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Papua’s plight

By Jake Lynch - posted Friday, 8 May 2009

Indonesia is heading in some promising directions. Triumph for the Democrat Party of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono - “SBY” - in the country’s parliamentary elections, endorses his achievements in office. Among them are the peace deal that finally brought a glimmer of hope to the long-suffering province of Aceh, and Indonesia’s ratification of two key human rights instruments, the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights respectively.

That these steps are taking place in the world’s most populous Muslim country shows that democracy and human rights are not incompatible with Islam, and confirms a welcome change of course since the repressive New Order regime of President Suharto.

There is, however, one significant blemish in this generally benign picture. The people of West Papua have endured four decades of subjugation, with no real sign of any improvement. Peace in Aceh, and the secession of East Timor, amid the ruins of Suharto’s regime in 1999, deprived Indonesia’s armed forces, the TNI, of two significant internal conflict zones in which to operate, since when the number of troops committed to West Papua has been remorselessly rising.


West Papua has now been sliced into two provinces. Suharto’s immediate successor, BJ Habibie, approved a significant degree of decentralisation in the country, and in 2002, West Papua was granted Special Autonomy status. One of the intended effects was for the province to keep more of the proceeds from the rich resources being exploited by corporations who reached deals with Jakarta. However, the proliferating levels of administration have ensured that much of the money is diverted to a burgeoning client class of bureaucrats, rather than being spent on genuine development.

One area in which development is sorely needed is in health services, especially by extending them to rural areas, where rates of infant and maternal mortality are shockingly high, and the spread of HIV-AIDS has decimated communities. Researchers from the West Papua Project (WPP), at Sydney University’s Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, gathered evidence of army complicity in Papua’s HIV-AIDS crisis, with officers profiteering from legal and illegal brothels, where inadequate health testing regimes mean the disease can rapidly spread.

Under a law passed in 2004, as SBY took office, the TNI are supposed to divest themselves of all their business interests by this year. However, an interim report by Human Rights Watch concluded a couple of years ago that progress was glacial. Traditionally, half the military budget or less came from government coffers - it was up to officers themselves to raise the rest. “The military’s money-making creates an obvious conflict of interest with its proper role”, said Lisa Misol, a researcher with HRW’s Business and Human Rights Program. “Instead of protecting Indonesians, troops are using violence and intimidation to further their business interests”.

The most notorious case, the report pointed out, is the protection racket the army runs around the giant American-owned Freeport McMoRan gold and copper mine, near Puncak Jaya in Papua’s central highlands. Protection from what, and whom? Peaceful protest against the Freeport mine, long the focus of discontent, has resulted in imprisonment, torture and extra-judicial killings. However, a second WPP report documented cases where the TNI was accused of provokasi, sending fake “independence fighters” into areas where it had not previously deployed, to raise the spectre of violent resistance, as a pretext for spreading its own operations in Papua.

Humanitarian crises

In the process, localised humanitarian crises regularly arise, with villagers, fleeing army units, taking to the forest in fear. Cut off from medical supplies and having left their homes and food gardens, many simply perish. The WPP report documented cases around the town of Mulia, which, it said, now “[stood] to be replicated across West Papua”.

The period leading up to the election was marked by a renewed upsurge in reports of violence. In spite of the provisions of the two human rights Covenants, the Indonesian authorities still clamp down, even on non-violent expressions of support for independence. At least 18 political prisoners are currently serving long jail sentences in cases where there is no dispute that their actions were purely peaceful, including merely being present when the Morning Star flag of the Papuan independence movement was raised.


On Friday, April 3, large pro-independence rallies were held in the town of Nabire and Wamena District, defying police attempts to ban them. A third rally, held in Nabire the following Monday, degenerated into violence, with nine demonstrators being shot and wounded. Paula Makabory, exiled in Melbourne, from where she runs the Institute for Papuan Advocacy and Human Rights, takes up the story:

Reports received from Nabire indicate that the violent confrontation that occurred on Monday the 6 April between the security forces and pro-independence protesters was actually promoted by a pro-Indonesian militia member and other Papuans working with the Indonesian security forces. The fact that there are reports that the Indonesian security personnel were positioned in [neighbouring] buildings, and armed, clearly suggests that this confrontation and the subsequent shooting and wounding of civilians was planned and staged by the Indonesian security forces.

This came shortly after rare pictures reached the outside world, showing genuine independence fighters, raising the Morning Star flag and vowing to die for their land, if necessary. The OPM, Organisasi Papua Merdeka or Free Papua Movement, arose in the 1960s to oppose Jakarta’s rule over West Papua, was quickly overwhelmed by the Indonesian military and receded to the sidelines. However, a film on the BBC’s Newsnight program showed them mustering significant numbers for the camera, filing through the bush and rallying at a rural highland stronghold.

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About the Author

Associate Professor Jake Lynch divides his time between Australia, where he teaches at the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies of Sydney University, and Oxford, where he writes historical mystery thrillers. His debut novel, Blood on the Stone, is published by Unbound Books. He has spent the past 20 years developing, researching, teaching and training in Peace Journalism: work for which he was honoured with the 2017 Luxembourg Peace Prize, awarded by the Schengen Peace Foundation.

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