Indonesia Passes New Papuan Autonomy Law; Separatists Reject it as Unsatisfactory

Ronna Nirmala
Indonesia Passes New Papuan Autonomy Law; Separatists Reject it as Unsatisfactory A group of Papuan pro-independence protesters face off with police in Jakarta, Dec. 19, 2020.

Indonesia’s parliament on Thursday approved a new special autonomy law for Papua that boosts central government funding for the troubled region, but the main separatist group there said it was drafted without addressing the Papuan people’s political and human rights.

Jakarta granted special autonomy for Papua in 2001 to mollify desires for independence, but Indonesian security forces have been accused of human rights abuses during anti-insurgency operations in the far-eastern region.

The new legislation, which follows the expiration of the 2001 special autonomy law and extends that status by two decades, will spur development in Papua, Home Affairs Minister Tito Karnavian said in parliament, about the region that comprises Papua and West Papua provinces.

“With the support of an increased special autonomy fund, oil and gas revenue and infrastructure funds, it is hoped that the Papuan government will be able to accelerate development,” Tito said.

Papua province rates lowest on the Human Development Index in Indonesia, right below West Papua. The index measures factors such as life expectancy, education and standard of living.

Under the new legislation, the central government’s fund for Papua and West Papua provinces has been raised to 2.25 percent of the total earmarked for the country’s 34 provinces, from the earlier 2 percent. 

Tito was also referring to a provision that says Papua is entitled to a lion’s share of proceeds from its natural resources, including 80 percent from the forestry and fisheries sectors, and 70 percent from oil and gas, for the next 20 years.

However, the same provision existed in the 2001 special autonomy law. The new legislation also amended 18 articles and added two more to the earlier one.

But a spokesman for the West Papua National Liberation Army, the armed wing of the separatist Free Papua Movement, said the autonomy law was not what the Papuans wanted.

“We reject it because the Special Autonomy Law is not a solution to the issue of the political status of the Papuan nation,” Sebby Sambom, the group’s spokesman, told BenarNews.

“We believe the Indonesian way is a human rights and legal violation.”

Sambom was referring to an independent political status for the Papua region, which was incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 after what locals and activists say was a sham vote because it involved only about 1,000 people. However, the United Nations accepted the result, which essentially endorsed Indonesia’s rule.

In 1963, Indonesian forces invaded Papua – which makes up the western half of New Guinea Island – and annexed it. More recently the region was divided into two provinces.

Sambom was also referring to the frequent arrests and charges of treason against pro-independence protesters, and the alleged mistreatment and racist statements denigrating Papuans.

Papuan students and activists are regularly detained and prosecuted for raising the pro-Papuan independence flag or speaking about independence aspirations in public.

In 2019, more than 40 people were killed in violent unrest across the Papuan region after police raided a dorm in Surabaya and arrested dozens of Papuan students amid allegations they had disrespected the Indonesian flag. Video circulated of the heavily armed police using racial slurs against the students.

The Free Papua Movement has fought for independence for the mainly Melanesian, Christian region since the 1960s.

Sambom said his group would keep fighting against Indonesian rule “until we win political rights as the Papuan nation.”

Meanwhile, on Thursday, police arrested at least 40 people who rallied against the bill outside the parliament building in Jakarta, said Usman Hamid, executive director of Amnesty International Indonesia.

The previous day, four students were injured and 23 others arrested during clashes with security personnel at a similar protest at Cenderawasih University in Jayapura, Usman said.

‘Made in Jakarta, for Jakarta’

The new autonomy law was drafted without consulting Papuans, other than a handful of members of the Papuan elite in the Special Autonomy parliamentary committee, according to Sam Awom, coordinator of the Commission for Disappeared Persons and Victims of Violence (KontraS) in Papua.

“This is a form of policy coercion by the fascist regime,” Awom told BenarNews. “The bill was made by Jakarta, for Jakarta.”

Yan Mandenas, deputy chair of the parliamentary committee, said Papuans, including students, youth representatives and community leaders, were consulted in the deliberation of the bill.

The fact that the amendments covered 18 articles instead of only three as originally drafted, showed that the government and the legislature had listened to Papuan people’s aspirations, Yan said.

“Not all the wishes could be fulfilled, but at least some were accepted. This shows that there was a commitment and a joint effort,” he told BenarNews.

The new law has made a change in the composition of legislative councils at the regency level, that is, at local councils. It stipulates that these councils include appointed indigenous representatives in addition to elected ones, instead of just the latter under the 2001 law.

In addition, the new law also calls for prioritizing indigenous Papuans in jobs.

Komarudin Watubun, chair of a special committee that deliberated the bill, said this special autonomy law offers greater benefits for native Papuans.

“The bill provides for privileges for indigenous Papuans in the fields of politics, education, health, employment, and the economy, as well as support for customary communities,” Komarudin said in his speech in parliament.

Critics like Cahyo Pamungkas, a researcher at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, said the so-called privileges given to indigenous Papuans “do not have a clear mechanism” for implementation.

Awom of Kontras also noted that in December, security minister Mohammad Mahfud MD had accused Papuan officials of corruption.

“Because funds funneled to Papua are huge, but because the elite there are corrupt, the people are left with nothing,” Mahfud MD said at that time.

Awom said Jakarta only talked about corruption but was not enforcing the law.

‘Brunt of discrimination’

Maichel Telenggen, a resident of Jayapura, the capital of Papua province, expressed skepticism about the autonomy law, saying what Papuans needed most was respect for basic human rights.

“The problem is for a long time Papuans have borne the brunt of discrimination and human rights violations. Those are the basic things that must be addressed first,” Telenggen told BenarNews.

Clashes between rebels and government forces have intensified since December 2018, after rebels killed 20 people who worked for a state-owned construction company building a road in Papua.

In April, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo ordered security forces to step up efforts to eradicate the armed groups after separatist insurgents assassinated an army general.

As part of the crackdown, the government declared the separatist rebels a terrorist group, raising alarm among rights activists who said the classification could lead to more human rights abuses and endanger civil society.

Amnesty International Indonesia’s Usman urged the government to establish a mechanism to ensure that the rights of the Papuan people are fully protected.

“Although the previous law contains provisions that protect the rights of indigenous Papuans, the fact is the government has not been serious about implementing them,” Usman said.

“On the contrary, for 20 years, those rights have been violated.”

Arie Firdaus in Jakarta contributed to this report.


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