Asia - Pacific

Indonesia: Papuans await answers to long unresolved issues

Violence and human rights violations continue against indigenous people seeking political and financial independence

By Nicky Aulia Widadio and Muhammad Nazarudin Latief   | 08.11.2019
Indonesia: Papuans await answers to long unresolved issues

Jakarta Raya


Tensions have been rising since August in Indonesia’s easternmost province of Papua after dozens died in riots triggered by racial issues and discrimination against the indigenous population.

Demands for an independence referendum have intensified since then, but Jakarta has responded by sending more security forces.

Papua, whose indigenous inhabitants are Melanesians, has a history rife with human rights violations and political conflicts, especially since President Suharto assumed power in Indonesia in the late 1960s.

The inclusion of the province as part of Indonesia was accompanied by the interests of the major powers at the beginning of the Cold War, business interests and the division of territories of the newly independent states.

Papua became part of Indonesia as an agreement among newly independent states and its colonial country, the Netherlands.

Referendum full of questions

Indonesia, which declared independence from the Netherlands on Aug. 17, 1945, wanted to integrate all former Dutch colonial territories into the country including Papua, then known as the Netherlands New Guinea.

But the Dutch were not willing to give up the territory, arguing that the indigenous Papuans were racially and ethnically different from most of Indonesia’s population.

The dispute was brought to the Dutch-Indonesian Round Table Conference on Dec. 27, 1949 and lasted for dozens of years.

M.C. Ricklefs said in his book “A History of Modern Indonesia” that Indonesia and the Netherlands reached an agreement on Aug. 15, 1962 known as the New York Agreement.

Based on the agreement, the Netherlands was to transfer administration of the territory to a United Nations Temporary Executive Authority by Oct. 1, 1962, which would hand it over to Indonesia by May 1, 1963.

Before the end of 1969, Jakarta was to also hold free elections in Papua to find out whether its people wanted to remain part of Indonesia or not, wrote Ricklefs.

After the agreement was signed, however, opposition arose as there were no indigenous Papuans involved in the negotiations.

From July 14 to Aug. 2, 1969, the Act of Free Choice plebiscite was held to determine whether Papuans wanted to become independent or remain part of Indonesia.

A consultation council comprising 1,026 members voted to represent Papua’s population of 815,904.

It consisted of 400 tribal chiefs and 360 local figures, while 266 others were from community organizations.

They voted publicly and unanimously in favor of Indonesian jurisdiction.

But many Papuans did not accept the outcome of the referendum, calling it an “act of no choice” as they felt it did not represent the people of Papua.

Accounts of alleged human rights abuses by the security forces and concerns that the territory’s mineral and forest wealth has largely benefited Indonesians outside Papua is further fueling tensions in the region.

Before the referendum was held, the government of Indonesia under President Suharto -- who ousted the country’s first president, Sukarno, in 1965 -- had signed a contract with U.S.-based company Freeport-McMoran to start mining activities at Grasberg in Papua.

Yan Warinussy, director of the Legal Aid, Research, Investigation and Development Institute in Manokwari city, Papua, said the results of the 1969 referendum became a stumbling block for Papuans to fully integrate with Indonesia.

“Even non-Papuans were involved in the referendum. This was the problem that was always debated from time to time. The 1969 referendum could never represent the wishes of the people of Papua," he said.

Warinussy stressed that the Indonesian government needs to "straighten" the history of Papua which began since the referendum so it will no longer be a wedge that continues to trigger conflicts in Papua.

Legality of ‘Act of Free Choice’ was firm

Indonesian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Teuku Faizasyah said the legality of the 1969 Act of Free Choice’s results was very firm.

Faizasyah said the plebiscite was held based on an agreement between Indonesia, the Netherlands and United Nations with agreed mechanisms and rules, including a system of representation.

He said the system of representation is still relevant to contemporary conditions as the Papuan people are now familiar with the system of "noken" which allows representatives to cast ballots in both general and local elections.

"The results [of the plebiscite] were then brought to the UN General Assembly and were accepted. So the questions about the Act of Free Choice are very unreasonable,” he said.

The Act of Free Choice, he added, was a political agreement between Indonesia and the Netherlands after the country inherited the former territory of the Dutch East Indies colony from westernmost Sabang to easternmost Merauke.

"After the Round Table Conference agreement, Papua should have been handed over to Indonesia. But the Dutch didn’t do it, and in the end, there was a political process," said Faizasyah.

He stressed that from the beginning, Papua was part of Indonesia because it was part of the Dutch East Indies colony that had to be handed over as soon as a new state was formed.

"That is the principle of international law," he said.

Faizasyah noted that something similar happened in Africa, where they are now separated in smaller countries despite being ethnically and culturally similar.

"Africa was colonized by many countries. So after independence, they are separated by small lines agreed by the colonial states," he added.

Resistance and human rights violations in Papua

The dissatisfaction of Papuans triggered more serious resistance with the formation of a military-political movement known as the Free Papua Movement (OPM).

Armed resistance broke out for the first time on July 26, 1965 in Manokwari city.

According to a report by the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) titled “The Current Status of The Papuan Pro-Independence Movement,” Freeport's mining activities in 1973 triggered OPM military action in the Timika region.

In May 1977, around 200 OPM guerrillas attacked the mining company, and the government responded with military operations.

Freeport's land was formerly the customary land of the Amungme and Komoro tribes, which are the indigenous inhabitants of the area.

In a book titled "Suing Freeport," Markus Haluk, executive director of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP), said 60 members of the Amungme tribe became victims of military violence during the operation.

Meanwhile, cases of violence and human rights violations continued to occur in Papua.

A wave of violence in the past three months resulted in eight civilians being killed during riots in Deiyai district on Aug. 28, 2019 while 33 people were killed in Wamena and four others died in Jayapura during riots on Sept. 26.

Another tragic incident occurred in Nduga regency on Dec. 2, 2018, in which 31 Trans-Papua Highway project workers were shot dead by a Papuan armed group led by separatist Egianus Kogoya.

Again, the government responded with a military operation.

Amnesty International noted that 182 civilians in Nduga were killed while escaping after their villages were raided by security forces who hunted down the armed group.

The government still has outstanding cases of human rights violations in Papua to be resolved such as the Wasior case in 2001 and the Wamena case in 2003 which triggered conflicts between the authorities and locals.

Jakarta accused Papuan pro-independence figure Benny Wenda of being the mastermind of the riots in the region over the past three months.

Warinussy urged the government to resolve the root problems of the conflicts and cases of human rights violations in Papua.

He said the riots that occurred in Papua in the past three months were the aftermath of the government’s failure to handle racism towards indigenous people.

Warinussy said that many things related to the incidents still remain unclear, such as who is the perpetrator of the riots and violence as well as the ongoing punishment process.

"President Joko Widodo has visited Papua several times, but the human rights violations issues have never been touched.”

* Rhany Chairunissa Rufinaldo contributed to this story from Jakarta

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