New administrations must address mistrust among indigenous Papuans who fear tighter controls and discrimination
Papuans hold a demonstration in Timika on June 3 against the Indonesian government's plan to form a new autonomous region in Papua. (Photo: AFP)
The creation of new autonomous regions in Papua continues to be opposed by indigenous communities that see it as Jakarta’s ploy to gain tighter control over a region tarnished by violence.
They fear it will further discriminate against them and escalate conflict in the resource-rich area where the population, mostly Christian, live in poverty due to discriminatory politics.
For years the region’s resources have been plundered and the people treated with disdain, with only the churches and civil society groups supporting them.
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At the end of June, Indonesia's parliament unanimously passed a bill on the formation of three new provinces: South Papua, Central Papua, and Papua Mountains. Papua province is to be split, while West Papua remains. Thus, the region will now have five provinces. The government even mulled adding two more provinces, Southwest Papua and North Papua.
While administrative expansion usually brings joy to other parts of Indonesia, the opposite is the case in Papua. They oppose it for various reasons. They see it as a political gambit by the central government desperately seeking to gain firmer control over the restive region.
Soon after the bill was passed, the Papua People’s Council condemned the government and parliament. Council chairman, Timoteus Murib, accused the Joko Widodo administration of intentionally splitting Papuans to conquer them.
The split is seen more as a political move to narrow room for the armed separatist movement rather than improve conditions for local people. Some churchgoers admitted that only a handful of people, a few local elites, were consulted about the process.
Nevertheless, the establishment of new provinces will likely expand the scope of Catholic Church services in Papua. Currently, it has four dioceses and an archdiocese. This new development may lead to the creation of more dioceses.
The people’s biggest fear is that it will be used to deploy more troops to Papua because what follows is the establishment of more military and police infrastructure. The locals believe the excessive presence of the state apparatus perpetuates conflict in the region.
It will also open doors for more non-native Papuans to come in which could pose a threat to locals.
Papua’s human resources index remains the worst in the country. It means that only a small number of them are qualified for crucial posts in the new bureaucracies. Most of the jobs will be snapped by non-native Papuans who are better educated.
Local people are worried that with mediocre skills they will not only fail to get good jobs but also be outnumbered. In the end, it will increase the level of unrest and violence when the non-natives have an inadequate understanding of the local socio-cultural context.
Papua province has a population of around 3.4 million. Splitting it into four autonomous units will mean that each province will have less than a million people on average.
The sending of non-native soldiers and police officers is quite intimidating. It prolongs the trauma of Papuans. In the past two years over 46,200 soldiers and police officers were deployed in security operations in Papua, according to the Institute of Human Rights Studies and Advocacy (Elsham). Their presence failed to resolve anything.
Gajah Mada University has recorded 384 cases of violence in the last 12 years in which 464 people died. The deaths include 320 civilians, 72 soldiers, 34 policemen, and 38 armed militia. The real number is probably much higher.
Separately, the National Human Rights Commission recorded 1,182 cases of violence in Papua during the 2020-2021 period, nearly half — 480 — were related to police shootings and torture.
It also recorded 24 deaths during gunfights between Indonesian security forces and Papuan armed separatists. Rights activists and observers believe that violence will continue or might even become worse after the government set up the new provinces.
Apart from threats from separatists and police violence, Papuans also fear the creation of new administrative regions will result in the extinction of social cohesion, even eliminating family bonds among people.
Or worse, they turn hostile towards each other, fighting to get a bigger slice of the government pie, as the split will be followed by the disbursement of a large amount of cash and abuse of state funds is rampant.
Now that the government cannot reverse its decision to form new provinces the challenge is to allay people’s fears their establishment is a tool to weaken Papuans and disengage them from independence activities.
There must be concrete action to prove that the government has good intentions to end the conflict in Papua and improve people’s lives.
Training should be provided to young Papuans to enable them to take charge of important jobs within the newly established regions.
The government should refrain from sending more troops to Papua. Above all, there’s been distrust between the Papuans and the central government. The government must take the opportunity to start building trust among Papuans, by working closely with civil, religious, and tribal leaders, as well as Papuan women and youths.
It’s all necessary to address the root causes of conflict.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.
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