New Hope For Papua?

December 1, 1999 marked the Organisasi Papua Merdeka's (OPM/the Free Papua Organization) declaration of independence for the former Indonesian Province of Irian Jaya (Papua). Tribal protestors in Timika raised the outlawed Papuan `Morning Star' flag on December 1 to commemorate the anniversary of the day in 1961 when Holland granted independence to the Melanesian population. December 3 saw the brutal repression of the movement to free Papua from lndonesian rule when the Indonesian armed forces opened fire on peaceful protestors, injuring 56.(1)

A Long History of Suffering

Papua is currently an Indonesian province inhabited by the Amungme and other ethnic groups distinct from the Javanese. Papua was formally annexed after the much criticized Act of Free Choice in November 1969, when only 1026 select Papuans voted in the Indonesian-controlled referendum. Of these votes, only 20 per cent were UN supervised, free of any evidence of manipulation.

This resource-rich outlying province has been the victim of large-scale economic exploitation by the Indonesian government, providing a natural resource base for harvest and export as well as cheap labor (the average Papuan income is one seventh that of the Javanese's). Papua, home to the largest gold mine in the world, has seen its Indigenous Peoples displaced from traditional lands by multinational enterprises.

Papua's Indigenous peoples have also been displaced by the Indonesian government's (World Bank funded) Transmigration Program. As a result of this program, millions of Javanese have been settled in the outlying provinces and a policy of cultural assimilation has been endorsed by the central government. Military transmigration in "the frontier regions of Kalimantan, Irian Jaya, [and] East Timor" has been prioritized "for the purpose of Defense and Security."(2) The resulting buildup of military personnel in geostrategic regions like Papua (and East Timor) contributes to human rights abuses against the original inhabitants.

Papua has a long history of suffering at the hands of the Indonesian military. Some estimates put the number of Papuan deaths and disappearances at 400,000, almost 40 per cent of the Papuan population. Papuans have been killed in Indonesian aerial bombardment and massacres, and thousands have fled to neighboring Papua New Guinea as political refugees. Thousands more have simply disappeared. Reports abound of Papuans imprisoned without trial, beaten, tortured, raped and starved in prisons. OPM freedom fighters have resisted Indonesian assimilation, often losing their lives in the process.


In light of the sad history between Indonesia and Papua, is there any chance of reconciliation? The Jakarta Post reported on December 20, 1999 reported Indonesian House Legislator Astrid Susanto's claim that "[l]eaders of the foreign countries President Abdurrahman Wahid visited recently threw their weight behind Indonesia in dismissing independence demands [in Papua]." Given the importance placed by international law on national stability, the likelihood of successful Papuan secession and independence seems extremely low. Limited forms of self-determination by Papuan Indigenous peoples should, however, be considered. Jimmy Ejay (Papua Human Rights Center), in a National Public Radio "All Things Considered" report on December 16, insisted, "Papuans are united in one thing, the desire for a genuine dialogue with Jakarta that addresses what the Papuans see as their forced integration into Indonesia and the human rights abuses that followed. If that happens...the Papuans may be willing to settle for greater autonomy and an apology."(3)

A genuine dialogue between Indonesians and Papuans can only occur with international support. The UN has acknowledged Indonesia's annexation of Papua (by contrast, it never recognized Indonesia's sovereignty over East Timor). Recent events suggest that this position should be reexamined. Andrew Kilvert (The Sydney Morning Herald) notes that "[u]nlike in East Timor earlier or in Aceh now, the Papuans of Irian Jaya are trying to overturn a United Nations-conducted act of consultation that has already taken place." The international community should encourage demilitarisation and democratisation in Papua and other disputed Indonesian provinces. The UN should recognize the injustice done to Papuans in 1969 as a prelude to discussion.

On December 3, 1999, the Papuan flag was lowered in Timika and the Morning Star remains illegal in Papua. President Wahid has categorically denounced "efforts to build a country within a country."(4) Papuan victories have been won, however. On January 1, 2000, President Abdurrahman Wahid announced that the province of Irian Jaya would be renamed Papua, its more traditional name (the name change has yet to be ratified). President Wahid has also announced on January 7 a meeting with separatist leaders Theys Eluay and Thom Beanal, the head of a team of traditional leaders which last year asked former President B.J. Habibie for independence. Furthermore, Wahid endorsed separatists' plan to create a Papuan Congress which will choose official leaders and plan strategies for independence. Yasril Ananta Burhanudin, who chairs House Commission I, promised an investigation into human rights abuses in Papua. The Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs, J.J. Van Aartsen, has approved a proposal to investigate the 1969 Act of Free Choice. These important recent concessions on the part of the Indonesian and foreign governments have brought hope to indigenous peoples of Papua.

On January 19, 2000, the Straits Times reported a second flag-raising in Papua. This time, no one was hurt. However, the Sydney Morning Herald on January 21 reported that "[m]ilitary authorities and political enforcers associated with the former Soeharto regime appear to be building up East Timor-style militias" in Papua. It is far from clear that Papuans' struggle for self-determination can be realized without recourse to the kind of bloodshed seen in East Timor.

Public pressure can be effective in urging action on the part of international bodies. Unfortunately, this kind of pressure often starts only after a colossal escalation of violence. Help give Papua a voice. Please write or call your Senators and Representative. Ask them to write to President Clinton, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Richard Holbrooke, demanding recognition of Papua's claims to a real dialogue on independence.

(1) Radio Australia, December 3, 1999.

(2) Indonesia, Department of Transmigration, Bureau of Planning 1987

(3) Translation by Michael Sullivan, reporter for National Public Radio.

4 The Australian 3 Jan 2000 By Mark Worth

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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