Protests have once again flared in Indonesia’s Papua region following last week’s renewal and amendment of a Special Autonomy Law that local activists say will increase Jakarta’s grip over the restive region.
On Thursday, the Indonesian parliament voted to revise and extend for 20 years the Special Autonomy Law for the provinces of Papua and West Papua. The day before the passage of the law, police arrested 23 students demonstrating against the law at the University of Cendrawasih in the provincial capital of Jayapura. Reuters reported that another 40 were arrested in Jakarta on Thursday.
Originally passed in 2001, the law was a response to growing demands for independence in Papua, the home of a decades-long low-level separatist insurgency. But many independence-inclined Papuans have opposed its renewal, claiming that it has been used to circumvent aspirations for independence while doing little to improve the lot of ordinary Papuans.
Indeed, rights activists and Papuan separatists claim that the revisions, which involved the amendment of 18 articles of the law and addition of two new articles, will further dilute critical aspects of decentralization and autonomy in how the region is governed.
“The unilateral decision by the Government of Indonesia to revise and extend the Special Autonomy Law is a flagrant violation to the right to self-determination of West Papuan people,” the U.K.-based human rights group TAPOL said in a statement Friday.
TAPOL said that Article 76 of the law paves the way for division of the Papua region into more administrative areas, which it said could lead to “further marginalization and militarization in the region.” Two sections of Article 28, which removed the right to form local political parties, were also omitted.
Benny Wenda, the exiled Papuan separatist leader who serves as interim head of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP), said in a statement that the law was tantamount to a “second Act of No Choice,” referring to the 1969 United Nations referendum that led to Papua joining the Indonesian republic that year – one that Papuan activists claim was deeply flawed.
For its own part, the Indonesian government claims that the new law will ensure affirmative action for indigenous Papuans in local politics, boost funding for healthcare and education, and ensure that more of the proceeds from oil, gas, and other natural resources remain within the region.
“We hope that this law will accelerate development in Papua and see Papuans prosper,” Home Affairs Minister Tito Karnavian told parliament after the passage of the law, according to Reuters.
But given the deep roots of the grievances that animate pro-independence activists, and the decades of human rights violations that have been committed in a bid to quash the insurgency, the passage of the amended law is likely to only further inflame tensions in the region.
Since 2018, Papua province in particular has become increasingly militarized as Indonesian security forces deploy in growing numbers to respond to attacks by the guerilla fighters of the West Papua Liberation Army and other insurgent outfits. In November, the regional U.N. Human Rights Office expressed its concern about the rash of violence and arrests that have taken place since 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 said.
Conflict has intensified further in recent months. In April, Papuan separatist rebels ambushed and assassinated Brig. Gen. Gusti Putu Danny Nugraha, the head of Indonesia’s intelligence agency in the eastern province. The assassination led the government to formally designate Papuan separatists “terrorists” and deploye further troops to remote parts of Papua and West Papua provinces. The campaign has resulted in deaths on both sides, dozens of arrests, and the mass displacement of Papuan villagers caught in the middle of the conflict.
In this context, the renewal of the Special Autonomy Law is unlikely to quell calls for a more substantial form of autonomy for Papua and West Papua, if not outright independence. In fact, if the protests are indication, they may even inflame them. Given the Indonesian government’s track record, a further militarization of Jakarta’s rule therefore seems sadly inevitable.