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Why there’s unrest in the Indonesian province of Papua

by admin

Unrest is nothing new in the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua, just 500 kilometres to our north, but recent protests have erupted on a huge scale. What do Papuans want? And are they likely to get it?

By James Massola,


low-level insurgency has bubbled away in the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua since the early 1960s, when Dutch colonialists withdrew from the territory and Indonesia moved in as temporary administrators.

A referendum on independence was agreed under a UN-brokered deal but the vote, held in 1969 and widely regarded as a sham (some have nicknamed it the “act of no choice”), allowed just 1026 locals chosen by Indonesia to vote – and they voted unanimously for incorporation into Indonesia.

The most recent protests have seen several people killed, buildings set on fire and violence on the streets. Thousands of people have taken part in protests all over the country, flying the banned Morning Star flag and demanding independence.

Indonesian authorities deported four Australians from West Papua. It was alleged they had participated in pro-independence protests.

So what is behind all the tension in Papua? Why are these protests happening now? And what will Indonesia do about them?

The current unrest is diplomatically sensitive for Australia and Indonesia – memories of Australia’s key role in East Timor’s independence have not faded. Some in the Jakarta political and military establishment fear Australia could one day come out in support of Papuan independence but successive governments have stressed that Australia respects Indonesia’s territorial integrity.

Where is Papua?

Papua, formerly known as Irian Jaya, is on Australia’s doorstep – it’s only about 500 kilometres away as the crow flies – and Australia is home to many Papuan activists who advocate for an independent Papua.

West Papua and Papua are on the same island as Papua New Guinea, which occupies the eastern side of the land mass. PNG has never been part of Indonesia.

What’s behind the tensions?

About 3.5 million people live in Indonesian Papua, a tiny fraction of Indonesia’s population of about 260 million people. It was only in 2003 that West Papua was hived off and a second province created. Together, the provinces were once known as Irian Jaya, but the name Papua was adopted (in line with local preferences) soon after former president Megawati Sukarnoputri granted limited autonomy to the province in 2002.

This autonomy allowed the provinces to retain most of the revenue generated from the extraction of natural resources such as oil and gas – deposits of gold, copper, silver, petroleum, natural gas and coal are also still largely untapped. It was also designed to head off the desire for Papuan independence.

And it was hoped that additional autonomy would help lift Papuans out of grinding poverty. Papua and West Papua are two of the poorest, most corrupt provinces in Indonesia. The poverty rate is more than 20 per cent compared to a national rate of 9.4 per cent.

The World Bank notes that, although the provinces are rich in resources, economic development is “unusually challenging” because of geography – “steep mountains, swampy lowlands, fragile soils and heavy seasonal rainfall” – and due to low population density and extreme cultural fragmentation.

On average, people earn less and don’t live as long. The two provinces lack access to basic services such as health and education. They also lack crucial infrastructure compared to much of the rest of the country.

Providing some autonomy hasn’t really worked to head off trouble. Deadly clashes between armed rebels and Indonesian security forces are a regular occurrence, as are attacks on workers building a new trans-Papua highway and on resources projects such as the huge Grasberg gold and copper mine (in which Indonesia last year took a majority stake).

Papuan students, their faces painted in the colours of the banned Morning Star flag, protest in Jakarta on August 28.
Papuan students, their faces painted in the colours of the banned Morning Star flag, protest in Jakarta on August 28. CREDIT:GETTY IMAGES

What sparked the current protests?

The most recent protests began soon after August 17, Indonesia’s national independence day, when 43 Papuan students in Surabaya, East Java, were arrested for allegedly damaging the Indonesian flag.

Video of security forces who arrested the Papuan students emerged soon after, and they could clearly be heard calling the Papuans “monkeys” and “dogs”.

The violent protests and deadly riots began soon afterwards in the regional capitals of Jayapura and Manokwari, and in smaller cities such as Timika, Sorong, Fakfak and in regencies such as Deiyai.

What has happened so far?

As is often the case with Papua, it’s difficult to verify many of the claims and counter-claims that are made by the government and independence supporters.

Between four and seven civilians and one soldier died during clashes in Deiyai regency on August 28 (the government has disputed the number of civilians killed and it’s not clear what the final number is).

Another man died during a gun battle on August 23, and four civilians died during clashes in Jayapura, the capital of Papua, on September 1.

By September 5, the situation seemed to quieten down, though that could change at a moment’s notice. The government has estimated that repairs to government buildings damaged in the riots will cost at least $7 million.

How did Jakarta respond?

During this bout of trouble, President Joko Widodo has called for calm in the two provinces, condemned the racist attacks in Surabaya and, in a recent meeting with the editors of major newspapers, talked up a “prosperity approach” to addressing the provinces’ grievances, according to the Jakarta Post.

Joko’s approach, essentially, means more investment in infrastructure and development to tackle poverty and disadvantage. He has spent more time in Papua, and invested more money in sorely needed infrastructure, than any previous Indonesian leader.

One of his signature projects is the 4325-kilometre trans-Papua highway, a road network that will link cities including Jayapura and the West Papuan capital, Manokwari. (Critics have raised concerns about the environmental damage caused by the project, and have argued it is being constructed so that more of the country’s resources can be exploited.)

But Joko is coming off a very low base and critics argue he has not done enough to improve the human rights situation, or addressed demands for a referendum.

Meanwhile, Jakarta has sent in about 6000 extra police and soldiers, and Army commander Hadi Tjahjanto and national Police Chief General Tito Karnavian have both flown to Papua.

Internet services were slowed down, and then mostly shut off, with the government arguing this would stop the spread of hoaxes and slow down the organisation of protests. The internet blackout had ended in most parts of Papua by September 5.

More than 50 people have been named as suspects for participating in various protests, and arrests of protesters have been made. Two members of the military are being investigated. Indonesian police have vowed to hunt down separatists blamed for the violent protests.

Jakarta blames Benny Wenda, the leader of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua who lives in exile in the UK, for helping stir up the trouble. It has also charged human rights lawyer Veronica Koman with “incitement” for tweets they claim were hoax news.

Papuans shout slogans during a protest in Timika, Papua, on August 21.
Papuans shout slogans during a protest in Timika, Papua, on August 21.CREDIT:AP

Could Papua be granted an independence referendum?

After meeting Joko, the Governor of Papua, Lukas Enembe, told reporters last week that the President was willing to discuss an independence referendum.

But it’s difficult to see that happening. The Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs, Wiranto, has dismissed a referendum out of hand. He is a former military general who was a key figure in the events that led up to the 1999 referendum on East Timor’s independence, and he opposed that independence movement too.

Joko has spoken about the need for dialogue between supporters of independence and the government. Allowing an independence referendum would cause him huge problems in Jakarta and damage him politically at the start of his second and final term.

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