Tuesday, December 16, 2014

‘Epen kah?’ Mocking Papuans’ human rights

In commemorating International Human Rights Day on Dec. 10, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo opened his speech with a generous acknowledgement on human rights for the nation: “As President, I have to hold firm and walk in the realm of the Constitution. In our Constitution, it is clear that the recognition, respect and protection of human rights have been used as guidelines in the state and nation.”

The unsaid response, possibly among the President and his Cabinet, the legislature, security forces, and a large part of Indonesian society, when asked to comment on human rights in Papua, can be summed up as: epen kah? It’s a popular acronym among Papuans, from the Indonesian slang of emang pentingkah? or “who cares?” in English.

Two days earlier, on Dec. 8, five students aged 17 to 18, including some in their high school uniform, were shot dead by security forces. The police and military used lethal force in dealing with around 800 protesters in Enarotali, Paniai regency in Papua. It was initially a peaceful protest against the assault of a 12-year-old boy by members of the Nabire-based army battalion. Along with the shot teenagers — identified as Simon Degei, 18, Otianus Gobai, 18, Alfius Youw, 17, Yulian Yeimo, 17 and Abia Gobay (age unknown), were women and children among the few dozen who had to be hospitalized, according to the international NGO Human Rights Watch.

Clearly President Jokowi was not thinking of such an extreme example of how the state has been abusing the Constitution. The fact that the incident was not mentioned, not in his human rights’ day speech or on other occasions, makes us wonder if Papua and Papuans are really as important as he stated during his presidential campaign.

His subordinates in Jakarta, as predicted, gave the exact, classic response whenever shootings against civilians take place in the province: blaming the bad separatist Papuans as the troublemakers who deserve to be treated with force for their disobedience to the unitary state of Indonesia, or NKRI. Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister Tedjo Edhy Purdijatno, as well as National Police chief Gen. Sutarman, said that the action was taken because security forces had to defend themselves from attacks with traditional weapons by the crowd.

The Army chief of staff, Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo, came up with, again, a well-predicted argument: the shooting was most probably initiated by the OPM (Free Papua Movement), directed from the mountain.

Whether the incident was designed or not — because the President is reportedly planning to visit Papua this Christmas — the top authority, or Jokowi himself, has to order investigations into what happened, and be transparent with the Papuans and the rest of Indonesia on the investigation’s findings.

It would take enormous courage to do that, something we have not seen from Indonesian presidents in relation to such incidents in Papua. Dealing with problems in Papua means dealing with a wide range of intersectional power plays and interests, both in Jakarta and Papua. Often it is covered up by a nationalistic project in the name of saving the unity of national territory.

In fact, the truth is much more bitter than that: such a project has been the only solution from Jakarta, a project giving so many advantages to security and civilian political and economic elites, both nationally and locally.

Indications of such a nationalistic project are already reflected in various statements and initiatives from Jokowi’s ministers, immediately after the Cabinet was announced. Villages, Disadvantaged Regions and Transmigration Minister Marwan Jafar plans to open more transmigration programs, despite accumulated tension among indigenous Papuans and immigrants and settlers from transmigration projects under Soeharto’s times.

In October, Home Minister Tjahjo Kumolo insisted on prioritizing the establishment of two new provinces in Papua. Recently Military Chief Gen. Moeldoko confirmed a new military command would be opened in Papua as part of the military’s strategic planning. None of the high ranking officials had consulted Papuan representatives or the authorities before they announced these plans.

Various elements in Papua opposed the plans, which have long been controversial, including both governors of Papua and West Papua provinces and their legislative councils.

The President himself appointed people with track records of lacking respect for human rights, especially for Papua, as his subordinates. Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu is famous for his praise for the murder of a Papuan activist, saying Theys Eluay’s murderer was a hero. Meanwhile, Andika Perkasa was appointed the presidential bodyguard’s commander even though his name was mentioned in reports on an alleged conspiracy in Eluay’s death.

Obviously Jakarta has not shown willingness to think of solving problems in Papua, especially not settling human rights abuses that have taken place consistently here for many decades. A token appointment of a Papuan woman as minister is not the solution. Not if there are many more undermining and degrading policies and actions just to mock the Papuans.

The hope for a peace dialogue has been diminishing since Jakarta has abandoned the proposal for years now. Pretending these issues do not exist by intervening through an economic and development approach is even more insulting to the Papuans.

Jakarta has to come up with something more serious than its virtual, though silent, expression of “epen kah”, acting as if there is nothing serious taking place in Papua.


Obviously Jakarta has not shown willingness to think of solving problems in Papua.


Sri Lestari Wahyuningroem, is researching justice and human rights for her PhD at the Australian National University, Canberra


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