Thursday, June 28, 2012

In West Papua Indonesian History Is Repeating Itself as Tragedy

THE flight from Bali to Jayapura, in the Indonesian half of Papua, offers a stunning view. The planes stop at Timika soon after dawn to connect with helicopters leaving for Grasberg, the largest gold mine and third-largest copper mine in the world. As the sun rises, a vast expanse of lush forest emerges. From the air it is a vision of Eden.

But on the ground, these are dark days.

Ever since 1969, and a ludicrously misnamed “Act of Free Choice”, when a decision by 1,025 selected Papuans was deemed an act of self-determination accepting Indonesian sovereignty over the former Dutch colony, simmering, low-level resistance has persisted. After the fall in 1998 of the dictator, Suharto, and the flowering of Indonesian democracy, the region was granted “special autonomy” in 2001 and renamed Papua (from Irian Jaya). In 2003 it was split into two provinces—Papua and West Papua. But Indonesia continues to rule the region in the Suharto style, through shadowy parts of the security forces. This year a spate of unexplained deaths has raised tensions. At least 17 people have been killed since May. Jayapura’s usually bustling streets are deserted after nightfall. Anonymous text-messages warn people to stay indoors, recalling memories of previous crackdowns. 

In Wamena, a sprawling town in the highlands, it is wise to take a bicycle rickshaw, not a motorcycle taxi. The cyclists, calves bulging as they labour, are native Papuans and know the way. The motorbikes belong to the Indonesian migrants—from Sulawesi, Madura and Java—who make up 40-50% of the 3.6m population of the two provinces. Migrants own the shops, restaurants and building firms, and man the police and army. Native Papuans sit in the dirt to hawk vegetables and fruit. Women traipse in from the countryside with hand-knotted nets strapped to their foreheads, stuffed with cabbages, piglets and sometimes their babies. To the migrants’ disgust, some men still come into town naked but for their penis gourds. The mainly Muslim settlers and mostly Christian Papuans do not always get along.

Three recent incidents, above all, have contributed to the climate of fear. On May 29th a German tourist was shot on the beach at Jayapura. Activists link the shooting to hearings that month at the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva, where Indonesia was discussed. Among the
countries unusually critical of its record, especially in Papua, was Germany. The suspicion is that parts of Indonesia’s security forces want to show that Papua remains dangerous, blaming the Free Papua Movement, or OPM, a secessionist group that has used guerrilla tactics.

Then on June 6th a ten-year-old boy was injured by a motorcycle ridden at high speed by two Indonesian soldiers through a village near Wamena. Angry locals attacked the soldiers, killing one of them. Their comrades came back for revenge on the villagers, setting fire to some of their houses. At least one person died. For critics of the army this was a typical tale of its indiscipline, brutality and impunity. Even after a video seen around the world in 2010 showed soldiers torturing Papuan suspects, the three culprits received jail sentences of just eight to ten months, for insubordination.

In the third incident, security forces in Jayapura on June 14th shot dead Mako Tabuni, a leading advocate of a referendum on Papuan independence. The police say they had reason to suspect him of recent killings, and that he was carrying the gun used to shoot the German tourist. Eyewitnesses, however, have said he was unarmed and doing nothing more aggressive than buying betel nut when he was killed.

All of this is eerily reminiscent of the way Indonesia ruled its former province of East Timor for 24 years. There, too, abusive and mysterious security forces fuelled local resentment. There, too, Indonesia divided to rule, stressing the fissures among the local population. There, too, it would blame unrest on a tiny resistance manipulated by foreign forces. In East Timor Indonesia tried to contain unrest by closing off the territory. Papua is largely off-limits to foreign journalists. Foreign NGOs—even those dealing with an HIV epidemic spread by prostitution—are finding visas for their workers hard to come by. Some feel pressure to leave Papua altogether.

Yet there are reasons to doubt that Papua can follow East Timor into the independence it has now, as Timor-Leste, enjoyed for ten years. First, East Timor’s legal status was different. Through the occupation, Portugal remained, under the UN charter, the “administering” power. Much as the outside world might have liked to forget the problem, there were legal reminders of its existence. The Act of Free Choice, though a flagrant injustice, was nevertheless one to which the UN was party. Second, the Papuan resistance is not as coherent even as the faction-ridden Timorese.

Third, and most important, Timor-Leste’s oil-and-gas income is relatively modest, and started to flow only after independence. Papua is already a treasure-chest. That immense forest is pockmarked in places by isolated lighter-green squares, where the trees have been felled and oil palm planted. And Freeport McMoRan, Grasberg’s owner, claims to be the largest single taxpayer to the Indonesian government. Indonesia is not going to part with such riches easily. It has invested heavily in Papua, buying itself a corps of people with a vested interest in its continued rule.

The SBY effect

Its rule in Papua is a reminder that Indonesia’s current president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, was a general under Suharto, that the army has not cleaned up its act since its atrocities in East Timor and in the conflict in Aceh in Sumatra, and that, in some other respects, too, his regime looks less like the repudiation of Suharto’s Indonesia than its continuation. But Mr Yudhoyono enjoys being feted internationally as the leader of a beacon of democratic moderation.

Papua may be the place where that image, already tarnished, is irrevocably stained.
-- The Economist

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