Focus on West Papua (Part 1)

by Paolo B. Maligaya, NAMFREL Senior Operations Associate
(Mr. Maligaya was in West Papua to observe the July 20, 2011 gubernatorial election for the Asian Network for Free Elections - ANFREL)

from NAMFREL Election Monitor Vol.2, No.18

Two time zones away from the Indonesian capital Jakarta, Western Papua is the Indonesian half of the island of New Guinea, the world's second largest island next to Greenland. Rich in natural resources, most of western Papua is composed of dense forests, with a high degree of biodiversity, home to many endemic species like the cenderawasih (bird of paradise) that Papua is known for. Western Papua (the eastern part of New Guinea being Papua New Guinea, which used to be under Australia), though one of Indonesia's biggest regions in terms of land area, is the country's least populated . The original inhabitants are ethnic Papuans, Melanesians, and Austronesians, coming from different tribes, some of which still practice their traditional way of life; reportedly, there are tribes in the mountains that remain uncontacted. Culturally, Papuans are very distinct from the rest of Indonesia, and almost 80% of the population are Christians.

Of the 3 million population of Western Papua, an increasing percentage is composed of transmigrants: families, professionals and other individuals, including those affected by natural calamities, from other (populous) parts of Indonesia -- like Java and Sumatra -- who take advantage of government incentives to avail of its transmigrant program. The transmigrant program remains one of the contentious issues surrounding Papua: while the Indonesian central government in Java sees the program as a way to alleviate social problems in some areas and to redistribute human resources where they are needed, many Papuans see this as a threat to their culture and to their very existence as a people. In the 1960s, when Indonesia annexed Papua, transmigrants comprised 2% of the population; this figure jumped to 35% in 2000, and in 2011, transmigrants comprise more than 50% of the population. Many Papuans fear that in the near future, they will be the minority in their homeland.

The details of the integration of Western Papua into the republic of Indonesia is still being hotly debated. The former Netherlands New Guinea was part of the colonial Netherlands Indies (Dutch East Indies). When Indonesia was granted independence, the Netherlands seceded all of Dutch East Indies to Indonesia, except Netherlands New Guinea. Historical accounts offer several reasons, from the Dutch wanting to retain the region as a home for Eurasians, to the reason that Papua and its people are just too distinct to be part of Indonesia.
(Indonesian nationalists maintain to this day that Papua should have been ceded to the new republic along with the rest of the Dutch East Indies, and -- in response to the argument that Papuan culture and appearance are too distinct from the rest of Indonesia -- are of the opinion that Indonesia is supra-ethnic, composed of people of diverse cultures.) After World War II, when the Dutch East Indies became the Republic of Indonesia, the Netherlands retained Papua, and prepared it for independence by promoting nationalism among the Papuans, holding an election for members of the New Guinea Council, who then commissioned and adopted a national anthem, and also a national flag, the Morning Star. In 1961, Indonesia attempted unsuccessfully to invade Western Papua, resulting to violence and casualties to both Indonesian and Dutch forces. In 1962, Netherlands entered into the UN-led "New York Agreement" seceding authority over the region to the UN, and then to Indonesia in 1963, after which Indonesia would have to allow Papuans to decide for themselves whether they
want independence or annexation. It was around this time that the Papuan independence movement was born, the most high profile among the militant organizations being the Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM), or the Free Papua Movement, which exists to this day. In 1969, Indonesia, upon supervision of the UN, held the "Act of Free Choice," but it was done through a council of Papuan elders -- the members of which were said to have been handpicked by the Indonesian central government -- instead of a referendum. The council voted unanimously that Papua be integrated to Indonesia.

The call for independence did not die. The three decades that followed saw conflict between Papuan militants and the Indonesian military, resulting to much violence and deaths, with both camps accusing each other of human rights violations that up to now have not been fully investigated and the perpetrators prosecuted. Though Indonesia granted "special autonomy" to Western Papua in 2001, calls for full independence continue. Many Papuans still believe that they were not given a fair chance to decide for themselves when Papua was annexed. As recent as early this month, rallies were held in Papua calling for a referendum for Papuan independence.

Social problems in the region seem to have exacerbated over time. Violent conflict continues in some parts between the militants and the Indonesian military. Inter-tribe conflict remains. Corruption in the local government is said to be rampant, with the traditional "big man" form of leadership still in existence, elitist and feudal in nature that would make efforts for good governance difficult at the least. Despite being rich in natural resources, most Papuans remain poor, with many still practicing subsistence farming. Natural resources are being depleted fast, especially in the large area occupied by the powerful US company Freeport-McMoran, which runs the world's largest gold mine in Papua. There is a lack of health facilities in the region, with HIV/AIDS and malaria as main health issues. The level of education remains low, making many Papuans unable to compete with their transmigrant counterparts. Many ethnic Papuans are said to feel marginalized – with the arrival of transmigrants, the lack of opportunities, and inability to fully express and display their native culture lest it be misconstrued as encouraging separatism – and dissatisfied with the central government's efforts to address the different problems in Papua, deemed insufficient. (While many Papuans feel that the central government has not done enough for the region and its people, there are also many who believe that the Indonesian government has wielded too much influence over the political affairs within western Papua, undermining the special autonomy status it has given the region.) It also does not help that the rest of Indonesia are largely unaware of the goings-on in western Papua due to lack of coverage by the national media, and access to Papua remains highly restricted, especially to media, NGOs, even religious organizations, and foreigners, who are said to be subject to surveillance.

(To be continued)