Adriana Elisabeth on the Conflict in West Papua

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Adriana Elisabeth on the Conflict in West Papua

Dr. Adriana Elisabeth on the roots of the conflict in Papua, the Indonesian government’s response to a recent uptick in insurgent activity, and what it will take to resolve the decades-long crisis.

Adriana Elisabeth on the Conflict in West Papua

A Papuan rises his fist as he displays “Morning Star” separatist flags during a protest commemorating the 50th year since Indonesia took over West Papua from Dutch colonial rule in 1963, in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, May 1, 2013.

Credit: AP Photo/Gembong Nusantara

On July 15, Indonesia’s parliament voted to revise and extend for 20 years the Special Autonomy Law for the provinces of Papua and West Papua. The move was greeted by protests in the easternmost region of the archipelago, where a separatist insurgency has rumbled since the 1960s. Dr. Adriana Elisabeth, a senior political analyst at the Center for Political Studies at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), spoke with The Diplomat about the roots of the conflict in Papua, the Indonesian government’s response to a recent uptick in insurgent activity, and what it will take to resolve the decades-long crisis.

While verified information from Papua is hard to come by, recent months have seen increasing attacks by Papuan rebels, which have in turn brought intensified reprisals from the Indonesian Armed Forces. What are things like at present in Papua, and what accounts for the increasingly tense situation there?

Historically, Papua has almost never been free from violence. Political and later economic grievances have led to repeated protests against state policy in Papua. Papua is very dynamic in both the positive and negative senses. Since becoming part of Indonesia in 1969, Papuan independence activists and the government of Indonesia have hotly debated the process of the region’s integration into the republic. Many Papuans believe that the process has been problematic because of unfairness and intimidation from the Indonesian Armed Forces during the plebiscite, held under United Nations supervision in 1969, which saw the region join Indonesia. On the other side, the government believes that the result of the plebiscite was legitimate, despite the fact that just 1,025 Papuans, selected by the armed forces out of around 800,000 people, voted for integration with Indonesia. Since then, Indonesia claims that Papua has successfully been reintegrated. It also takes credit for the termination of Dutch colonial rule in Papua.

More than 50 years since political integration, Papuan separatist leaders still haven’t accepted it. Their struggle for independence is based on the claim that the Dutch had treated or prepared them to be an independent state. Although the independent movement is facing internal conflicts, Papua is confident that one day its independence will be a reality. Of course, the ideology of independence makes the government of Indonesia and the Indonesian Armed Forces  feel very insecure. In order to guarantee that Papua will remain within the Indonesian republic, the government’s integration efforts have focused heavily on state security and military operations in Papua and West Papua, and this remains the case up until the present.

In the recent developments, primarily since 2018, the military has conducted operations in highland regions of Papua Province, where most of the rebel groups are concentrated. These have been focused are in several districts (or kabupaten) in the central mountains, most notably Nduga, Puncak, Intan Jaya, and Puncak Jaya. These have become war zones where the Indonesian Armed Forces and Indonesian Police have battled various Papuan armed groups. The ongoing conflicts have brought serious social consequences to the villagers living in these regions, many of whom have been forced from their homes into temporary shelters; some have even been forced to live in the jungle. Until now, many people do not know if or when they can return to their villages. They have been away, for example, since December 2018 when the armed conflict occurred in Nduga District, and since 2020 in the case of Intan Jaya District.

These are many unfinished problems in Papua that have not been addressed. Tensions and disputes are easily triggered, such as the series of demonstrations and riots that took place Papua and West Papua Provinces in 2019. The situation now seems to have calmed down, but there is the potential for social conflict based on identity between the native Papuans and non-Papuans. The tension between the government of Indonesia and the Papuan independence activists could worsen because they both defend incompatible and extreme positions: “undisputed part of the unitary state of the Republic of Indonesia” versus “the political goal of Papuan independence.”

Diplomatically, Indonesia advances a clear narrative about Papua: that it is the country’s own domestic issue. Thus, there is no chance it will allow any international intervention, including in the case of human rights violations. The government has formulated its regional policy towards the South Pacific, largely in order to defend its policies in Papua, offering aid and technical cooperation with Pacific nations in order to counter the unpopularity of its Papua policies. As foreign policy and diplomacy must proceed in parallel with domestic priorities, in 2001, Papua was granted a special autonomy status in an attempt to accelerate development in the islands through infrastructure (connectivity and digitalization) and human resources development.

Earlier this month, President Joko Widodo signed a law renewing the Special Autonomy Law for Papua, the basis of its autonomous status, prompting protests in various parts of the region. Despite claiming to empower Papuans, the law has clearly played a role in the unrest that the region has experienced since 2019. What does the law say, and what does its renewal mean in practical terms for the people of Papua? Why is there so much concern about it?

Since its introduction in 2001, there have been at least two problems with the Special Autonomy Law, or Otsus. The first is competing state policies and regulations in Papua. Otsus is not the only policy that guides the administration of Papua; there are other regulations from ministries, state or government institutions, which have different directives in Papua based on each sectoral function and responsibility. Problems come up due to difficulties not just in harmonizing regulations, but also in coordinating and synergizing programs, and monitoring performance of local bureaucracy in executing the main programs.

Second, there have been technical challenges in developing education and health services, and bolstering the local economy in Papua. This is especially the case in remote areas in the highlands and coastal regions, where most people live with a lack of public services. The process of improving access to education and health development has been challenged by difficulties in terms of geography and transportation. Moreover, access naturally becomes much harder in conflict areas.

Since the beginning, Otsus Papua was supposed to deal with these complexities, but it was not designed as a conflict resolution mechanism. In consequence, Otsus was rejected only a few years after its implementation in 2001, and dissatisfactions with the law remain. The pros and cons of Otsus show the growing mistrust, which is felt more and more deeply by many Papuans. There is a constant prejudice between Jakarta and Papua: any initiative or criticism will automatically be classified as hostile regardless of the intention.

The law signed by President Joko Widodo on July 15 extends the Special Autonomy Law for a further 20 years and embraces 18 articles, regarding new budget mechanisms and allocation, political representativeness of the native Papuans, women’s rights, customary institutions, economic development, etc. The new law rejects the possibility for Papua to have local political parties, as in Aceh. In order to ensure the acceleration of development, the government will establish a secretariat office in Jayapura, the capital of Papua Province. The implementation of the new policy is set to be synergized with the Presidential Instruction Number 9 in 2020 as technical guidance of development programs in Papua and West Papua Provinces. These will be followed by an action plan which focuses on education, health, poverty alleviation, employment, and sustainable development goals.

In order to elevate the quality of education, health, and economic development in Papua, there will be major “quick-win” programs in each region that could serve as pilot projects to be replicated across the whole region. The most important objective is to improve access to education and health in order to improve the Human Development Index of Papua and West Papua Provinces, which are now still much lower compared to other provinces in Indonesia.

As the Australian journalist John Martinkus notes in his recent book “The Road: Uprising in West Papua,” infrastructure development – particular the Trans-Papua Highway – has for many Papuan independence activists become a symbol of the central state’s quasi-colonial control over the region. What impact do you think these developments will ultimately have on the region?

Infrastructure development, such as the Trans-Papua Highway, airports, seaports, and digital networks, is one of the main priority sectors for the Indonesian government. They bring positive impacts in terms of interconnectivity from village to village, as well as from district and province. The other iconic infrastructure program connects Jayapura city in Papua to Wutung in Papua New Guinea, via the Youtefa Bridge.

The roads have connected people from remote areas to cities. Elementary schools have been built in almost each village, while for junior and senior high schools, students must go to other districts. For better education, students must go and stay in big cities in Papua or outside Papua. In the health sector, some subdistricts have clinics, ambulance, medicines, and medical staff. However, the quality of public services in Papua is often lacking; for example, there is a high ratio between students, permanent teachers, and the number of schools. The same is true of the number of clinics, doctors, nurses, and midwives, primarily in very remote areas.

Besides the positive impacts, there are also some negative impacts. Migrants from other parts of Indonesia tend to be able to utilize improved connectivity to gain more economic benefits than many local communities. This creates social jealousy because the Papuans mostly remain in lower positions on the economic scale. Another bad impact is the massive growth in illegal activities and social ills, such the distribution of drugs, alcohol, and HIV/AIDS, which have now reached into remote areas.

In regards to the independence activists, developing physical infrastructure is not compatible with their grievances, given their lack of trust in the government, so they do not want to admit that there is a beneficial aspect from the infrastructure. Given the incompatibility of their demand to be free from Indonesia, it is difficult to build better communication between the government and the Papuans, particularly with independence activists. Both continue to have very different narratives about development in Papua.

Papua is a region rich in natural resources. What role has this wealth played in the dynamic of conflict between those fighting for autonomy, and the government’s response?

It is both a blessing and a curse. For Papua, these rich resources will mostly cause problems rather than prosperity, although the state and the business sector – in particular, domestic and foreign direct investors – stand to gain a lot financially from the natural resources, especially in mining, forestry, and plantation (palm oil). From the local or customary perspective, most of the natural resources have been exploited by corporate interests, while the people, as the owners of the land, get only limited gains. Moreover, mismanagement of the region’s natural resources has created serious problems of environmental degradation and economic inequality. They have also become the source of violence or natural resource-based conflict, pitting the government (central and local) and corporate interests against local communities.

In order to ensure that Papua’s natural resources benefit all stakeholders, the government needs to introduce an integrated approach to managing them in a more inclusive and sustainable way. Integrated means that the government, as facilitator and regulator, needs to pay more attention to the various investment processes. It needs to conduct objective social and environmental impact assessments before starting business in Papua. In other words, conflict management in the natural resource sector in Papua must begin with a clear concept of responsible business. At the same time, the government needs to build a people-centered development program in which the local people will be the center of the process in the sense that they have also the rights to determine how natural resources will be managed.

Shortly after the assassination of Brig. Gen. Gusti Putu Danny Nugraha on April 26, the Indonesian government officially branded armed Papuan resistance groups “terrorists.” What impact is this likely to have on the situation in Papua in the coming months and years?

The general was the first high ranking officer to be killed in Papua. After his killing, the government of Indonesia quickly made the political decision to brand the separatist groups as terrorists. The tragic incident seemed to provide further momentum toward stigmatizing the armed wings of the Papuan independence movement as both separatists and terrorists. However, the root of problems of separatism and terrorism are very different.

Papuan separatism is deeply rooted in long history of violence that some link to persistent human rights violations. Traumatic experience or negative memory (or memoria passionis) caused by a series of conflicts have made Papuan activists believe that the best solution to their grievances is to have freedom and independence. Papuans have a strong Melanesian identity that they believe sets them apart from the rest of Indonesia. This political claim is also linked to another root cause of separatism, which is the question of economic inequality, and the economic gaps that exist between the native Papuans and migrants from other parts of Indonesia.

It is clear that the rebel groups in Papua have different characteristics from terrorist groups, although they are also conducting violent actions against the security apparatus and in some cases against ordinary people. There is change and continuity within the rebel groups in the highlands. Ideologically, the leaders aim to fight for independence, but some of their younger members have joined the separatist cause because they are unemployed or have dropped out of school. Their attitude is not always the same as older generations, and in some cases they are more militant. But compared to extremist jihadist groups such as Jamaah Ansarut Daullah, none of these groups should be categorized as terrorists.

There is no single reality in Papua. In terms of understanding the region’s history, there must be a chance to discuss and explore critical perspectives. With the current dynamics, there is also the possibility that everything or much has changed in Papua. Since 2001, for instance, there have been some successes in Papua, but many unresolved problems remain, such as human rights violations, while violence escalates and worsens. To prevent more from becoming needless victims, the Indonesian government needs to formulate a softer approach to deal with local communities, because dealing with people is a most complicated task. This is truly urgent if the government wants to gain the mind and heart of the Papuans.