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Papua Issues Go Beyond Autonomy Funds

Fakultas Islam Nusantara

By Ahmad Suaedy*

A discussion took place recently on Papua in relation to the 2019 presidential election. Millennials from various professional backgrounds were among attendees, along with junior and senior activists. One session was reserved especially for perspectives of the young.

The forum, held by the Tifa Foundation, Amnesty International Indonesia and the Jayapura-based Jubi Association in Jakarta aimed to respond to the lack of discourse on Papua ahead of the presidential election, even as the first presidential debate included the theme of human rights.

Social media mapping presented by, an independent petition website, at the talks on Feb.14, showed that Indonesian millennials had paid substantial attention to issues related to Papua. Even though mainstream media contains little coverage on Papua, given limited access to Papua and West Papua provinces, millennials across Indonesia made it clear through social media that peace and prosperity should exist in Papua and that violence should be reduced or eliminated.

Since the enactment of Law No. 21/2001 on Papua special autonomy, special autonomy funds and other affirmative funds have been disbursed to Papua and West Papua. President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s ambitious infrastructure plan aims to penetrate isolated areas in the provinces, to alleviate the chronic problem of a discrepancy in fuel prices and logistics supply.

However, this suggests that the problem of Papua and West Papua is limited to funding special autonomy and infrastructure. Implementation of the law was not comprehensive and tended to be selective and manipulative, even broadening Papuans’ discontent, which it had aimed to address.

Restrictions on freedom of opinion and assembly, as well as coverage of mainly foreign media, in addition to the approaches of security and violence, perpetuate stigmatization and discrimination, resulting in widespread resistance. Resistance and aspirations of independence are increasing through the establishment of networks abroad.

There are three important factors in the context of Papua and West Papua that must be of concern to the government, namely the magnitude of migration from outside Papua, the increasing number of educated people and widening middle-income bracket, as well as the diaspora of highly young educated Papuans in other areas in Indonesia and in various countries.

All of that requires substantial channels of aspiration and expression. The security approach and ensuing violence have instead strengthened resistance and expression of such aspirations.

Some impatient speakers and attendees raised the need for the immediate right of self-determination for Papuans, as they said the stigmatization of “separatists”, discrimination and violence against Papuans, and military presence in certain areas, had persisted, despite two decades of the Reform Era.

Inayah Wahid, the youngest daughter of the late president, Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid, described the relationship between Papua and the state as “toxic” likening the relationship to one in which one spouse was dominant, prone to abuse despite profuse, with repeated apologies.

The only way to avoid domestic violence is to get out of that domination.

Inayah’s remarks echoed that of others, who expressed hopes for the return of what they described as a much better approach by Gus Dur’s presidency of 1999-2001. When Gus Dur met Papuan representatives both at the beginning of his presidency on Dec. 31, 1999 in Jayapura and after the establishment of the Papuan Council, the two sides were in contrasting positions; the Papuans wanted independence, while the then-president wanted them to remain in the republic.

Yet negotiations tinged with a sense of equality, mutual respect and awareness of differences, finally leading to the Special Autonomy Law. Freedom of expression and association was evident in major gatherings involving thousands of people, such as in November 1999 around the house of Theys Eluay, the slain leader, and the Second Papuan Congress in 2000, which even featured attendees from various countries with zero violence. Gus Dur even provided assistance of Rp 1 billion (then around US$119,104) for the congress.

Interestingly, empowerment of Papuan civil society and guarantees of freedom had led to their voluntary agreement to the drafting of the special autonomy bill. This was mainly because Gus Dur had treated them as fellow citizens, partners in dialogue, without discrimination, intimidation and violence, and he also prevented a security approach in the province.

Restoring Gus Dur’s approach would mean the thorough implementation of the Special Autonomy Law by ending the approach of security and violence. An important issue that has not yet been realized from the law is the formation of a local political party. This could accommodate the widest possible aspirations of Papuans politically and channel differences and conflicts within a constitutional space. Media freedom is another key to an honest and open information channel for the search for substantive and satisfying solutions for all parties.

Reconciliation and enforcement of human rights, which are also contained in the law but have been abandoned so far, should be addressed along with guarantees of freedom of opinion and expression. Revitalizing institutional aspirations, such as the Papuan People’s Assembly (MRP) and the empowerment of seven cultural zones is essential to sustain freedom of opinion and assembly.

The MRP was originally intended to accommodate informal, ethnic, religious and women’s leadership that is typical of Papuan society, to allow for open and free debate to seek agreement on essential issues.

The government also needs to take serious steps in international diplomacy given the increasing number of international networks on Papua, even involving states and the United Nations. Apart from engaging in direct diplomacy, Gus Dur at the time had chosen to cooperate with mediation and humanitarian-oriented NGOs, preventing the involvement of foreign states in relation to Papua issues, while attempting to provide freedom and security to Papuans. His was a brief legacy that we still need to learn from.


*The writer is a lecturer of Graduate Program at University of Nahdlatul Ulama (UNUSIA) Jakarta and a member of the Indonesian Ombudsman.

Tulisan ini sebelumnya telah terbit di TheJakartaPost, Fri, March 8 2019