws give Papuans cash, that is different from establishing a truth and reconciliation commission that would look at the past," Jones says, referring to the four decades of mistreatment Papuans have suffered under de facto martial law.

Official sensitivities
Activists like Benny Wenda, an escaped political prisoner now based in Oxford, England, are working to highlight examples of government heavy-handedness. In 2008, Wenda helped establish International Parliamentarians for West Papua (IPWP), a group modeled on a similar organization that helped East Timor secure independence from Indonesia.

The IPWP believes international pressure could eventually move the government to address Papuans' demand for independence, and its members have provided encouragement to militant members of the separatist West Papua National Committee (Komite Nasional Papua Barat), or KNPB.

The KNPB is at the forefront of efforts to use conflict to achieve greater sovereignty. Yet the vast majority of Papuans do not support violent means, and militant groups such as the KNPB pose no immediate threat to the Indonesian state, analysts say.

However, Jones says that rising radicalization is proof of the dangers of ignoring political grievances, and it plays on government fears that international pressure could eventually annul the 1969 Act of Free Choice that led to Indonesia's original annexation of Papua. That concern would seemingly explain why security forces continue to overreact to peaceful protests, particularly when the Morning Star flag is raised.

"It's as though, after Aceh, the intelligence forces have gotten even more allergic to separatist symbols," says Jones, referring to the long-running separatist movement in north Sumatra that disbanded after separatist rebels and the central government signed a peace accord following the 2004 tsunami.

The accord dissolved the military wing of the rebel Free Aceh Movement, known as GAM, and its leaders were folded into the region's governing structures. However Jones says that the military, or TNI, believes that GAM and its supporters are still secretly working toward independence.

Papua remained under Dutch control for more than 15 years after Indonesian independence from colonial rule. When the Dutch administration agreed to support Papuan ambitions for sovereignty in 1961, Indonesia's then-president Sukarno sent troops to the island to assert Jakarta's control and ensure that Papua would not be granted separate state status.

The US sent a diplomatic delegation to the island to oversee talks between Jakarta and Papua's Dutch administrators, and in 1969 the United Nations sponsored a referendum, known as the "Act of Free Choice", to decide whether the island would become independent. Because only around 1,000 Papuans voted in the event, most Papuans feel the referendum was neither free nor representative.

However, it's not only resentment of Indonesian rule that has fueled grass roots support for armed guerrilla groups such as the Free Papua Movement (Organisasi Papua Merdeka), or OPM, and the KNPB. Many Papuans are also angry about the way the Indonesian government has annexed the island.

In particular, many deplore Freeport for exploiting the island's natural resources and allegedly leaving environmental degradation in its wake. There has also been a backlash to a scheme by Jakarta aimed at developing thousands of hectares of privately owned land as a food-for-export plantation farmed by non-Papuans.

Human-rights groups have long tried to document the litany of abuses that allegedly occur in Papua, but the government continues to prevent journalists and others from reporting on the remote island. "When it comes to politically sensitive issues, the way they [the government] approach it is not that different from the New Order regime," says Hernawan, referring to Suharto's autocratic regime.

Current President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has won international kudos for presiding over the country's impressive democratic transition, but his handling of Papua represents a spot on his record. HRW's report shines new light on the deteriorating situation.

In particular, it reveals widespread abuses at Abepura prison, where an earlier visit by the Papuan arm of the Indonesian National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) uncovered more than 20 incidents of abuse from August 2008.

In May the prison warden at Abepura was transferred to Sumatra, a move that Robertson says shows some progress. But the treatment of political prisoners still stains Indonesia's broadly improving human-rights record, he says, noting that the recent report has seen no response from Justice and Human Rights Minister Patrialis Akbar.

The police force in Papua, which has now taken over most of the duties once controlled by the TNI, has been working to differentiate itself from a force that has been implicated in previous human-rights abuses. But a greater police presence has also opened its officers to more criticism.

"The police's biggest problem is poor information and poor intelligence," say Jones, who gives them some credit for acting with more restraint recently. The police seem to have acknowledged that arbitrary arrests and abuse play into the hands of separatist groups, and they've started to release many of those brought in for questioning without charge.

Those who monitor Papua say that the current tension illustrates the need for more discussion between the central government and those leading the pro-independence movement. But many Papuans still view talks with the government as little more than symbolic, aimed at giving lawmakers political profile without actually producing results.

Some say reports like those issued by ICG and HRW will spark public debate and help raise the issue's profile abroad. But Hernawan contends that Yudhoyono's inaction on endorsing talks between Papuan separatists and his government sends a message that Papua is not a priority for his administration - and that provides impetus for more violence.

The daughter of Filep Karma, a separatist supporter who has served five years of a 15-year sentence for organizing a peaceful rally, has spoken out about the toll her father's imprisonment has taken on her family and his own health. He currently suffers from a prostate illness, but she says that prison authorities continue to deny him the medical treatment he needs.

That's why it's so important that these political prisoners are not forgotten, Robertson says. "It's easy to do the right thing when everybody is watching," he says. "It's harder to do it in a remote corner that is discriminated against."

Sara Schonhardt is a freelance writer based in Jakarta, Indonesia. She has lived and worked in Southeast Asia for six years and has a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University.