Dec 04, 2023 Last Updated 7:41 AM, Dec 4, 2023

Blaming Papuans

Blaming Papuans
Published: Dec 15, 2013

Jenny Munro

No Papuan heroes: Schoolchildren parade with pictures of Indonesian nationalist heroes in Wamena  Jenny Munro

A recent Inside Indonesia article by Bobby Anderson argues that the greatest failures of special autonomy in Papua are not those elements implemented by Jakarta, but health and education services turned over to provincial and district authorities. Anderson is right that special autonomy is a boon for the powerful and a disaster for the majority, including school children. But at every turn, he finds a way to blame Papuans, ignoring a broader context of historical mistreatment, state repression, and power dynamics that implicate state and corporate actors.

Rather than find fault with indigenous teachers, parents and district officials in remote areas, I suggest in this article that we need to look at the ways by which Indonesian policies are promoting movement from remote rural areas, rather than investment in local capacities, and thus contributing to the evisceration of rural services. I question core assumptions that Anderson and other commentators have about the so-called Papuanisation of the civil service. It’s also much too easy to blame a local indigenous ‘elite’, forgetting that this elite does not operate in isolation from powerful Indonesian and corporate interests. While Papuans may be the easy target in attempts to diagnose Papua’s contemporary ills, Jakarta persists in a colonial tradition of rolling out development policies without regard for local wisdom or critique. We should never forget that.

Education in historical perspective

Anderson claims that the failure of the education system in the highlands is systemic now, but that it was not always this way and that things were much better when the missionaries were in charge. I question whether there was ever a functioning education system in the highlands.

The problems Anderson describes are hardly new and long pre-date the transfer of authority to the province that came with special autonomy. His depiction of missionary education as the pinnacle of schooling in the highlands is particularly misplaced, unless the primary goal of education is spreading the gospel, moralising about indigenous customs, promoting cultural assimilation, and organising activities such as building bridges and raising rabbits. Perhaps Anderson’s nostalgia for missionary education reflects the views of a particular set of informants – other people certainly have very different interpretations.

The Indonesian national education system has been an extension of missionary efforts to ‘civilise’ highlanders and to promote mainstream Indonesian values, lifestyles and beliefs. Ever since Papua became part of Indonesia, schooling has always been primarily aimed at inculcating Indonesian identity and spreading national messages, rather than advancing literacy, mathematics or other basic skills.

There is, however, no question that school enrolment levels are very low, have been for a long time, and are possibly getting worse. High mobility of children and families, their intermittent education experiences and poor record-keeping make it difficult to get an accurate picture of school participation in the highlands. I have heard complaints in Papua about the quality of literacy achievements among high school and university graduates but I would dispute the validity of Anderson’s blanket statement that ‘the majority of highland high school graduates are barely literate’. My own research suggests that for highlanders entering high school indicates a serious commitment to studies, including an aspiration to pursue higher education, and that high school graduates are literate.

Anderson claims problems with the education services are ‘systemic’ and appears to blame the Wamena Incident in 2000 for the destruction of education services. This blame seems ill-placed. Migrants did leave, some never to return, but new migrants arrived, and indigenous teachers make up a large proportion of the workforce. The violence that shapes everyday life in the highlands is more often produced by the security sector, which has a more sustained impact on education participation and quality than any single historical event.

The blame game

Anderson attributes the ‘death’ of the education system to flawed human resource management and local understandings of education, among other factors. He argues that schools are not the problem, teachers are. I concur that the Indonesian government, spurred by international development agencies, has built many school buildings in Papua. But the problem isn’t necessarily that there is a superfluity of schools. Many schools are in the wrong place. A 2009 World Bank study found that in Jayawijaya there were just four primary schools per 1000 school-age children, which is roughly half the national average. Around 60 per cent of all villages in Jayawijaya did not have a primary school, and the average distance from these villages to the nearest school was seven kilometres. The average distance from these villages to a secondary school ranged from 23 to 32 kilometres, in areas where public transport is almost nonexistent. Before we argue that new schools are not needed in Papua, it would be worthwhile to investigate this issue more thoroughly.

Anderson argues that the Papuanisation of the civil service under special autonomy has led to a flood of unqualified indigenous teachers who are causing the education system to fail. Anderson’s claim that unqualified persons are being slotted into jobs on the basis of their clan affiliations rather than their skills echoes the sort of stereotyping that is common in Papua. For years, people have been saying that Papuan highlanders possess no skills or capabilities and exemplify poor quality human resources. It follows, if we believe Anderson’s logic, that the only way highlanders could have increased their numbers in the civil service so rapidly under special autonomy is through nepotism.

But there is a broader context here too: the history of employing unqualified non-indigenous in Papua. This practice was a reflection of racial judgments and the logistics of colonial administration. During the Dutch era, non-Papuans were chosen as teachers because authorities thought they would have a civilising effect on the indigenous population, due to their ethnic heritage, not their qualifications. Under Indonesian rule, Papua has emerged as a land of opportunity for migrants in many types of employment, regardless of their credentials or skills. Just a few decades ago, a primary school diploma from Java could get you a top-level job in the Papuan civil service.

There is currently no evidence to back up assertions about the ‘Papuanisation’ of the civil service, or whether an ostensible increase in numbers means anything in terms of greater authority or empowerment of indigenous Papuans. In 2009, I analysed newspaper announcements pertaining to the acceptance of new recruits into the Jayawijaya district civil service. Local indigenous people accounted for 112 of 275 new recruits (41 per cent), while 163 of the new employees (59 per cent) were from outside the central highlands. I also considered the types of employment gained by local indigenous recruits. Most of the local indigenous candidates, 58 of 112 (52 per cent), were accepted as teachers in primary and secondary schools, but even in this field they were outnumbered by 99 non-indigenous recruits. Papuans were not getting the senior positions.

There is also no evidence that indigenous entrants to the civil service, including teachers, are lacking credentials, or that Papuans who gain employment through nepotistic means do so more frequently than non-indigenous persons. I know men and women in the central highlands who possess a diploma, and have passed the entrance exam several times, but were forced to bribe the district head in order to acquire a job. A friend, Marta, one of the first high school graduates from her village, was assigned to street cleaning duties. In the village where I work, most of the new indigenous civil servants occupy these sorts of jobs, leading me to question what Papuanisation really means, and if it reflects any of the principles of empowerment and opportunity that its supporters claim.

Anderson finds indigenous teachers at the heart of the ‘no-show’ jobs problem, but lack of productivity among civil servants goes back far beyond special autonomy. Even today, the ‘no-show’ phenomenon is most notable among migrants who occupy most of the mid-to-top echelon civil service positions.

Is Papuan-oriented curriculum a ‘flawed solution’?

According to Anderson, a Papuan-oriented curriculum for school children won’t improve the education system. He cites extreme views allegedly held by some proponents of a special curriculum, namely that Papuan children are only interested in Papuan content, as evidence of racist thinking that flies in the face of his own view that children everywhere in the world are the same. But this is a red herring. The real issue is that the existing curriculum lacks recognisable content that can affirm that Papuan faces, languages, cultural formations and experiences have a place in the nation, in the education system and in modernising Papua. Papua-related content is a much-needed corrective to the stream of ideas and images that have been flowing in from outside for decades, which implicitly tell Papuan children that they have no place and no value in contemporary society.

What takes place in schools has the power to validate or invalidate indigenous lifestyles, to affirm or deny cultural belonging. Surely the use of Papuan languages and cultural content in schools is a small but positive step in the direction of rectifying decades of cultural denial and denigration. It is not a silver bullet but engaging, locally-appropriate curriculum has been shown to improve school participation in other contexts where foreign and colonial agendas first defined the nature and content of schooling.

Stereotyping Papuan parents

Finally, after teachers and curriculum, Anderson blames rural Papuan parents for having a flawed understanding of education. He argues that rural Papuans view education as a ‘supernatural key to advancement and wealth in an animistic belief system.’ Highlanders have explained to me different ways of looking at education: as a way of developing future independence, a way out of subsistence agriculture, a way of recovering power taken by the Indonesian state, a way of outsmarting migrants, and a way of participating in development and in the nation-state. The spirit world never came up in these discussions.

What Anderson calls ceremonial exchange and acts of gift-giving in the acquisition of education, my informants describe in less dramatic terms as small amounts of money given to teachers for school reports. Everyone acknowledges this is a hassle, but it hardly registers in the grand scheme of highlands exchange relationships.

Regardless of their level of literacy, I have always found that parents are ardent supporters of school and keen critics of the education system and their family’s particular challenges with it. Representations of illiterate highlands parents as naïve and ignorant, or as engaging the education system primarily through traditional beliefs and economies, is entirely misleading.

Who are ‘local elites’?

Anderson makes strong claims about ‘local elites’ who control the flow of special autonomy funds and channel what he calls no-show jobs to their clan affiliates. This category is conveniently vague, merging important questions of class and ethnicity in the highlands. If we mean local indigenous elites, in the highlands we are mainly talking about the district head (bupati) and allies who are part of his ‘success team’ (‘tim sukses’), the team formed formed to help him design and win an election campaign. In Jayawijaya, the elite might also include indigenous members of parliament who live in nicer houses and have a reputation for drinking and promiscuity.

Apart from this tiny group, an ‘upper class’ indigenous family in Wamena lives in a wooden house in the city, owns a television, can afford food and schooling costs, and has a few pigs in the backyard for funerals or weddings. But that’s it. Such people might be religious leaders (ministers or preachers) or civil servants, with multiple families or generations living together to pool resources. People who maintain ties to land in a rural community might lease this land or use exchange relationships and agricultural activities to raise money for urban expenditures. Cultural norms in the highlands make it difficult to accumulate wealth beyond the basics, and financial circumstances can destabilise quickly. Families who are not struggling to pay for food and school costs are in the minority.

Anderson’s analysis ignores another more common and more obvious type of local elite: non-indigenous migrants who live in fancy houses, own stores and other business ventures, and fly in their new sport utility vehicles to drive around town. These are the people who have real money in the highlands.

Moreover, if someone at the apex of the indigenous elite – the head of Jayawijaya district for example - is benefiting from special autonomy funds this comes mainly via construction contracts that he gives his own companies. Such a person is enabled by political support from migrants, by corruption in the electoral commission, and by Jakarta’s laissez-faire attitude about anything that doesn’t openly speak the word ‘merdeka’ (independence) in Papua. Corruption and maladministration are tolerated, even encouraged, by the powers that be in Indonesia as part of their strategy of political control.

Before we let Jakarta off the hook by blaming locals for failing to implement special autonomy, it is worth noting that Papuan commentators predicted that special autonomy and similar funding schemes would be a nightmare to implement, adding to social disruption and economic hardship, not to mention violence and the HIV epidemic. They were ignored by Jakarta. It hardly seems fair to blame local government officials for failing to implement an agenda they never supported or agreed to in the first place.

munro 2New power and old power: a district official at the Baliem Valley festival   Jenny Munro

The bigger picture?

Anderson spells out some of the logistical dynamics that make being a teacher, a student, or a parent complicated in the highlands, but there are broader conditions at play that affect the state of the education system. He points to local corruption, lack of expectations regarding work performance, and poor human resource management. But what may appear as local failures are best understood in relation to the region’s political history, and the policy environment created by Jakarta. Entrenched ethnic, cultural, and political tensions affect local engagements with, and the provision of, education services.

Accusations of indigenous inferiority position urban or Indonesian-occupied sites in the highlands as places of success, modernity, and safety. The town of Wamena, not far from the massive Freeport McMoran copper mine, exemplifies Indonesian modernity; whatever struggles and bloodshed the city has gone through in the past it is now largely acquiescent to the Indonesian state and its security sector. It is no wonder that civil servants, including teachers, educated individuals, professionals, and those with resources (or even a taxi fare), are drawn to the city, while remote areas become overrun with security personnel.

Anderson’s critique accepts on principle Jakarta’s view that pemekaran (the policy of breaking up districts and other administrative units to make more, smaller units) and special autonomy are intended to extend governance and development to remote areas, and to enhance the participation of Papuans, even only elite Papuans, in those processes. But there is another way of looking at these policies: as part of the grand scheme of Indonesian government development initiatives, and just the latest among many such initiatives rolled out over the years in Papua. The reality of these policies show us that development is not really aimed at improving the lives of Papuans in remote, rural spaces but rather at shifting them to regional centres and cities where they can be better managed by the state, leaving remote areas open to resource exploitation. From this perspective it is no surprise that education services do not function in remote areas of the highlands.

Rather than accept Jakarta’s view, it’s better to think critically about how the results of special autonomy align with a modernisation agenda that pleases Jakarta. As remote populations move to regional centres, we can see the penetration into those populations, or at least their elites, of understandings of Indonesian modernity. Local people start to measure their successes and failures in terms of how they and other Papuans perform in terms of Indonesian standards of educational attainment, bureaucratic performance, leadership qualities, and all the rest. They may view rural agricultural lifestyles as backward and hopeless, and cultural traditions as irrelevant baggage.

Shifts in perspective have tangible outcomes. If we think we have poverty and famine in highlands Papua now, just wait until the indigenous population has abandoned agriculture and moved to the city expecting to live off a cash income. As Anderson’s analysis demonstrates well, the implementation of special autonomy creates a local blame game, amplifying ethnic, clan, and class divisions. People start to direct discord internally, at their fellow Papuans, rather than collectively outward towards Jakarta and the Indonesian state.

If nothing else, the state should take some responsibility for ignoring, indeed, furthering undemocratic conditions that hamper the proper delivery of services in the new climate of decentralisation. In Jayawijaya, for example, Jakarta enables a district head whose priorities are profit and infrastructure development by whatever means, in part because he cooperates with a deputy head of North Sulawesi heritage, an intelligence officer who recently retired from the army. The district head is also backed by political supporters who are not just clan affiliates, as Anderson assumes, but also Indonesian elites with corporate interests.

The sort of local accountability that decentralised services require in order to function well is unlikely to be possible in an atmosphere of repression, such as that which prevails in the highlands. In my experience, members of the public would like to publicly criticise their local governments and collectively show their discontent about the poor education, health and other services they receive. But both the security forces and the local government disapprove of public gatherings and critical speech. Because of past and present security sector violence, people are nervous about getting involved in the sort of political activism that might generate greater accountability.

Special autonomy in the ‘kingdom system’

None of this is to deny that corrupt local officials are beneficiaries of and participants in dysfunctional governance. As an example, the head of Jayawijaya district recently held elections to have himself re-elected (he got 91 per cent of the vote) in defiance of a directive from Jakarta to postpone the election due to irregularities in the democratic process. The district head allegedly had the local electoral commission dismiss all the popular opposing candidates on the grounds that they failed to correctly complete candidacy paperwork.

And despite the complaints from Jakarta, nothing was done when the election went ahead. Local people referred to this outcome as evidence of a ‘kingdom system’ (‘sistem kerajaan’) that now operates in the district. In the kingdom system, credentials are established through force and demonstrated by material wealth. The rule of law is subverted in order to further personal ambitions. An entourage of silent supporters benefits from corruption and hierarchical relationships. The nation-state asserts due process, promises development, and then looks away.

Anderson’s analysis of such situations in the highlands stops at the actions of the indigenous government official. But what we need to do is to adopt a view that also includes the actions and agency of powerful allies in the Indonesian state as well as corporate interests and non-indigenous supporters. Election politics in the highlands, and beyond, are expensive. Between campaign funds, transportation costs, and vote-buying, the average candidate will say they need about 500 million rupiah (about US$41,000) to have any chance at winning. The only individuals with access to that kind of money are Indonesian businesspeople and security sector figures.

In recent years, the Jayawijaya district leaders have secured such financial support by carrying on with an ‘open for business’ policy. There is, locals say, no chance of a district head being elected who doesn’t support (and finance) in-migration, urbanisation, and construction projects that primarily employ migrant labour. Indigenous government officials openly refer to this set of circumstances as being ‘inside the system’ – to hold a position of authority an indigenous person must be thoroughly entangled in a pre-established web of power, and aligned with the interests of the Indonesian state.

It is not the condition of the school, the teacher, or the curriculum per se that determines the state of education in highlands Papua. Rather, it is the condition of everyday life. The problems of education can hardly be reduced to human resource management, as Anderson argues. It is not possible to seek solutions solely by judging individual schools as either superior or inferior, individual teachers as either good or bad, or even individual government officials as either corrupt or upstanding.

All the problems besetting education in Papua’s highlands must be viewed in a broader context of policy and security conditions that promote urbanisation and neglect rural areas, inter-ethnic and corporate alliances that aim to strip Papua of its natural resources, and empty promises of prosperity and empowerment that ask Papuans to wait for government handouts while the real opportunities are offered to others. None of these conditions has arisen solely as a result of special autonomy, they are all part of a long-standing experience of marginalisation and inequality. To neglect this broader context is to reproduce a long history of discourses that blame Papuans for problems primarily created by others.

Jenny Munro ( is a research fellow at the Australian National University and has been working on projects related to education, youth, migration, and HIV/AIDS in Papua and West Papua provinces since 2006.

Inside Indonesia 114: Oct-Dec 2013{jcomments on}


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