Inside Indonesia's Most Secretive Province


The Indonesian state has confronted a number of regional rebellions across its vast archipelago during the more than 60 years of its existence. But it wasn’t until BJ Habibie took over as the country’s third president when Suharto was forced to resign in May 1998 that the central government turned its attention to three major challenges to the country’s highly centralised state structure: Aceh, East Timor and West Papua.

As is well known, in 1999 Habibie took the unprecedented decision to offer the people of East Timor a "popular consultation" to vote for or against autonomy, and in 2002, East Timor became the first independent state and UN member of the new millennium.

What is less well known is Habibie’s movement on the issue of West Papua. Aware of the growing influence of Papuan leaders after Suharto’s downfall, Habibie recognised the need to hold talks on the issue. These took place on 26 February 1999 between a team of more than 20 ministers and a team of 100 Papuans led by the head of the Amungme Tribal Council, Tom Beanal. However, when Beanal declared that "the Papuan people want to leave the Republic of Indonesia and have their own sovereignty", Habibie was caught unawares.

According to the chairman of the Papuan Peoples Assembly, Agus Alua, the Papuans also proposed the establishment of a transitional government under the UN and the holding of international talks. Alua said they were encouraged in their stand by a letter the previous year from the Robert Kennedy Memorial Trust to President Habibie complaining about human rights violations in East Timor and West Papua.

However, instead of regarding the demands of the Papuans as the starting point for dialogue, Habibie, while neither accepting nor rejecting the demands, drew the talks to a close, saying that he would "take these proposals into consideration".

According to the authors of a recent report, Papua Road Map, this was a missed opportunity. The breakdown in the talks resulted in a deepening mistrust between the two sides.

Papua Road Map is the product of several years of research undertaken in West Papua by academics at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences. It is of particular significance as it presents a rare insight into conditions in the only part of Indonesia that is closed to the foreign media and foreign NGOs.

The report points out that the key issue dividing Papuans and Indonesian nationalists is their sharply contrasting views on the history of Papua’s integration into the Republic and its political status. Whereas Papuans regard the so-called Act of Free Choice in 1969 as fraudulent; for Indonesians, West Papua is an integral part of the Republic of Indonesia because it is — like the rest of the archipelago — a former Dutch territory. Moreover while Papuans stress their ethnic distinction as Melanesians, Indonesians argue that their republic is "supra-ethnic", encompassing a huge number of different ethnic groups.

In 2001, West Papua was granted "special autonomy". This special status was enacted in an attempt to quell the growing calls for independence. However, the law lacked legitimacy in the eyes of West Papuans because it had been drafted without the involvement of local political parties and social organisations.

In 2003, under the nationalistic Megawati Sukarnoputri, a law was implemented that split West Papua into three provinces. According to the Papua Road Map, the push for this to happen came primarily from the Indonesian National Defence Institute to advance their involvement in enhancing military businesses in the Papuan economy. It was done without consulting the Papuan people.

Since then, the creation of new districts has continued, encouraged also by Papuans aspiring to head these districts. By 2008, there were no fewer than 37 districts and two municipalities. Those pushing for the new administrations have argued that it would facilitate greater access to local government for inhabitants in the interior — but it is far from clear that this has been achieved. What is clear, according to the researchers, is that the new administrations have gobbled up most of the funds allocated for development under special autonomy, to finance the construction of offices and pay the salaries of all the extra staff. It has also recruited many non-Papuans to fill office jobs for which Papuans are considered to be insufficiently trained.

As a prelude to its evaluation of the prospects for dialogue between the Indonesian Government and Papuan leadership, Papua Road Map gives an account of the impact of development in West Papua. Far from benefitting the local people, this has resulted in their marginalisation and discrimination.

For example, the education system is very unsatisfactory and has failed to produce Papuans with a decent level of education. Although plenty of schools have been built, there is a serious lack of teachers and school books. The authors conclude that education is worse today than in the 1970s, largely because the private schools which were run by the churches have been closed down, giving way to Inpres (presidential instruction) schools of indifferent quality.

According to a survey undertaken in 2006, more than 17 per cent of children aged between seven and 15 had never been to school — and a majority of these came from the Central Highlands. While the statistics would suggest that the number of teachers is adequate, they rarely teach at schools in the interior as most of them prefer to live in urban areas. Many head teachers in these districts simply don’t bother to visit their school unless exams are taking place. A teacher at a secondary school in Merauke is quoted as saying that she couldn’t teach children who had already graduated from primary school because they couldn’t read, write or count. In one district, there was only one teacher per 47 primary school-aged children.

The state of healthcare is summed up as being quite appalling, largely because of widespread malnutrition, a lack of access to clean water and the lack of basic medical facilities. Throughout the vast territory, there are only 12 government hospitals, six private hospitals and 213 clinics. Almost 90 per cent of Papuan villagers have no access to health clinics, most of which are only served by a nurse and a midwife. Availability of a doctor is regarded as a luxury, and for many villages, the nearest hospital is 75 kilometres away.

For decades, Papuans have suffered from life-threatening diseases such as malaria, diarrhoea, acute respiratory infections and HIV/AIDS. In 2003, 14,392 people were suffering from HIV/AIDS, of whom 68 per cent were indigenous Papuans. The number of HIV/AIDS sufferers in 2003 had trebled since 2000. And yet, only 8 per cent of the budget for the province as a whole is allocated to combating these serious diseases, while in the districts and sub-districts, it is as low as 2 per cent. "The government does not regard this health situation as being a threat to the existence of the Papuan people," according to the authors of the report.

The level of poverty in Papuan villages is also extremely high. According to the National Bureau of Statistics in March 2006, almost half of the villages in the province of Papua were classified as being below the poverty line. This staggering level of poverty must be seen to be occurring in a territory that is extremely rich in natural resources and is host to a foreign multinational, Freeport-McMoran, which is mining Papua’s copper and gold and is the largest taxpayer in the country. BP has also just begun to exploit Papua’s natural gas.

Since 2000, Papuans have advocated the need for dialogue on issues of both development and independence, but the response from Jakarta has been unpromising and there have been no moves in this direction since the talks initiated in 1999 by Habibie were abandoned. Right-wing Indonesian nationalists are dead set against dialogue, for fear of being confronted with demands for independence. In Papua, many newcomers from Indonesia would also not support the idea.

The reality of the situation now is that the two sides can each be said to be adopting non-negotiable positions. For Indonesia, preserving the unitary state of the Republic of Indonesia is regarded as non-negotiable, while many Papuans see their demand for merdeka (independence) as non-negotiable. Their position is reinforced by the continuation of military operations, resulting in yet more violence and suffering; violence against individuals, against ethnic groups, psychological violence as well violence in economic affairs.

Such experiences have only served to reinforce the Papuan sense of their own identity. While the perpetrators enjoy impunity, any actions taken by NGOs or the churches are condemned as being pro-separatist which these days can result in heavy sentences for "rebellion". Long sentences have even been passed against a number of Papuans for peacefully unfurling their symbolic morning star flag.

Dialogue should, according to the Papua Road Map, be seen as an "incremental process". In the first stage, Papua should discard the use of violence and armed struggle and Indonesia should undertake to ensure the speedy implementation of real special autonomy and demilitarisation.

Dialogue should then proceed through four stages: a national dialogue between the central government and Papuan representatives, dialogue between the Papuan representatives, dialogue within the Papuan elite who will be in charge of the political processes, and then international dialogue between the Indonesian Government, Papuan representatives and an international mediator.

While all sides will be crucial in achieving success in the dialogue, it is first and foremost the Indonesian Government that must play the key role in ensuring that the talks are effective. Special autonomy was welcomed enthusiastically in West Papua when it was first introduced but poor implementation has resulted in Papuans losing faith in the Government’s commitment to the law.

Papua Road Map has made an important contribution to efforts to solve the Papuan problem — it is now up to civil society in Indonesia and internationally to take this matter forward with all the commitment it deserves.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.