Jul 19, 2024 Last Updated 5:22 AM, Jul 16, 2024

Divide and who rules?

Published: Jul 26, 2007

Richard Chauvel

President Megawati’s attempt to divide Papua into three provinces has generated social tension and political violence in Papua. The threat to partition the province poses a particular challenge for Papuan nationalists as it tests the strength of Papuan identity developed since the Pacific War. How have Papuans responded to the partition of the province and what does it tell us about the nature of Papuan nationalism?

In December 2003 the provincial parliament in Papua held a two-day meeting in Jayapura. The meeting was attended by an enthusiastic gathering of around one thousand people. It brought together youth, women, traditional, community and religious leaders, as well as activists and politicians. The meeting urged the Indonesian government to immediately issue the government regulations needed to establish the Papuan Peoples Assembly (MRP, Majelis Rakyat Papua). Without it, delegates argued, there was no special autonomy.

The meeting also wanted the government to be consistent and honest in its implementation of special autonomy. It demanded that the government revoke the Presidential Instruction 1/2003 and the 1999 law (45/1999) to divide Papua into three provinces. The communiqué issued had a customary sting in its tail. If the government did not respond immediately, the meeting threatened to call in the Papua Presidium Council, the leading independence organisation, to conduct a national and international dialogue with the objective of holding a referendum on self-determination in Papua.

There was nothing exceptional about the meeting. The ideas and arguments expressed reflected mainstream Jayapura elite opinion. They were supported by Papuan politicians and officials in the provincial government and parliament, academics, students, non-governmental organisation activists and pro-independence groups as well as senior figures of the Papuan establishment like former Governor and Ambassador to Mexico, Bas Suebu. There were few dissenting voices.

The divisions are clear in post-Suharto Papuan nationalism. There are ‘Papuans’ and ‘non-Papuans’ and ‘Papua’ versus ‘Jakarta’ and ‘Indonesia’. The Reverend Socrates Sofyan Yoman, leader of the meeting’s religion discussion group, argued that the division of the province was not in the interest of Papuans’ welfare. He claimed the objective of the central government was to isolate, divide and confuse the Papuan people, ultimately exterminating Papuans in order to create opportunities for greater immigration.

Partition had direct implications for Papuan self-rule. If two new provincial administrations were established, there would not be sufficient numbers of Papuans with the qualifications and experience to fill the most senior positions. Non-Papuan officials and the military were the only ones who would benefit.

Violent stimulus

The meeting was initiated by the provincial parliament as a response to violence and tensions within Papua generated by the central government’s determination to divide the province. The immediate stimulus was the violence between pro- and anti-partition Papuans, and between anti-partition Papuans and pro-partition non-Papuans, in Timika in August 2003, surrounding the inauguration of the province of Central Irian Jaya.

It was noteworthy because it was not supposed to be just a forum of established pro-special autonomy opinion. Its initial purpose was to seek the views of the district administrations throughout Papua. The district executives were to be obliged to attend and the Jakarta-appointed Governor of the province of West Irian Jaya, Bram Atururi, was invited in a personal capacity. The leaders of the provincial parliament wanted their pro-partition opponents to attend so they could explain their reasons for supporting partition.

The head of the provincial parliament’s Commission A, Yance Kayame, wanted the meeting to reach a consensus. In his view, there were three main options: the special autonomy law could simply be handed back to Jakarta; public opinion on special autonomy or partition could be ascertained; or the conflict between the two laws could be adjudicated through the legal system.


Several weeks before the meeting, the speaker of the provincial parliament, John Ibo, described the objective of the meeting differently. He saw the meeting as a way of promoting reconciliation amongst the political elite, community leaders and Papuan society on the subject of special autonomy and partition of the province.


For Mr Ibo, the self-interested behaviour of officials and members of the political elite was of particular concern. He believed that Papuan unity could not be achieved if there were two rival political elites. Papua has 310 ethno-linguistic groups. Mr Ibo argued these groups had to be united in order to overcome the problems of poverty, backwardness and ignorance.

The meeting did not achieve reconciliation. Nor did it create a sense of unity among the political elite. There was no formal representation of the district administrations and none of the leading Papuan advocates of partition attended.

The pro-special autonomy views expressed at the meeting might indeed reflect a broad consensus of elite opinion, particularly in Jayapura. However, that was not the problem. The central government’s policy of partitioning Papua does have credibility in Papuan politics amongst some politicians and officials in the regions outside Jayapura. These officials are prepared to cooperate with the establishment of the new provinces of West and Central Irian Jaya. Indeed some of them want to create even more provinces in Papua.

An ethnic nationalism?

The provisions of the special autonomy law (see box) give expression to ethnic nationalism. Reverend Yoman’s fears that the partition of Papua will lead to a consolidation of non-Papuan domination reflect Papuan nationalists’ concerns.

The distinction between Papuans and other groups, particularly Indonesians, is made in very clear physiological, cultural and ethnic terms. It’s a case of ‘we’ Papuans and ‘you’ Indonesians. The Papuan theologian, Dr Benny Giay, gave ethnic distinction a religious legitimacy:

God created people to be different. Papuans are different to Javanese, and different to other people too. God gave Papua to Papuans as a home, so they could eat sago and sweet potatoes there. God gave them a penis gourd and loincloth for clothes. God gave them curly hair and black skin. Papuans are Papuans. They can never be turned into Javanese or Sumatrans, nor vice versa. The Javanese were given Java. Tofu and tempeh (soy bean cake) are their foods. Their skin is light and their hair straight.

Papua’s ethnic nationalism, as expressed by Reverend Yoman and Dr Giay, is driven by the dramatically changed demography in Papua under Indonesian rule. In 1960 the ‘Asian’ population numbered 18,600 out of an estimated population of 736,700, or just 2.5 per cent. By 2000, the percentage of non-Papuans resident in the province was 35 per cent. Papuan nationalism is fuelled by Papuans’ sense of having lost control of their homeland and having become marginal to Papua’s political and economic life.

A paradox

Yet there is a paradox in Papuan identity. On the one hand, there is the clear distinction made between Papuans and Indonesians. On the other, there is Mr Ibo’s recognition that there are 310 ethno-linguistic groups in Papua.

The relationship between Papuan identity and Indonesian identity is different from that between regional, ethnic and national identities elsewhere in the archipelago. Over the past one hundred and fifty years, Papuan societies have come into contact with each other and the outside world through the mediation of the Netherlands Indies and Indonesian states. This experience has done much to inform and shape Papuan identity and nationalism.

At the risk of oversimplifying, being Sundanese, Balinese or Batak has come to complement and enrich being Indonesian. In contrast, for most Papuans, there is a basic incompatibility between being Papuan and being Indonesian.

Papuan identity has been created by people whose contact with each other has been both limited and recent. Papuans do not have the assurance of a shared common community and historical experience like the Minangkabau or Buginese.

The violence in Wamena in October 2000 revealed something of the tensions in the province. Conflict, and the subsequent exodus of non-highlanders from the highlands, occurred not only between highlander Papuans and non-Papuans but also involved coastal Papuans. Likewise, violence in Timika in August 2003 occurred between rival groups of Papuans.

A work in progress

As Mr Ibo points out, the challenge for Papuan nationalists is to create a sense of national identity in a highly heterogeneous society. But local conflicts suggest that creation of a cohesive pan-Papuan identity remains a work in progress. The inability of the provincial parliament to organise a reconciliation meeting between supporters of special autonomy and partition confirms this impression.

The newness of Papuan identity is widely recognised. The current generation of Papuan nationalists sought their inspiration in the work of the first generation of nationalists, who had emerged in the last years of the Dutch regime. The first raising of the Morning Star flag on 1 December 1961 has become a symbolic centrepiece of Papuan nationalism. Many Papuans regard it as the day independence was declared.

Similar ceremonies were held throughout the territory. In 1961 the Dutch Controleur of Mimika reported that the flag raising ceremony had attracted some interest but little understanding among the local population. The people had only a vague idea of what the word ‘Papuan’ meant. At that time, people still thought in local and regional terms. Being part of Mimika had meaning, whereas being Papuan did not.

The first generation of nationalists graduated from the mission schools and the colleges established by the Dutch after the Pacific War to train officials, teachers and police. The students, recruited from all over the territory, were the first to think of themselves as Papuans. Mission education was delivered in the Malay dialects of eastern Indonesia. Malay became the lingua franca for educated Papuans and the language of Papuan nationalism.

Papuan nationalism of the early 1960s was stimulated by the struggle between Indonesia and The Netherlands for control of their homeland. Yet the sense of being Papuan and the ideal of an independent Papua was limited to the several thousand Dutch-educated Papuans scattered around the small urban centres of Netherlands New Guinea. The elite were attracted to an independent Papua free of the overbearing presence and arrogance of the east Indonesian servants of the Dutch colonial state. It was this rivalry between educated Papuans and east Indonesian officials that first gave Papuan nationalism a strong ethnic expression.

The policies and practices of the Sukarno and Suharto governments encouraged the consolidation and dissemination of a Papuan identity. The Free West Papua Movement’s armed struggle challenged and embarrassed the Indonesian military, but ultimately never threatened Indonesian control of Papua. It was perhaps more important for keeping alive the ideal of independence.

Papuan identity flourished and spread not out of a shared ethnic, religious or cultural heritage, but as a common struggle against Indonesian rule. The strong ethnic expression of Papuan nationalism was born of political struggle rather than from some immutable primordial identification. The regional, national and global political environment continues to shape its evolution.

Divide and rule

The Papuan nationalist movement flourished in the immediate post-Suharto period. The straightforward demand for independence through peaceful dialogue, made to the Habibie and Wahid governments, seemed a viable strategy. Many of the nationalist ideals articulated at the 2000 Papuan Congress were incorporated in the special autonomy law. However, President Megawati’s attempt to divide the province has created confusion and political violence in Papua. After nearly a year, the government has not been able to explain how partition is compatible with special autonomy.

The creation of new provinces tests the strength of the pan-Papuan identity. Regional autonomy is a powerful weapon in Jakarta’s hands because it has the capacity to deliver decision-making authority and resources to elites at various levels of society. The special autonomy law risked empowering an elite in Jayapura—an elite the central government does not trust.

By creating new provinces, Jakarta can select and empower rival Papuan power bases. The challenge posed by partition exposes the dilemmas faced by Papuan politicians and officials, who cooperate within the Indonesian political and administrative system despite their desire for independence. Papuans have to make difficult decisions in light of their experience of Indonesian authority. They have to weigh up the opportunities of career advancement and family security against their ideals for a different Papua.

Associate Professor Richard Chauvel (Richard.Chauvel@vu.edu.au) is Director of the Australia Asia Pacific Institute at Victoria University, Melbourne.

Inside Indonesia 78: Apr - Jun 2004

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