The United Nations has once again voiced its consternation about the tense political situation in Indonesia’s Papua region, after months of escalating tensions between the authorities and pro-independence activists.
In a statement dated November 30, U.N. Human Rights Office spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani pointed to a rash of violence and arrests that have taken place since the killing by separatists of 16 laborers working on the Trans-Papua highway in 2018.
“Military and security forces have been reinforced in the region and there have been repeated reports of extra-judicial killings, excessive use of force, arrest and continuous harassment and intimidation of protesters and human rights defenders,” the U.N. statement claims.
In particular, Shamdasani referenced a November 22 incident in which a 17-year-old was shot dead and another 17-year-old injured in an alleged police shootout in the Gome district of West Papua province. This came after a “disturbing” series of killings of at least six individuals in September and October, including activists and church workers. At least two members of the Indonesian security forces were also killed in clashes.
Indonesia’s Papua and West Papua provinces, which form the western half of the island of New Guinea, have seen a simmering separatist conflict since Papua was incorporated into Indonesia in a deeply flawed referendum in 1969. The Indonesian state’s attempts to quash the insurgency led by the Free Papua Movement (Organisasi Papua Merdeka, or OPM) have resulted in a perennial crop of extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, disappearances, restrictions on residents’ movement and freedom of expression, and even drawn accusations of genocide.
Despite its longevity, the situation in the Indonesian provinces of Papua rarely garners sustained international attention, in large part because the Indonesian government has made it hugely difficult for outside journalists and human rights monitors to gain access to the region.
Much of the recent discord has been linked to the Special Autonomy Law, which was passed in 2001 in order to give Papua and West Papua provinces more political autonomy and a larger share of revenue from the region’s rich natural resources.
The Special Autonomy Law is set to expire next year, and many independence-inclined Papuans have opposed its renewal, claiming that it has been used to short circuit aspirations for independence while doing little to improve the lot of ordinary people. In late September, police fired live ammunition in order to disperse crowds protesting against the Special Autonomy Law in Jayapura, the capital of Papua province. Demonstrators were also demanding a referendum on secession from Indonesia, something promised to the country at the end of Dutch colonial rule in 1962. Many were holding the Papuan national flag – the Bintang Kejora, or “Morning Star.”
The U.N. statement also pointed to the arrests of at least 84 people on November 17. These included Wensislaus Fatuban, a well-known human rights defender and human rights advisor to the Papuan People’s Council (Majelis Rakyat Papua, or MRP) and seven MRP staff members. The arrests came ahead of a public consultation organized by the MRP on the implementation of the Special Autonomy Law. Fatuban and the other council members were released the following day.
The recent violence is just the latest sign of the wide gulf separating the national aspirations of the Papuans, press-ganged into the Indonesian republic in 1969, and the central Indonesian government, which has battled a rash of regional rebellions since independence, and views each as a potentially existential challenge to the integrity of the republic.
As the U.N. rightly points out, there is an “urgent need for a platform for meaningful and inclusive dialogue with the people of Papua and West Papua, to address longstanding economic, social and political grievances.” Absent this understanding, Papua will likely remain one of Southeast Asia’s most sadly intractable conflicts.