By Greg Poling
June has probably been the most violent month in years for Indonesia’s Papua province. First, a local mob attacked two soldiers, stabbing one to death, for hitting (or nearly hitting, depending on the source) a young Papuan boy with their motorbike June 6 outside the town of Wamena. Fellow soldiers from the local Indonesian army battalion retaliated the same day with an attack on the village.
Meanwhile, the capital of Jayapura has been plagued by a seemingly random spate of shootings that began with the May 29 killing of a German tourist. Things only got worse when police fatally shot independence activist Mako Tabuni June 14 while attempting to arrest him in connection with the shootings. The result was a riot that left shops and vehicles across parts of Jayapura in ashes.
Unfortunately, most observers are too jaded to be surprised by the recent violence. Papua has been a tinderbox of ethnic tension and separatist conflict for a half century, ever since the Dutch and the UN allowed what was then called Netherlands New Guinea to be incorporated as the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya.
The roots of Papuan resentment are varied and complex. They involve ethnicity, religion, economics, and historical legacies. But Jakarta’s inability to make any significant progress in resolving the issues can be boiled down to three closely related factors:
- an unwillingness by Indonesians to recognize Papua’s unique situation,
- a lack of sustained attention from the central authorities, and
- a culture of impunity among the military and law enforcement agencies.
The first step to address the simmering conflict would require the authorities in Jakarta to finally admit that the situation in Papua is fundamentally different than elsewhere in Indonesia. The province is ethnically, culturally, and linguistically distinct from the rest of the country. Its people are predominantly Melanesian and it is the only sizable part of the country in which Malayo-Polynesian languages are not dominant. It is also predominantly Christian and its people often feel threatened by their Muslim neighbors. Add to this the bitter legacy of Indonesian occupation and the result is a region whose desire for self-determination will require a far more robust approach than the special autonomy status granted to Papua in 2001.
The distinctiveness of Papua, and the sense of otherness it breeds, contributes directly to a lack of sustained attention from Jakarta. Papua is simply too far away and its people and problems too alien to command the attention of the central government. Papua policy has been left in the hands of the armed forces and local police and officials.
The sense that Jakarta is not watching what happens on the ground feeds a tendency for commanders and local officials to treat their areas of responsibility in Papua as personal fiefdoms. Soldiers and police alike carry out their duties with neither transparency nor accountability. After years of conflict and often heavy-handed responses from authorities, Papuans have little faith in law enforcement or the courts. In such an atmosphere, the turn to mob justice on display in Wamena is unfortunate, but it should not be surprising.
The Indonesian system is large, unwieldy, and tends toward inertia. If the situation in Papua is to improve, it will take a concerted effort from the president himself. He will need to do far more than pronounce that soldiers had “overreacted” and would be investigated, as he did following the Wamena incident. Such half-measures only reinforce the sense of Papuans that they are being ignored by the center and convince local commanders and officials that there are no consequences for their actions.
Only with direct and sustained presidential action will we see the Indonesian experiment—the world’s most diverse country unified and at peace—finally completed. That is a legacy that Yudhoyono should be eager to leave behind when he steps down in 2014.
Mr. Gregory Poling is a Research Assistant with the CSIS Southeast Asia Program. For an extended version of this piece in Southeast Asia from the Corner of 18th & K, click here .