Why Jakarta Needs to Pay More Attention to Papua

  • Share
  • Read Later
Muhammad Yamin / Reuters

A policeman stands guard as Papuans block the road to an airport in Indonesia's Papua province on Dec. 18, 2009

Rising tensions in Papua have Indonesian authorities worried about possible international intervention in the nation's easternmost province, reports the head of a government-funded study on how to solve the simmering conflict in the restive territory. "The government is afraid that dialogue [between Jakarta and Papua] will invite the intervention of a third party and affect the integrity of the Republic of Indonesia," says Muridan Widjojo, lead researcher of the "Papua Road Map," the English-language edition of which was launched last week. "If the government is afraid of the issue being internationalized then they should solve the problem domestically."

Reports of deteriorating conditions in the impoverished province, which ranks last of Indonesia's 33 provinces on the Human Development Index, are leading local human-rights campaigners to speak out on the fate of their resource-rich homeland. The province's special-autonomy status, which was meant to give greater political and financial control to Papuans, has largely been deemed a failure in raising living standards since it was granted in 2001. Papuan activists allege that the military is using agents to weed out critical voices in the press and sending in more battalions to protect vital natural-resource facilities. "The government has decided to use a military approach up until now," alleges Frederika Korain, formerly a representative of the Office for Justice and Peace in Jayapura, the capital of Papua province. Although torture of radical students and separatist sympathizers by security forces was no longer in practice, she told foreign reporters last week that there were "still rights violations, arbitrary arrests and detentions of Papuans voicing their opinions, especially the young."

In some quarters bitterness still lingers over the loss of East Timor, the former Portuguese colony annexed by Jakarta in 1975 until it voted to secede from Indonesia in 1999. But if East Timor has been "a pebble in the shoe" of Indonesia, as it was once described by a former Foreign Minister who had to deal with international condemnation of Indonesia's actions there, Papua could potentially become a boulder, given the disparity between the province's poverty and its massive natural wealth. Despite being home to vast copper reserves and the world's largest gold mine, operated by U.S. company Freeport since 1973, more than half of Papua and West Papua's 4 million people live in poverty and the population suffers from HIV/AIDS in greater numbers per capita than those living anywhere else in the country. "Papuans have no role in the modern economy," says Brigham Golden, a Papua scholar and a doctoral candidate at Columbia University. "The danger now is what happens when crushing disappointment falls on the Papuan population."

That disappointment is echoed in the words of the well-liked governor of Papua, one of two provinces on the Indonesian side of New Guinea island. "Quantum leaps need to be made if we are ever to find a breakthrough," explains Barnabas Suebu. "The local people are being marginalized so much that our identity will be extinct before long." Activists allege that the central government is doing nothing to slow the monthly arrival of ships carrying thousands of migrants from other parts of Indonesia in search of opportunity in Papua — the least densely populated area in the country. "The influx of migrants is a very big problem," says Korain. "In the cities, Papuans are becoming a minority."

The tension between aggressive traders from more developed islands and local Papuans, most of whom are poorly educated, is leading to increased conflict as faith in the government's ability to guarantee a better livelihood for indigenous people in this remote corner of the world is eroding. "The trust is gone," laments Suebu. "It is not zero, it is below zero." He estimates that the province would need a budget of at least $55 billion to bring it in line with other provinces. "We are still living in the same conditions as Java 250 years ago," he added, referring to the country's most populous and developed island.

Jakarta denies that Papua is becoming an issue of international concern, which may explain why it still remains off-limits to foreign researchers and journalists, whose movements are restricted when they do manage to get access. "The potential hurdles to [the central government's] diplomatic efforts would be on the mishandling of the Free Papua Movement (OPM) and the human-rights baggage," explains Foreign Ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah. The Free Papua Movement is a ragtag group of separatist-minded rebels in the province that the national police and military have been trying to eliminate for decades. "Essentially the status of Papua, as an integral part of Indonesia, is not a foreign policy issue."

Still, most experts agree rebels in Papua are nowhere near as strong as they were in East Timor, which seceded, or in Aceh, where separatist leaders reached a peace agreement with Jakarta in 2005. "Nobody believes [the OPM] poses a real threat to the overall security of Indonesia," says Sidney Jones from the International Crisis Group. Nor, she says, is money the answer to the province's problems; she says dialogue between small groups in Papua should be the first step toward larger negotiations with Jakarta. "Not even 500 trillion rupiah [$55 billion] will solve the problem if the people's dignity is not restored."