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The Economist: In West Papua Indonesian History Is Repeating Itself as Tragedy

July 1, 2012

The Economist
Issue cover-dated
June 30, 2012


The Last Frontier

In West Papua Indonesian History Is Repeating Itself as Tragedy

THE flight from Bali to Jayapura, in the Indonesian half of Papua,
offers a stunning view. The planes stop at Timika soon after dawn to
connect with helicopters leaving for Grasberg, the largest gold mine
and third-largest copper mine in the world. As the sun rises, a vast
expanse of lush forest emerges. From the air it is a vision of Eden.
But on the ground, these are dark days.

Ever since 1969, and a ludicrously misnamed “Act of Free Choice”, when
a decision by 1,025 selected Papuans was deemed an act of
self-determination accepting Indonesian sovereignty over the former
Dutch colony, simmering, low-level resistance has persisted. After the
fall in 1998 of the dictator, Suharto, and the flowering of Indonesian
democracy, the region was granted “special autonomy” in 2001 and
renamed Papua (from Irian Jaya). In 2003 it was split into two
provinces—Papua and West Papua. But Indonesia continues to rule the
region in the Suharto style, through shadowy parts of the security
forces. This year a spate of unexplained deaths has raised tensions.
At least 17 people have been killed since May. Jayapura’s usually
bustling streets are deserted after nightfall. Anonymous text-messages
warn people to stay indoors, recalling memories of previous

In Wamena, a sprawling town in the highlands, it is wise to take a
bicycle rickshaw, not a motorcycle taxi. The cyclists, calves bulging
as they labour, are native Papuans and know the way. The motorbikes
belong to the Indonesian migrants—from Sulawesi, Madura and Java—who
make up 40-50% of the 3.6m population of the two provinces. Migrants
own the shops, restaurants and building firms, and man the police and
army. Native Papuans sit in the dirt to hawk vegetables and fruit.
Women traipse in from the countryside with hand-knotted nets strapped
to their foreheads, stuffed with cabbages, piglets and sometimes their
babies. To the migrants’ disgust, some men still come into town naked
but for their penis gourds. The mainly Muslim settlers and mostly
Christian Papuans do not always get along.

Three recent incidents, above all, have contributed to the climate of
fear. On May 29th a German tourist was shot on the beach at Jayapura.
Activists link the shooting to hearings that month at the UN Human
Rights Commission in Geneva, where Indonesia was discussed. Among the
countries unusually critical of its record, especially in Papua, was
Germany. The suspicion is that parts of Indonesia’s security forces
want to show that Papua remains dangerous, blaming the Free Papua
Movement, or OPM, a secessionist group that has used guerrilla

Then on June 6th a ten-year-old boy was injured by a motorcycle ridden
at high speed by two Indonesian soldiers through a village near
Wamena. Angry locals attacked the soldiers, killing one of them. Their
comrades came back for revenge on the villagers, setting fire to some
of their houses. At least one person died. For critics of the army
this was a typical tale of its indiscipline, brutality and impunity.
Even after a video seen around the world in 2010 showed soldiers
torturing Papuan suspects, the three culprits received jail sentences
of just eight to ten months, for insubordination.

In the third incident, security forces in Jayapura on June 14th shot
dead Mako Tabuni, a leading advocate of a referendum on Papuan
independence. The police say they had reason to suspect him of recent
killings, and that he was carrying the gun used to shoot the German
tourist. Eyewitnesses, however, have said he was unarmed and doing
nothing more aggressive than buying betel nut when he was killed.

All of this is eerily reminiscent of the way Indonesia ruled its
former province of East Timor for 24 years. There, too, abusive and
mysterious security forces fuelled local resentment. There, too,
Indonesia divided to rule, stressing the fissures among the local
population. There, too, it would blame unrest on a tiny resistance
manipulated by foreign forces. In East Timor Indonesia tried to
contain unrest by closing off the territory. Papua is largely
off-limits to foreign journalists. Foreign NGOs—even those dealing
with an HIV epidemic spread by prostitution—are finding visas for
their workers hard to come by. Some feel pressure to leave Papua

Yet there are reasons to doubt that Papua can follow East Timor into
the independence it has now, as Timor-Leste, enjoyed for ten years.
First, East Timor’s legal status was different. Through the
occupation, Portugal remained, under the UN charter, the
“administering” power. Much as the outside world might have liked to
forget the problem, there were legal reminders of its existence. The
Act of Free Choice, though a flagrant injustice, was nevertheless one
to which the UN was party. Second, the Papuan resistance is not as
coherent even as the faction-ridden Timorese.

Third, and most important, Timor-Leste’s oil-and-gas income is
relatively modest, and started to flow only after independence. Papua
is already a treasure-chest. That immense forest is pockmarked in
places by isolated lighter-green squares, where the trees have been
felled and oil palm planted. And Freeport McMoRan, Grasberg’s owner,
claims to be the largest single taxpayer to the Indonesian government.
Indonesia is not going to part with such riches easily. It has
invested heavily in Papua, buying itself a corps of people with a
vested interest in its continued rule.

The SBY effect

Its rule in Papua is a reminder that Indonesia’s current president,
Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, was a general under Suharto, that the army
has not cleaned up its act since its atrocities in East Timor and in
the conflict in Aceh in Sumatra, and that, in some other respects,
too, his regime looks less like the repudiation of Suharto’s Indonesia
than its continuation. But Mr Yudhoyono enjoys being feted
internationally as the leader of a beacon of democratic moderation.
Papua may be the place where that image, already tarnished, is
irrevocably stained.


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