Papua continues to be plagued by violence. Last month gunmen shot at an army helicopter, as the military was to evacuate victims of an ambush which killed eight soldiers and four civilians. Activists say the solution lies in a mediated comprehensive dialogue, but the government rejects any attempt to revisit history. The Jakarta Post’s Prodita Sabarini reports on the political dynamics after a visit to Wamena in Jayawijaya regency.
Describing the violent political situation affecting his people, a young indigenous Papuan man quoted a Latin saying: Homo homini lupus.
“Man is a wolf to [his fellow] man,” said Demianus Wasage, 28, a Papuan from the Yali tribe. The provinces of Papua and West Papua are Indonesia’s part of New Guinea, a resource rich, bird-shaped archipelago north of Australia. The region has a history of social unrest and has been home to rampant military abuses since part of it officially became part of the country in the early 1960s. More than four decades later, and after being given special autonomy status, the provinces remain gripped in a spiral of violence, with external and internal discord permeating Papuan politics.
Demianus was born in a rural village in what is now Yalimo regency. He said that earlier generations still practiced cannibalism when he was growing up. He wore the koteka, Papua’s penis gourd, until he was in elementary school. He said he was glad that missionaries brought Catholicism to his village when he was growing up, so he did not have to follow the ancient practices he disagreed with.
He was proud of his traditional garb, which he sometimes used when accompanying foreign tourists in Papuan villages. “I’m not ashamed of wearing a koteka, I’m proud of my culture,” he said.
Many Papuans believe that their black skin and Melanesian culture distinguish them from the Malay majority in Indonesia. Academics say gradual preparations for Papuan independence by the Dutch in the 1950s also developed a Papuan sense of nationhood. But the US, eager to stave off Soviet influence in Indonesia, brokered a New York agreement between the Dutch and Indonesia in 1962 that officially transferred Papua to the control of the Indonesian government. What is widely believed to have been a sham of a referendum in 1969 stopped short of any chance of Papua being recognized as an independent territory by the United Nations. Demianus said that Papuans were not included in the negotiations that decided their fate. “Even until the end of time, Papuans will always want to be free,” he said.
In February this year, an attack by the Free Papua Movement’s (OPM) military wing, the Papua Liberation Army Front (TPN), killed eight Indonesian soldiers and four civilians in Puncak and Puncak Jaya regency, strongholds of the TPN, authorities said the attack was the latest incident in four-decades of sporadic fighting between the Indonesian Military (TNI) and Papua’s rebels.
Human rights defender Theo Hesegem from the Justice and Human Rights Advocacy Network said that OPM personnel hiding in the jungle viewed the military and the police as their enemies.
“They [the Indonesian security forces] are armed and the OPM are armed too,” he said. “But […] whether people passing by are soldiers, construction workers, or business people, as long as they have straight hair the OPM sees them as Indonesians and shoots at them,” he said.
According to Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) researcher Adriana Elisabeth, unlike the former Free Aceh Movement (GAM), which had a centralized command, the OPM is fragmented into several guerrilla groups and small organizations. The organization is heavily based on the tribal identities of the leader and members.
Yulianus Hisage, the Baliem area head of the Papuan Indigenous Council (DAP), an organization of customary and tribal leaders that advocates for indigenous rights and Papuan culture, said studies showed that Papua had around 250 ethnic tribes. “In reality there’s more than 300,” he said.
Relations between tribes in Papua were complex, Yulianus said, with conflicts settled through tribal warfare. In the Baliem Valley alone, in the mid highland region, a hotbed for OPM guerrillas, there are 14 tribal alliances.
In 2011, when the third Papuan People’s Congress was held, declaring Papua and West Papua independent from Indonesia, the congress appointed DAP leader Forkorus Yaboisembut as president. However, Lambertus Pekikir, an OPM/TPN leader in Keerom regency, Papua Province, did not acknowledge the congress. Forkorus is now imprisoned for treason and three people were killed during the authorities’ crackdown on the congress.
More moderate groups gathered under the Papua Peace Network (JDP) believe that dialogue is the key to peace in Papua. The LIPI’s Adriana said that for this to work, the Indonesian government should first halt its military approach to the provinces. Theo said international mediation was required to resolve the issue. “If it’s just Indonesia, the odds [for resolution] are slim. We’re talking about ideology. Indonesia wants a unified Indonesia, while Papuans want independence. The dispute would never end,” Theo said.
Amid a lack of cohesion in Papuan communities, the National Committee for West Papua (KNPB), an independence campaign movement led by young Papuans, has emerged as a formidable component, with strong connections to the Papua independence movement overseas. Catholic priest and award-winning human rights activist John Jonga said the group was “Quite a brilliant movement”.
“They have a lot of creativity, they can gather people together and they are very firm in their stances. It’s clear they have overwhelmed the government — especially the military and the police — because their number is huge,” John said.
Melianus Wantik, a self-styled touring ambassador for the KNPB, said that the organization was born after seeing the Papuan independence movement lose its leader with the assassination of Theys H. Eluay, who was the leader of the Papua Presidium Council in November 2001.
“The KNPB was born because we saw that Papua needed a rational political leader. Not someone who is factional, egoistic and doesn’t stand with the grassroots,” he said.
In its heyday, the KNPB organized independence rallies across the Papua region, with thousands of people — many in traditional garb — taking part. Their grass roots campaign in 2011 was connected to the Free West Papua campaign led by British-based Papuan exile Benny Wenda, and the rallies coincided with an international conference of parliamentarians on Papuan independence.
“Our connection with Benny is very strong. We work based on his instructions with the International Parliament for West Papua and International Lawyers for West Papua,” Melianus said.
But since the killing of KNPB leader Mako Tabuni, the organization has adopted a low profile in rallies. In 2011, Papua was wrought with cases of violence that the police dubbed as being perpetrated by “unidentified assailants”.
A spate of killings in June and August 2011 saw more than 20 people killed. The police have linked the violence to the KNPB and have said they would use the 2003 Terrorism Law against those attacking police stations. However, Melianus said there was no evidence and the allegations were only aimed at discrediting the movement.
Human rights activists have criticized the police’s heavy-handed approach toward KNPB members. KNPB leader Victor Yeimo reported that in 2012, 22 KNPB members had been killed. Papua Police chief Insp. Gen. Tito Karnavian has defended the Terrorism Law in Papua by saying that it was required to ensure that criminals did not hide behind veneer of the freedom movement.
Benny recently toured Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific island countries to rally support for Papuan independence. But in Papua, the KNPB held no rallies. “We should have shown support because every time Benny visits these countries, we should go on the street and rally, but our room for democracy is blocked. The Indonesian government sees us as terrorists, [guilty of] treason and separatism. Our room for movement is shrinking,” Melianus said.
Catholic priest John said that in Jayapura, during Mako Tabuni’s leadership, the KNPB sometimes used intimidation so that people would join the rallies. “In Jayapura, they forced Papuans to follow them. Sometimes it involved beating people. Some journalists were not only intimidated but also beaten,” he said.
But John strongly doubted that the killings and bombings in Papua were linked to the KNPB. “They’re the ones who are getting shot at,” he said.
John, who has served in Papua for more than 25 years, said that Papuans wanted independence. “This spirit of independence is supported by social and economic problems, violence, violations of human rights and indigenous peoples rights, as well as the exploitation of resources. So in meetings, they express that,” he said.
The priest also spoke of another big problem plaguing the provinces — the corruption of local Papuan politicians. Since Papua received special autonomy (Otsus) status in 2001, only indigenous Papuans are eligible for regional head positions in the provinces.
The government has so far disbursed Rp 30 trillion (US$3.08 billion) in Otsus funds to West Papua and Papua provinces to speed up development. But more than a decade later, Papuans remain the poorest in Indonesia. The Supreme Audit Agency (BPK) found that Otsus funds of Rp 66 billion in 2010 and Rp 211 billion in 2011 were unaccounted for.
According to John, pro-independence Papuans must also face their own political elites that are benefiting from their current positions as regional heads. “A small number of people will feel that their finances or positions are being threatened. If their main concern is their own welfare, then these people might even kill their own people,” he said.
John said that in Indonesia, people supported and opposed Papuan independence for various reasons. “But Papuans themselves say that whatever happens, be it famine or civil war, these are problems that can be dealt with later,” he said. “So, the future is full of question marks.”
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