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Papuan Fault Lines: Part III
Perilous Path to Special Autonomy
By John M. Gorrindo
Indonesian Correspondent
Papuan Fault Lines: Part III: Perilous Path to Special Autonomy

In the wake of World War II’s ashes Indonesia rose like a Phoenix, blazing forth in the vanguard of the new world order that emerged. It established itself as the first major colony to throw off its age-old yoke of servitude and in many cases, slavery. In doing so Indonesia inspired and became a leader amongst a fast growing number of new, non-aligned nations, most of which like Indonesia had been former European colonies. With the coming of the 1950’s, countries like India and Egypt with large population and ancient cultures now stood together with Indonesia as new and vital members of the international community.

Indonesia’s brand of nationalism was rooted in a five point philosophy embodied in a state ideology called the Pancasila. Core to defining the new republic’s secular nationalism was the Pancasila’s ethos of Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity) which acknowledged and celebrated the archipelago’s multicultural and pluralistic nature. The founding fathers believed that for the nation to succeed, Indonesia had to at once embrace its ethno-linguistic and religious diversity but at the same time seek to unify its vast array of constituent populations.

Insurrections and separatist movements that continually threatened Indonesia’s first quarter century of existence reflected the country’s vast regional differences in terms of ethnicity, language, religion, customary traditions (adat), geographical displacement, and historical ties to former Dutch rule. Though most parts of Indonesia participated in the independence movement, some regions were much less enthusiastic about the prospects of an Indonesian Republic than were others.

Indonesia’s struggle for suzerainty was first and foremost spearheaded in Java. Not everyone under the former territorial control of the Dutch was confident that rule in mainly Javanese hands as centralized in that more highly developed island would benefit them. The fear of Javanese hegemony was a deal breaker at times for even entire regions, such as the Malukus.

In the case of all those peoples subject to the Dutch in what was then called Western New Guinea, there existed split allegiances and significant disagreement as to who should rule the territory. This made the region no different than the neighboring Malukus. What did set West New Guinea apart in terms of common experience was the fact that very few of the island’s peoples- whether indigenous Melanesian or émigrés from outside- ever did participate in the Indonesian revolution.

Indonesia’s shrewd diplomatic persistence that played one Cold War faction off the other resulted in its successful wresting of control over Western New Guinea, or what Sukarno would rename Irian. In that victory of territorial dispute, Indonesia faced the long term responsibility to both develop and assimilate respectively the vast wilderness tract and its population of over three hundred ethno-lingual groups.

Four decades after assuming power in West Papua, Indonesia has fallen very short in terms of both these vital missions. And particularly for the thirty years Suharto’s new order prevailed, an isolate cloud both obscured any transparency as to visible progress to the outside world and hid the brutal repression visited upon many of the Papuan people.

There exists in many cases a gaping black hole as to what actually happened to the peoples of West Papua between “The Act of Free Choice” in 1969 and the passing of a Special Autonomy law in 2001. Even most hard line Indonesian authorities past and present would likely agree to the following observations, though:

The OPM, or Operasi Papua Merdeka, was formed in 1964 and began a sustained campaign of armed struggle against Indonesian security forces for an independent Papua.

After two decades of often violent resistance to Indonesian rule, Papua was declared a “daerah militer” (militarized region), and Indonesian security forces were given even greater authority to plan and execute military attacks against those Papuan groups considered treasonous, rebellious, armed, or otherwise threatening and dangerous. Military reprisals were taken against not only alleged freedom fighters but often by extension their home villages and families.

Human rights abuses committed by Indonesian security forces- including illegal detention, torture, murder (often indiscriminant and including women and children), rape, extra-judicial killing, and wholesale destruction of villages- have been widely documented since West Papua’s incorporation in Indonesia in May 1963. Legally they amount at least to a collective case of Crimes Against Humanity as defined by the United Nations in its landmark Law of Genocide (1948). That these large scale crimes have been committed with impunity and absence of accountability is even admitted to- at least in part- by the Indonesian government itself. President Megawati’s official apology to the Papuan people for abuses made it clear that many of the allegations made by numerous human rights groups such as Amnesty International, TAPOL, and the United Nations Commission on Human Rights were at least in part true.

Through powers of eminent domain the Indonesian state appropriated land from indigenous groups without honoring or considering customary land laws and traditions that had been in effect for in many cases, thousands of years. The mineral, gas, and logging rights of large tracts of government appropriated land have been leased to mainly foreign development interest. A fair return of revenues on profits was never distributed to local peoples. As in the case of the Freeport Mine, some tribal groups- much like many American Indians- were displaced entirely off their land and resettled in unsuitable and often unhealthy surroundings. Unfair compensation for natural resource extraction was a key negotiated term in the Special Autonomy law of 2001.

The rush to develop West Papua economically benefited only the Jakarta power elite, the Indonesian security forces stationed in West Papua, a small administrative Papuan elite in place, foreign business interests, and to some degree, transmigration populations. Leading indicators measuring quality of life for the vast majority of the one million indigenous Melanesian Papuans have in many cases suffered a reversal. This includes levels of income, health, nutrition, education, and job opportunity. On the whole, the original peoples of Papua have been discriminated against and treated as second class citizens. There has been very limited attempt to prepare them for assimilation as Indonesian citizens.

Irresponsible development leading to environmental degradation- especially in the forms of mining, logging, and palm oil plantation development- has been an ongoing reality of life in West Papua. For example, many countries- including China, several in Europe and the U.S.- have glutted themselves on cheap and rare Papuan lumber without giving proper attention to certifying whether forestry yields have been legal or not.

Unaccountability for the trillions of lost rupiahs in developmental funds the central government has poured into West Papua is due to negligence, cronyism, patronage, and corruption. Papuans themselves have participated in such activities, including elected officials.

Almost all humanitarian aid and monitoring organizations have been barred from entrance into West Papua. This includes the foreign press, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, and the International Red Cross.

One historical twist of Indonesia’s sixty-four year existence as a nation is that its inherent fragility when combined with its recent emergence as a democratic state has served to often shield it from human rights accountability in West Papua. Neither the United Nations nor most democratic nations around the world were eager to hold Indonesia’s feet to the fire on human rights when the country was attempting to throw off its militarism in favor of democratic principles. While a collective blind eye had been cast towards West Papua, East Timor was able to escape the same fate. But given twenty-five years of tacit U.S. support for Indonesia’s militarism in Timor it is doubtful the East Timorese could have gained international recognition and gain independence without the intervention of Australian troops which helped document the horrible civilian casualties and create a bridge of access for UN inspectors. Active international response made all the difference in East Timor.

As real politik gave greater priority to the Cold War between the Free World and the Sino-Soviet bloc rather than the nationalist struggle of West Papua during the years of negotiation leading to the 1962 New York Agreement, the West Papuan cause has continued to suffer low international recognition. Overshadowing has been the rise of democracy in greater Indonesia.

Internationally, with the Cold War having become an historical footnote, Indonesia could no longer take advantage and draw upon knee-jerk support from world powers such as the United States. Suharto’s fervent anti-communism was no longer a calling card that served as a blank check for military and economic aid from former Cold War allies. Indonesia’s rapid economic development had been made possible by a real politik that no loner existed. Once this modus operandi had been made void, the very foundation of New Order political economics shattered, the rupiah crashed, and a radical reformation was given birth. Suharto along with his New Order policies had run their historical course- or at least so it seemed.

State disintegration appeared on the brink as separatist struggles in Aceh, the Malukus, West Papua, and East Timor coincided with an economic-political crisis that toppled Suharto in 1998. In the face of these tumultuous events, the international community has been careful to help shepherd Indonesia’s turn to democratic governance and has participated in brokering agreements as successful in Aceh and East Timor. This includes forbearance of Indonesia’s human rights record on the part of the UN, and aid or loans of various types from the U.S., the IMF, and the World Bank.

Under great international pressure during the wake of Suharto’s fall, Indonesia conceded to East Timorese independence and suffered its first real blow to its self-perceived territorial integrity. Post-Suharto, the sudden democratic opening provided an unprecedented political space which was quickly crowded with long-suppressed demands from a bewildering array of interest groups from around Indonesia.

President Habibie, Suharto’s immediate and short-lived successor, ushered in this era of sudden liberalization as the Indonesian government felt compelled to redress many grievances on the part of not only limited interest groups but entire regions of the nation. In many cases good faith, successful efforts were made to initialize democratization in Indonesia. Aceh and West Papua were of special concern as both provinces had long standing histories of disaffection and armed independence struggle against the Indonesian state.

The fall of Suharto meant the fall of some key New Order policies- at least temporarily. The harsh repression Suharto used to counter separatism in both Aceh and West Papua had only served to further polarize- creating growing body counts and exacerbating hostilities. Shaken by the loss of a twenty-five year old war in East Timor, Indonesia’s government began to contemplate more peaceful alternatives in both Aceh and West Papua. The loss of East Timor resurrected Jakarta’s greatest fear- balkanization of the archipelago. With little show for it, military means had unilaterally failed, having left some 200,000 dead in East Timor (most of them civilian), 35,000 fatalities in Aceh, and undetermined thousands swept away in West Papuan violence. For the first time in its short history, a shell-shocked Indonesia began to show signs of shirking off a uniform militarist approach to regional separatism as it finally began mounting peace initiatives through diplomacy.

Following Suharto, the three brief presidencies of Habibie, Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur), and Megawati Sukarnoputri struggled with pacification of separatist forces within the country and Special Autonomy was offered both Aceh and West Papua. The 2004 tsunami dealt such large scale destruction that Acehnese separatists and the Indonesian government were mutually compelled to come to terms. The implementation of that agreement has moved forward in significant degree satisfactorily for the Acehnese. During Megawati’s presidency, the West Papuans were handed their own version of Special Autonomy, known as the OTUS agreement of 2001.

In principle and on paper, OTUS initially held out great hope. The main provisions as follows coincide in most part to the list of grievances already previously enumerated:

1. Revenue Sharing: Seventy to eighty percent of revenues generated from natural resource extraction will be given back to the province.

2. A truth and reconciliation process will be established in order to clarify the grievances surrounding West Papua’s incorporation into the state of Indonesia.

3. The Indonesian government will establish special courts and a provincial rights commission to review human rights policies and grievances.

4. The Indonesian government will recognize customary land rights as practiced by the Papuans and oblige land use operators to negotiate terms of use with traditional landowners.

5. Comprised of adat communities, women’s organizations, and religious institutions in equal number to be representatively elected, OTUS mandates the establishment of the Papuan People’s Assembly (MRP). MRP will be legally granted the power to review and hold veto authority over the selection of candidates for governor as well as reviewing government policy that effect indigenous communities.

Ethnic and indigenous rights were finally given official recognition by Jakarta, but Indonesia was not willing to concede maintaining a strong security apparatus in the province. Most pro-independence activities were still to be considered illegal if not treasonous. This included seditious acts such as raising the Morning Glory flag.

Jakarta also conceded the need for creating new Papuan institutions which would better involve discrete Papuan interests, including intellectuals, political officials, and even some activists.

But seven years after the signing into law of the OTUS agreement, few concerned observers in Jakarta, Papua or the greater international community consider the thrust of OTUS to have made any substantial beneficial difference in West Papuan’s lives. Many of the same grievances are on the table, especially concerning fair compensation for natural resource development and human rights.

In Part IV of this series, a closer look at current conditions inside West Papua as referenced by the OTUS agreement will be explored.

NOTE: This article is part of a series. Part IV is soon to follow

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Mr. John M. Gorrindo, who serves as an Indonesian correspondent for The Seoul Times, is a native-born Californian. As holder of a MA degree in music composition from the University of California, he made Manado, North Sulawesi, Indonesia his home after serving as a volunteer English teacher there. He also a writes fictions and composes music. Some of his writings and music can be found at Fringing reefs and Vertical Walls:






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