Papuans' future an open question after failure of autonomy

Papuans' future an open question after failure of autonomy

The Sydney Morning Herald, 4 September 2010


A broad consensus is emerging in Indonesia that special autonomy for the country's fractious provinces of Papua and West Papua has failed miserably.

From military advisers to the President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, to respected think tanks and the indigenous population of the resource-rich region, there is near unanimity that the policy introduced almost 10 years ago to placate separatist sentiment has resulted in only deeper discontent. However, there is little agreement on who, and what, is to blame, or how to repair the situation.

As part of a dialogue to address simmering discontent in the region, the Indonesian government would have to acknowledge and apologise for the manipulated vote in 1969 that led to its inclusion in the republic, said the Jakarta-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, Sidney Jones, the author of two recent reports on the provinces.

Ms Jones warned that ''increased radicalisation is likely'' if reconciliation efforts are not pursued by Dr Yudhoyono.

Jakarta's failure to address human-rights abuses in Papua and West Papua, the two Indonesian provinces that make up the western half of the island of New Guinea, the continuing heavy presence of security forces, an influx of migrants, rampant corruption and persistent poverty are all undermining the ''special autonomy'' offered to the region almost a decade ago.

Violence has worsened in the past two years, and the Papuan People's Council, the body set up under special autonomy to represent indigenous values, decided to symbolically ''hand back'' special autonomy to the provincial parliament as part of a wave of mass rallies that took place in June and July.

Ms Jones said Dr Yudhoyono must begin talks as a matter of urgency, starting discussions informally to avoid ''posturing on both sides'' before engaging in a public reconciliation. New governing arrangements must then follow for the region, which remains the major source of separatist agitation across the sprawling multi-ethnic nation.

''They are going to have to address the Act of Free Choice and acknowledge that there was a manipulated process,'' Ms Jones said. ''An apology and an acknowledgement about it is needed to get over the hump.''

The region, with its Melanesian indigenous population, was initially excluded from the fledgling Indonesian state during negotiations with the former Dutch colonial government, remaining under the control of the Netherlands until the 1960s.

Western powers ceded to Jakarta's long-standing demands for the region's inclusion in the republic, but only after a United Nations sponsored vote of Papuans. Rather than a broad referendum, a hand-picked group of just over 1000 Papuans voted unanimously in the 1969 plebiscite to join Indonesia. The vote was widely derided as farcical and unrepresentative, and it remains a potent source of rancour among Papuans and their most powerful weapon in challenging the legitimacy of Jakarta's rule.

While Ms Jones does not advocate a new referendum on Papuan independence, or view it as likely, it remains a central demand of a coalition of Papuan groups and the Papuan People's Council, or Majelis Rakyat Papua, a body with authority to speak for the Melanesian population under the special autonomy arrangements.

Jakarta has declined to even respond to the demands. Even so, it may well be a disappointing exercise for independence advocates as the two provinces' population is now reckoned to be split evenly between the indigenous people and migrants from elsewhere in Indonesia.

Dr Yudhoyono, in his only concession to the unrest, agreed to begin an ''audit'' of the region's special autonomy next year.

Jakarta is dissatisfied with special autonomy because the Papuan provinces get more money from the central government than any other - $1 billion a year, or about 10 times more than provinces in Java - but have yet to see much economic progress.

A leading Papuan activist in the main city of Jayapura, Frederika Korain, said the special autonomy funds were going to non-Melanesian Papuans who dominate the economy.

''In some areas, all the shops belong to non-Papuans,'' she said.

Ms Korain said any reconciliation would have to be preceded by the end to abuses by Indonesian security forces, curbing the growth of pro-Jakarta militias and a sincere effort to give Papuans back their ''dignity''.

She flagged a continuing campaign of mass mobilisation by indigenous Papuans. While most are determined to pursue non-violent means to achieve their ends, there is a small but growing element who support taking armed action.