Why Papuan leaders went to the US Congress?

Why Papuan leaders went to the US Congress?
, 7 October 2010
Budi Hernawan, Canberra


On Sept. 22, 2010, the US Congress Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific and the global environment held a public hearing on the issue of human rights abuse in Papua. It invited key witnesses from Papua, the US and the Netherlands. This marked an historical event that allowed Papuan representatives to officially express their concerns before the house of representatives of a foreign country.

The question is why Indonesia’s House of Representatives and/or the Indonesia’s People Consultative Assembly has never conducted such a hearing? And, additionally, why is it necessary for Papuan representatives to go to foreign soil to be able to express their views?

The hearings drew various interpretations on the importance of the event. Indonesian Ambassador to the US Dino Patti Djalal made a public comment that only three congressmen attended the hearing and thus, downplayed the potential outcomes of the hearings.

Whereas various groups of young Papuans staged rallies both inside and outside Papua to express their overwhelming support of the hearings. Given the long sense of injustice that Papuans feel has gone unnoticed by the international community, it is not surprising that many Papuans on the street dream that these hearings might significantly change their daily lives.

These hearings might be considered one outcome of the deep impasse between Papua and Jakarta following the mass demonstrations held in Jayapura on July 8-9, 2010. These protests centrally focused on the wishes of the Papuan community to “hand back” the Special Autonomy Law (SAL) implemented in 2001. It is important to make sense of this event through the divergent perspectives of the key actors and organizations involved, as these perspectives are reflective of broader attitudes towards establishing dialogue between Jakarta and Papua.

First, various peace talk initiatives from Papua’s side have been established with key policy makers in Jakarta, beginning with FORERI in 1998. The response to this initiative was an official invitation from then president B.J. Habibie to 100 Papuan representatives to hold a dialogue with him and his cabinet.
This event took place on Feb. 26, 1999, at Merdeka Palace when Tom Beanal addressed the president expressing the Papuan aspirations to separate from Indonesia. President Habibie told Beanal to go home and think about his proposal. This event created a sense of euphoria among Papuans.

After this event, the central government seemed reluctant towards “dialogue” initiatives. Papuan civil society organizations, under the leadership of interfaith leaders, have promoted the idea of “Papua Land of Peace” since 2001, but this has not progressed, due to the lack of any significant response from key state institutions. Recently, the Papua Peace Network (Jaringan Damai Papua) established by the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) and Neles Tebay, promoted the idea of a dialogue between Jakarta and Papua. Similarly, there has been minimal positive response from the House, the assembly or the government.

Second, many victims of human rights abuse in Papua have continuously raised their causes to the attention of the Attorney General, the Indonesian National Commission on Human Rights and the Supreme Court at their own expense. The victims from Wasior (2001) and Wamena (2003), in particular, have been waiting for more than six years for their cases to be prosecuted by the Attorney General’s Office, let alone other cases.

Third, since the enactment of SAL in December 2001, both Papua and Jakarta have failed to put their trust and effort into implementing the law. For instance, the administration of then president Megawati Soekarnoputri created three provinces that contradicted the spirit and the letter of SAL, while it took some years before Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s administration issued a decree to establish the Papua’s People Assembly (MRP).

On the Papuan side, the Papuan Customary Council (DAP) handed back the law in August 2005, and the MRP recently did the same thing because it believed that the special autonomy (Otsus) had failed to address Papuan grievances. Moreover, the Papuan Legislative Council (DPRP) has failed to legislate the operating regulations mandatory to implement SAL.

In these three major issues, the role of the House and the assembly remain absent. They fail to address the aspirations of its constituents with any policies that would have guided the government and the Papuans. Of course, various House commissions have come to and from Papua to talk to various key actors on the ground, but such visits have not been translated into policy output.

It is not surprising, therefore, to learn that the debate has so far focused on the polarized sides of the central government and the indigenous Papuans. Such an elusive presence is not novel to the House and the assembly. During the peace talks on Aceh, the House was not able to provide adequate political and legal support to the government to address the issue. Instead, it politicized the peace talk for the interests of political parties against the government and thus, jeopardized the peace talks. The assembly was simply silent at the time.

This is the time for the elected members of the House and/or the assembly, representing Papuan constituents, to hold a special session with key actors discussing Papuan issues, similar to the US hearing. However, one might raise the question of whether such an idea is realistic.

The media has frequently exposed how many House members are absent or simply fall asleep during debates in the House. It also publicizes how the House tends to spend public funding for their own working facilities or the so-called “comparative studies”.

If this remains the case, it should not be surprising that Papuan leaders will again appear in other international fora to raise their causes.

The writer, a former director of the Office for Justice and Peace of the Catholic Church in Jayapura, Papua, Indonesia, is currently a PhD scholar at the Regulatory Institutions Network, the Australian National University.