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Life is an everyday tragedy for Papuans

August 16, 2010

The Sydney Morning Herald, August 13, 2010

Life is an everyday tragedy for Papuans

Chris Chaplin and Carole Reckinger.

West Papuans and Papuans are not only fighting for independence but also to
live free of poverty.

While Indonesia’s continued economic growth, democratisation and peace in Aceh
have been praised by the international community, ongoing grievances in its
eastern most provinces of Papua and West Papua remain a tragic reminder of its
violent past.

The western half of the island of New Guinea has remained in a state of
simmering conflict since its inclusion into Indonesia in 1969, and the two
provinces remain the poorest in Indonesia. Aside from genuine and very real
grievances, Papua also suffers from a lack of constructive national and
international debate. International non-government organisations and advocacy
groups often view the provinces through a pro-Indonesia versus pro-Papuan
independence dichotomy, grounded in the controversial Act of Free Choice of

However, the reality is far more complex and, as the recent Papuan
demonstrations demanding a referendum show, are hinged on an interaction
between grievances, recent populist action and (in)actions from Jakarta.
Without any constructive dialogue between the demonstrators and Jakarta, the
above-mentioned dichotomy will continue to simplify and misconstrue the "Papuan
issue" which, in the long run, can only perpetuate the current cycle of

Last month, more than 2000 protesters occupied the Papuan Legislative Assembly
(DPRP) in the provincial capital of Jayapura. Despite requests from armed
police to disperse, these activists remained and continued to voice their
demands that the Special Autonomy Law, granted to Papua in 2001 be handed back
to the central government in Jakarta. This is a symbolic move showing the
Papuan rejection of a special autonomy law that they believe has failed them.
They want to hand it back to the authority that delivered it to them, pushing
it to take responsibility for the lack of welfare and development in the two

Such a protest is neither spontaneous nor "ordinary" but rather is the
culmination of populist moves initiated by the government Papuan Customary
Council (MRP) and civil society. (Civil Society is the best term to use, as the
media is quite weak and largely controlled by the military and police in Papua)

The immediate roots of the growing discontent can be found in a series of
events that started last year. In November 2009, the MRP, tasked with upholding
Papuan cultural rights, passed law 14/2009, which affirmed that only indigenous
Papuans were allowed to run for local regent and mayoral offices within the
provinces. The MRP decision has no legal basis, however, and only the central
government can decide to incorporate it into the special autonomy law. Despite
less than enthusiastic responses from the Papuan governor’s office and the
local electoral committee, civil society, in April 2010, was able to lobby
provincial bodies to delay upcoming elections to discuss the law. The new
popularity and cohesion between the MRP and civil society resulted in a meeting
in June that concluded that Special Autonomy (Otonomi Khusus or better known as
Otsus) had failed and announced 11 recommendations aimed at bettering the lot
of indigenous Papuans, most prominently asking for a referendum on

By asking to hand back Otsus the protesters have focused their grievances on
more mid-term relations with the central government. The Law was enacted in a
move to ease Papua’s desire for independence, and rectify some of the passed
abuses within the province. After nine years of implementation, Papuan civil
society seems to agree that it has failed to bring about the sweeping changes
it was aimed to inspire. While greater power has devolved to the provincial and
local governments and affirmative action programs been implemented in
government civil services, it has failed to address rampant corruption, abuse
of power, economic disparity between indigenous and migrant communities as well
as heavy-handed security actions.

Meanwhile, the political elites in Jakarta see Papuan political interests as
marginal compared with economic development. While Jakarta allocates Rp30
trillion ($A3.6 billion) to Papua it pays little attention to how this budget
is used. While Otsus has dissolved power to Papua, it has also created a new
indigenous political elite and rampant corruption. A prime example is Johanes
Gluba Gebze, regent of Merauke, who has ruled the regency like a personal
fiefdom with his own militia to silence civil society opposition to his rule.
Indeed, the recent murder of Adriansyah Matrai, a journalist investigating
financial irregularities in several government projects, signifies just how
open civil society is to direct intimidation and violence.

Poor governance is a major problem and likely to remain unless education is
improved. However, The Indonesian Institute of Sciences argues that the Papuan
education system is worse off now than in the 1970s, largely due to the closing
of church-run schools and a failure of the government to replace them.
Furthermore, despite the governor’s ambitious RESPEK program, a strategic
Village Development Plan where each village in Papua receives a block grant of
Rp100 million ($A12,000) to use themselves for community development, 35 per
cent of its 2.6 million inhabitants live below the poverty line, according to
the National Bureau of Statistics, against a national poverty rate of 14.15 per
cent in 2009. Social and human indicators remain far behind other provinces,
with poor health care, high rates of infant and maternal mortality and epidemic
levels of HIV/AIDS.

The recent protest is not impulsive nor has it evolved in isolation. Yet in
light of these demonstrations, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono
has made promising remarks by asking parliamentarians to examine the current
demands of protesters, a process expected to take place next year. Yet, in
order for such an initiative to be successful, it must include the MRP and
Papuan civil society. Importantly, the government must actively dissuade police
and security forces from violently intervening or intimidating the protest
leaders, as is all to frequent in Papuan history.

Indeed, what is needed is a new security paradigm that holds people and their
welfare as the referent object and not solely the integrity and unity of the
state; a shift that is duly needed if Indonesia is to live up to its democratic
credentials in its eastern most provinces.

Chris Chaplin and Carole Reckinger are freelance analysts and researchers who
have spent the past two years living and working in Papua provinces.

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