In an extraordinary media statement dated Monday 18 July the chief of the Army in Indonesian occupied West Papua, Major-General Erfi Triassunu, issued a very public apology to the leadership and congregation of the Kingmi Papua Church.
In the statement, a copy of which has been obtained by New Matilda, the general writes, "if I caused any offence to the Kingmi Papua Church I am sorry".
Reverend Benny Giay, the moderator of the embattled Kingmi Papua Church, and a subject of the general’s initial ire, said that "this is perhaps the first time in West Papuan history that an Indonesian Army Chief has apologised to the West Papuan church".
A copy of the original letter was also obtained by New Matilda who published an exclusive story on 7 July. The article was then republished in Open Democracy, written about in daily newspaper Bintang Papua and discussed extensively in blogs, Facebook and email lists inside and outside West Papua.
In the original letter (marked "secret" and dated 30 April 2011) Triassunu repeats claims made by representatives of Kingmi Indonesia, an Indonesian-wide church, that Kingmi Papua is a separatist organisation. In his letter, the general weighed into a conflict that he himself notes is an internal church matter.
The most disturbing phrase in the original letter is a veiled threat by the chief of the Army to take "assertive action" if the conflict between Kingmi Indonesia and Kingmi Papua is not resolved. What is implied here is that the Kingmi Papua Church must cease all efforts to establish an autonomous church in West Papua or risk violent retaliation from the state. It is these kinds of statements that can encourage Indonesian nationalist militias to take the law into their own hands, says Benny Giay.
However, in the three-page apology to Kingmi Papua Church, the general claims that the military command in Papua has never stated that Kingmi Papua is a separatist organisation. He also clarifies the meaning of the phrase "assertive action", insisting that he did not mean to imply "repressive action" but rather wanted to encourage the civil authorities in Papua to resolve the internal church conflict "on the basis of peace and mercy".
If true, it marks a seismic policy shift for the Indonesian Army in West Papua — news that will certainly be welcome to Giay. Kingmi Papua’s pastors have been killed at the hands of the Indonesian Military since they first occupied West Papua in 1963. Papuan Church leaders and their congregations across Papua are regularly harassed and intimidated by Indonesian security forces. Public beatings and torture by the security forces is also systemic in Papua, meted out on the basis of race and often conducted in public view, reports ANU based academic Br. Budi Hernawan.
While welcoming the apology, Giay urges the civilian and military authorities in Indonesia to go further. In an open letter to the Susilo Bambang Yudhuyono dated 16 July, Giay asks the President to guarantee Kingmi Papua’s right to exist. An apology from the chief of the Army in Papua after all, is no guarantee of religious freedom.
Giay maintains that the real cause of the conflict, whether between Kingmi Indonesia and Kingmi Papua or the Indonesian government and the Kingmi Church, is political and fundamentally connected to the history of Papua. To break the impasse Giay repeats the call for "dialogue" and an end to "stigmatising" the Papuan people for wanting to address the root causes of state violence in Papua.
Recognition of the right of the Church in Papua to speak out on behalf of the oppressed and to take nonviolent action in protection of their congregations is an acid test for freedom of speech in West Papua.
To date the Indonesian Government has failed that test.
While the general seeks to reassure Papuans that the Army wants to resolve problems on the basis of "peace" and "mercy", their approach has been inconsistent at best. Papuans are still not allowed to raise the Morning Star flag or sing their national anthem "Hai Tanahku Papua". Filep Karma, who has been sentenced to 15 years for nonviolent action remains in jail along with scores of other Papuan political prisoners. A press conference by the West Papua National Committee earlier this month concerning current military operations in Puncak Jaya had to be cancelled because of police and military intimidation of the both the organisers and invited journalists.
The Indonesian constitution ostensibly guarantees the right to free speech but it looks a lot like that freedom does not reach West Papua. Until that changes any claim that Indonesia is a democracy rings hollow.
For now, however, Benny Giay and Kingmi Papua are claiming the apology as a "small victory".
Whether that victory can be defended and extended remains to be seen.
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