Papua's separatist fires burn bright
By Sara Schonhardt
JAKARTA - Shootings, protests and violent attacks are on the rise in
Indonesia's easternmost Papua province, home to a low-level separatist struggle
and the operations of US mining giant Freeport McMoRan.
Security analysts warn of increased radicalization by groups that feel violence
is the only way to draw international attention to their suppressed cause. At
the same time, human-rights activists say arrests of pro-independence
supporters have robbed the movement of moderate voices.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), a US-based
rights group, says police dragnets of peaceful separatist campaigners could be
setting the stage for more
violence. "When you repress free speech and peaceful political campaigns,
you're just driving people into the arms of radicals," he said.
HRW released a report on June 23 that condemned the Indonesian government for
criminally prosecuting peaceful expression by separatists in the Moluccas and
Papua, where locals have grown increasingly resentful of Jakarta's perceived as
heavy-handed rule. The loss of ancestral land to centrally imposed development
projects has also stoked frustration and resentment.
Displaying symbols associated with separatist movements is a treasonable
offence in Indonesia; in Papua, arrest is almost guaranteed for those who dare
to hoist the Morning Star flag of West Papua. Protestors often wave it at
public rallies in the hope that an unreasonable police reaction will help win
their movement international publicity, says Sidney Jones, a senior advisor at
the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG), which recently released a
report on the radicalization of Papua.
HRW argues that governments can justify some restrictions on free speech when
secessionist movements pose a serious threat to national security, but the
rights group says that raising a separatist flag is not a direct incitement to
violence and goes against legal guarantees protecting free expression in the
In 2001, Jakarta granted Papua special autonomy status, which allowed
indigenous Papuans more control over tax and other revenues derived from
natural resource extraction. The central government has also committed to a
program of accelerated development and has worked to replace the military with
the police in handling separatist activity.
But Papuans still feel neglected, says Budi Hernawan, former director of the
Office for Justice and Peace of the Catholic Church in Papua's capital,
Jayapura. Around 2,000 Papuans marched there on June 18 to demand that the
government revoke the special autonomy they claimed has been ineffective since
local leaders remain at the mercy of Jakarta and have thus done little to
alleviate poverty and unemployment.
"While autonomy laws give Papuans cash, that is different from establishing a
truth and reconciliation commission that would look at the past," Jones says,
referring to the four decades of mistreatment Papuans have suffered under de
facto martial law.
Activists like Benny Wenda, an escaped political prisoner now based in Oxford,
England, are working to highlight examples of government heavy-handedness. In
2008, Wenda helped establish International Parliamentarians for West Papua
(IPWP), a group modeled on a similar organization that helped East Timor secure
independence from Indonesia.
The IPWP believes international pressure could eventually move the government
to address Papuans' demand for independence, and its members have provided
encouragement to militant members of the separatist West Papua National
Committee (Komite Nasional Papua Barat), or KNPB.
The KNPB is at the forefront of efforts to use conflict to achieve greater
sovereignty. Yet the vast majority of Papuans do not support violent means, and
militant groups such as the KNPB pose no immediate threat to the Indonesian
state, analysts say.
However, Jones says that rising radicalization is proof of the dangers of
ignoring political grievances, and it plays on government fears that
international pressure could eventually annul the 1969 Act of Free Choice that
led to Indonesia's original annexation of Papua. That concern would seemingly
explain why security forces continue to overreact to peaceful protests,
particularly when the Morning Star flag is raised.
"It's as though, after Aceh, the intelligence forces have gotten even more
allergic to separatist symbols," says Jones, referring to the long-running
separatist movement in north Sumatra that disbanded after separatist rebels and
the central government signed a peace accord following the 2004 tsunami.
The accord dissolved the military wing of the rebel Free Aceh Movement, known
as GAM, and its leaders were folded into the region's governing structures.
However Jones says that the military, or TNI, believes that GAM and its
supporters are still secretly working toward independence.
Papua remained under Dutch control for more than 15 years after Indonesian
independence from colonial rule. When the Dutch administration agreed to
support Papuan ambitions for sovereignty in 1961, Indonesia's then-president
Sukarno sent troops to the island to assert Jakarta's control and ensure that
Papua would not be granted separate state status.
The US sent a diplomatic delegation to the island to oversee talks between
Jakarta and Papua's Dutch administrators, and in 1969 the United Nations
sponsored a referendum, known as the "Act of Free Choice", to decide whether
the island would become independent. Because only around 1,000 Papuans voted in
the event, most Papuans feel the referendum was neither free nor
However, it's not only resentment of Indonesian rule that has fueled grass
roots support for armed guerrilla groups such as the Free Papua Movement
(Organisasi Papua Merdeka), or OPM, and the KNPB. Many Papuans are also angry
about the way the Indonesian government has annexed the island.
In particular, many deplore Freeport for exploiting the island's natural
resources and allegedly leaving environmental degradation in its wake. There
has also been a backlash to a scheme by Jakarta aimed at developing thousands
of hectares of privately owned land as a food-for-export plantation farmed by
Human-rights groups have long tried to document the litany of abuses that
allegedly occur in Papua, but the government continues to prevent journalists
and others from reporting on the remote island. "When it comes to politically
sensitive issues, the way they [the government] approach it is not that
different from the New Order regime," says Hernawan, referring to Suharto's
Current President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has won international kudos for
presiding over the country's impressive democratic transition, but his handling
of Papua represents a spot on his record. HRW's report shines new light on the
In particular, it reveals widespread abuses at Abepura prison, where an earlier
visit by the Papuan arm of the Indonesian National Commission on Human Rights
(Komnas HAM) uncovered more than 20 incidents of abuse from August 2008.
In May the prison warden at Abepura was transferred to Sumatra, a move that
Robertson says shows some progress. But the treatment of political prisoners
still stains Indonesia's broadly improving human-rights record, he says, noting
that the recent report has seen no response from Justice and Human Rights
Minister Patrialis Akbar.
The police force in Papua, which has now taken over most of the duties once
controlled by the TNI, has been working to differentiate itself from a force
that has been implicated in previous human-rights abuses. But a greater police
presence has also opened its officers to more criticism.
"The police's biggest problem is poor information and poor intelligence," say
Jones, who gives them some credit for acting with more restraint recently. The
police seem to have acknowledged that arbitrary arrests and abuse play into the
hands of separatist groups, and they've started to release many of those
brought in for questioning without charge.
Those who monitor Papua say that the current tension illustrates the need for
more discussion between the central government and those leading the
pro-independence movement. But many Papuans still view talks with the
government as little more than symbolic, aimed at giving lawmakers political
profile without actually producing results.
Some say reports like those issued by ICG and HRW will spark public debate and
help raise the issue's profile abroad. But Hernawan contends that Yudhoyono's
inaction on endorsing talks between Papuan separatists and his government sends
a message that Papua is not a priority for his administration - and that
provides impetus for more violence.
The daughter of Filep Karma, a separatist supporter who has served five years
of a 15-year sentence for organizing a peaceful rally, has spoken out about the
toll her father's imprisonment has taken on her family and his own health. He
currently suffers from a prostate illness, but she says that prison authorities
continue to deny him the medical treatment he needs.
That's why it's so important that these political prisoners are not forgotten,
Robertson says. "It's easy to do the right thing when everybody is watching,"
he says. "It's harder to do it in a remote corner that is discriminated
Sara Schonhardt is a freelance writer based in Jakarta, Indonesia. She
has lived and worked in Southeast Asia for six years and has a master's degree
in international affairs from Columbia University.
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