REGIONAL AFFAIRS: by Dr Greg PoulgrainNews Weekly
West Papua: Jakarta takes the strain
, June 17, 2000
A recent “People’s Congress” in Irian Jaya resolved to seek independence from Indonesia which annexed the territory in the early 1960s. Dr Greg Poulgrain explains why the West Papuans are so determined to go and what this means for Jakarta.
The Papuan People’s Congress has declared unilaterally that Irian Jaya/West Papua is no longer part of Indonesia. This defiance was the finale of an historic seven-day conference in Jayapura that ended Sunday June 4 and brought a stern warning from the Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid.
“The organization of the Congress was not in line with the promises made by the organising committee to me,” Wahid told a press conference in Jakarta on Monday, June 5. The Indonesian President revealed one of his provisos — when he donated A$140,000 to the conference — was that only Papuans, not foreigners, were to attend. And secondly, he complained that the voices of anti-independence were not allowed to be heard at the conference.
More than 5000 people attended the conference and a panel of 501 Papuans conducted the voting. Represented were: the central government; the provincial administration; Papuans from all 14 districts in the province of Irian Jaya (renamed Papua by Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid last January 1st when he made his first visit); Papuans living abroad; and observers from Aceh and Riau, two other restive Indonesian provinces.
Also attending the Congress were foreign observers from the United States (one from the American embassy in Jakarta), Japan, Papua New Guinea, the Netherlands and Australia, but only the PNG observer was given an opportunity to address the large gathering.
Because secession is now bubbling to the surface in more than one province in the far-flung empire that Indonesia inherited from the former Dutch colonial rulers, Jakarta watched the outcome intently. Both President Wahid and Vice-President Megawati, who visited briefly in May, issued warnings that Jakarta will take “firm action” against any attempt to disrupt the “unitary state of Indonesia”.
When Alwi Shihad, the Indonesian Harvard Professor who became Foreign Minister at the request of the president, accused Australia of stirring the pot of independence aspirations, Canberra quickly issued a denial. On West New Guinea it could safely deny showing any initiative for roughly four decades — with perhaps one exception. An earlier Foreign Minister, Adam Malik, referring to the early 1970s, claimed that the Australian Security Intelligence Service once assisted the West Papuan independence movement. As there was no Australian representative at the Congress, apart from media representatives, the accusation seemed misplaced.
Perhaps the jibe was aimed at a PNG representative, John Tekewie, the Governor from Sandaun province which shares an international border with the Indonesian province, as his stirring address at the Congress led to his forced removal by Indonesian authorities on Thursday back to PNG.
“Tekwie has violated the law because he is a foreigner who conducted political affairs in Indonesia without a permit,” the Irian Jaya chief of police, Brigadier General S.Y. Wenas was quoted as saying. Wenas, who comes from Menado in northern Sulawesi and has served in the police force for twenty years, did not mention that Tekwie is perhaps less a ‘foreigner’ than he himself is: Tekwie was formerly a refugee from Papua/West Papua who went to live in PNG — the same as the coastal inhabitants near Aitape in PNG who last year suffered the effects of the disastrous tsunami that claimed so many lives.
Papua, formerly known as Netherlands New Guinea, became part of Indonesia in the 1960s when President Sukarno (Megawati’s father) won the support of President John F. Kennedy to oust the Dutch.
The Papuans who claim they were excluded from that anti-colonial agreement made at the height of the Cold War now demand to be heard. One month ago, a group of Dutch parliamentarians visited Papua to re-investigate how the former program of self-determination was crushed by the Indonesian military for three decades. Under President Suharto in 1969, Papuans were given a vote “whether or not to remain as part of Indonesia”. Only 16 UN supervisors took part, and only 1025 Papuans were permitted to vote. This is what the Congress in Jayapura wanted to rectify.
This earlier vote, known as the Act of Free Choice, was conducted under extreme duress after several years of intimidation and coercion at the hands of the Indonesian armed forces. It became obvious to the Indonesians in 1967 that the Papuans were intending to vote themselves independent in 1969. So a special group known as OPSUS was formed by President Suharto to ensure the Act of Free Choice favoured Indonesia retaining the territory, which in area was one quarter the size of Indonesia. Bombing and strafing of many villages and several of the largest towns occurred, and when Papuan independence fighters occupied Manokwari (which was then the capital city of the province) Indonesian paratroopers had to be dropped to force those in the ‘Free Papua Movement’ (OPM) back into the jungle.
During the Second World War, the Dutch claimed that their “Jungle Pimpernel”, an army officer, V. de Bruijn, who led a small group of guerrilla-fighters during the Japanese occupation, signified that Holland never relinquished hope of regaining control. So too the Papuans’ claim that the OPM signifies they have never relinquished hope of independence. A 44-member delegation of OPM members recently visited Megawati Sukarnoputri in Jakarta; and 100 positions at the Congress were reserved for the OPM.
In Jakarta last month, the first political salvo came from the Cabinet Secretary, Marsilam Simanjuntak, who criticised the Congress voting procedure, saying that “people or figures who are not-pro-independence were not given access to the Congress. Therefore,” he said, “the Congress has failed to represent the Papuan people.”
Of a total population approaching three million inhabitants in the province, Papuans number about 1.8 million and the remainder are Indonesian settlers, known as transmigrants. Papuans have stated that transmigrants can stay in an independent Papua, but some have already started to return to Java and Sulawesi.
Jakarta cannot afford to risk another vote as occurred in East Timor under President Habibie. Yet there is a frightening similarity: anti-independence militia are gathering strength with the approval of the Indonesian army that maintains a dominant presence in Papua.
To dampen down all talk of secession and reduce regional dissatisfaction that was the legacy of Suharto, the reformist Jakarta government is promoting “greater autonomy”. Papua — through its gold, copper, oil, gas, timber and fisheries — provides more revenue for Jakarta than any other province, and so the finer points of fiscal and administrative autonomy are yet to be worked out.
So too the continuing role of the army in Papua. It was announced last week that the Wahid government will reduce the army territorial structure — in every district in every province, the arm of authoritarian rule. Lt.General Agus Widjojo announced that if an elected district head wanted soldiers to leave his region, then “we’ll go”. But in Papua, such a reduction in army strength would effectively hand over power to the Papuans immediately.
While some Papuans at the Congress want to negotiate, some want to defy Jakarta and among these the most prominent is Mr Theys Eluay, a tribal chief from Sentani adjacent to the Jayapura region. “West Papua does not belong to Indonesia. We are now reaffirming our rights and our identity,” he declared to the Congress. Since Suharto’s downfall, Mr Eluay has achieved notoriety through his outspokeness. While there are many potential Papuan leaders far more articulate, Mr Eluay rests on traditional authority for his claim to be the principal Papuan leader.
A more moderate approach is taken by Tom Beanal who informed the Congress: “We have to realize what it means — independence. We all want our independence, but the main problem is how to get it.” Mr Beanal hails from the area where the American company Freeport mine the world’s largest deposit of gold and copper. He rose to prominence when he sued Freeport, but a New Orleans court (the company’s home-ground) dismissed the case.
Jakarta is desperate to appease the Papuans but will not stoop to say ‘sorry’: too much Papuan blood has been spilled by the Indonesian armed forces. Many in Jakarta beyond the ranks of the army, beyond earshot and cloistered in a culture of suburban development in the heyday of Suharto, seemed blissfully unaware of the tragedy occurring in Papua over the last three decades. The Indonesian government will have to offer the Papuans more than autonomy: this was offered twice before by Suharto, and only more bloodshed resulted.
Many Papuans believe that with the eyes of the world on them, the Indonesian army will not risk direct confrontation as recently occurred in East Timor. But over the last two months, there has been a steady increase in troop numbers in the highlands, landing by helicopter in remote locations in areas known to be prone to rebelliousness, such as Bokondini. Three weeks ago (according to a report from there) six Papuan villagers were killed.
Extended over three decades, this is why Papuans in the highlands, where most of the population lives, want independence immediately.