May 28, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Rulers in their own country?

Rulers in their own country?

Richard Chauvel

   A peaceful demonstration against corruption at the local parliament building in Timika, 2008
   Muridan S Widjojo

Politics in Papua operates in two distinct realms. One realm is closed and partly clandestine; the other is open and highly competitive. The first realm reminds one of the repressive climate of Suharto’s New Order, while the second realm has many of the characteristics of the democratic electoral politics that has developed throughout Indonesia since the resignation of Suharto. Taken together these realms suggest that many of the promises of the early reformasi years have not yet been fulfilled in Papua. Yet at the same time, electoral politics and decentralisation have radically changed the pattern of politics in Papua.

The first realm is the politics of Papuan nationalism. The overt articulation of independence demands and public organisation for independence, dominated public life in Papua in the first years after Suharto’s resignation. A team of 100 Papuan leaders met with President Habibie in February 1999 and demanded that Indonesia recognise Papuan independence. In 2000 two mass public gatherings were organised. The second of these gatherings, the Kongres Papua, was partly funded by then President Abdurrahman Wahid, who had earlier permitted the change of name of the province from Irian Jaya to Papua and had allowed the Papuan Morning Star flag to be flown alongside the Indonesian flag. An Indonesian intelligence assessment prepared immediately after the Kongres Papua described the atmosphere down to the village level in Papua as one of euphoria and enthusiasm for the idea of Merdeka (independence). The detention of the Presidium leaders in late November 2000, the occupation of Jayapura by Indonesian troops and the severe curtailment of celebrations of Papuan ‘Independence Day’ on 1 December closed down the public politics of Papuan nationalism. These actions were followed nearly a year later by the assassination of the Presidium leader Theys Eluay. Although the government also issued in 2001 a Special Autonomy Law for Papua, it made it clear at the same time that there would be no toleration for ‘separatism’.

The Indonesian authorities’ responses to the occasional public outbursts of Papuan nationalism, like the flag raising incidents at the Papuan Adat Council Congress on 3 July 2007 and the march to mark International Day of the World’s Indigenous People at Wamena in August 2008, demonstrate how restricted the realm of Papuan nationalist politics has become. The national government issued a new regulation (77/2007) banning the use of separatist symbols. In Papua the regulation led to the detention of three Papuan women in January 2008 who were selling handicrafts incorporating the Morning Star flag on the streets of central Jayapura.

The factors that have fuelled Papuan nationalism – mass migration, economic marginalisation and the brutal behaviour of the security forces – remain part of the Papuan experience of Indonesian rule

Yet in pointing out that the realm of Papuan nationalist politics has been closed down, I am not suggesting that political sentiments have changed significantly since the heady days of the Kongres Papua. Indeed, the factors that have fuelled Papuan nationalism – mass migration, economic marginalisation and the brutal behaviour of the security forces – remain part of the Papuan experience of Indonesian rule.

Democratic competition

The second realm of politics in Papua is that of elite and bureaucratic competition for the control of government positions and resources. In this realm, reformasi has dramatically changed Papua. Electoral politics has created a new sphere of political competition in Papua, as it has done elsewhere in Indonesia. These changes have seen a significant increase in the numbers of Papuans in the executives and legislatures of Papua; their under-representation had been one source of grievance during the Suharto years. All the members of the Papuan People’s Assembly (MRP), as determined by the Special Autonomy Law, are Papuans. The governors and their deputies of the two extant provinces are Papuans and the heads of district administrations are Papuans, while some of the deputies are Indonesian settlers. The two governors and many of the district heads have been directly elected. Most of the heads of local governments are from the districts they govern.

For example, in Jayawijaya, 1999 was the first time that a local politician had become bupati (district head). In the early Indonesian period there had been two district heads from Biak in Wamena, while those of the latter New Order period were Indonesians. Despite the conviction for corruption of the first local bupati and a corruption investigation targeting his successor, also a local politician, it is nearly unimaginable that a non-local politician will be elected in the forthcoming elections. As will be discussed below, the competition for bureaucratic and political positions has helped to fuel the creation of new district governments and campaigns for new provinces. According to the simple logic of the newly empowered local politicians, the more district and provincial governments, the more positions and resources available for them.

Special Autonomy spans both these political realms. As a policy of the Indonesian Government, Special Autonomy was a response to Papuan demands for independence. It also established the institutional framework for the newly competitive electoral politics and the greatly increased government revenues in Papua.

Special Autonomy

   A 2005 demonstration rejecting special autonomy
   Muridan S. Widjojo

Special Autonomy was first enshrined as a policy goal by Indonesia’s supreme legislative body, the People’s Consultative Assembly, the MPR, in 1999, which included the concept in its ‘Broad Outline of Government Policy’ (GBHN) for the 1999-2004 period. The MPR linked the granting of special autonomy to the objective of strengthening Indonesia’s national integrity within the unitary state. After the Kongres Papua the parliament instructed Abdurrahman Wahid to take decisive action against separatism in Papua (and Aceh) and to implement Special Autonomy. During the brief ascendency of Theys Eluay’s Presidium Dewan Papua – the so-called ‘Papuan Spring’ – the Papuan advocates of Special Autonomy found it difficult to compete with the promise of independence. Few indigenous Papuans were interested in their promise of compromise when full independence seemed to be achievable.

There were some figures within the Department of Internal Affairs, the military and the intelligence community who considered that the law was too generous to Papuan interests

However, following the detention of some Presidium leaders and the cessation of negotiations with those still at liberty, Special Autonomy became a more attractive option. Governor Solossa’s team negotiated what appeared to be, by the standards of post-independence Indonesian governance, a generous allocation of autonomy to Papua. Special Autonomy was significantly more generous in its allocation of government revenues and decision-making authority to Papua than was the case under the nation-wide regional autonomy laws of 1999. The Special Autonomy Law provided for an ethnic Papuan Governor and Deputy Governor and a Papuan upper house charged with protecting Papuan values and interests. The Governor’s team did not obtain all that they proposed in their various drafts of the law, but the negotiating process with the Indonesian Parliament had instilled a strong sense of ownership of the law, broadly felt across the bureaucratic and political elite in Jayapura.

The Special Autonomy Law did not convince the supporters of independence, nor did it overcome the scepticism of many others in Papuan society, including students, who, given the long history of promises of autonomy since 1963, posed the simple question: why should we believe Jakarta now? However, in retrospect, the greatest threat to the Special Autonomy Law as a policy framework to resolve the conflict in Papua came not from the sceptics in Papua, but from sections of the Indonesian government itself. There were some figures within the Department of Internal Affairs, the military and the intelligence community who considered that the law was too generous to Papuan interests. They feared that if the law was implemented it would empower a Jayapura-based Papuan elite and pose a threat to national unity.

These figures advocated the partition of Papua into three provinces. They sought to break the symbolic nexus between the name Papua, the Morning Star flag and Papuan nationalism. They persuaded President Megawati to issue a Presidential Instruction in January 2003 to divide Papua into three provinces and establish four new district governments.

Given this history it is not surprising that the Special Autonomy Law has dominated much of the political discourse among Papuans since before its enactment in 2001. The present Governor of Papua, Barnabas Suebu, made Special Autonomy the basis of his election campaign in 2006. He argued that Special Autonomy gave Papuans unprecedented authority. He said Special Autonomy was ‘an opportunity and a vehicle that is going to take us to develop a New Papua in the future’. Arguing against the celebration of 1 December as Papuan Independence Day in 2007, the Governor asserted that: ‘With Special Autonomy within the framework of the Unitary Republic of Indonesia, Papua is able to govern itself. I use ‘Papuan freedom’ here to mean the freedom of self-government. Papuans have become rulers in their own country through Special Autonomy, because it is all contained with the Special Autonomy Law.’

Now, however, not all Papuans agree with Governor Suebu’s views. In August 2005 Dewan Adat Papua (the Papuan Customary Law Council) ‘returned’ the Special Autonomy Law symbolically as a coffin to the central government because it had not been effective and not been properly implemented. In April 2007 student protesters in Jayapura argued that ‘access to education and health services in the interior was still very limited. Employment opportunities were very narrow. Income was low, with many Papuans living in poverty, despite the fact that Special Autonomy had allocated 9 trillion rupiah (about A$1.2 billion) to Papua. Thus, we have concluded that for the six years Special Autonomy has operated it has failed.’ Socratez Sofyan Yoman, the Baptist Church leader, has been a persistent critic of Special Autonomy. In addition to the broadly held views that Special Autonomy has failed to bring material benefits to Papuans, Yoman has argued that Indonesian military and intelligence operations have intensified since the introduction of Special Autonomy. There has been less discussion, however, about other changes that have occurred under Special Autonomy.

Dividing Papua

Since Megawati’s Presidential Instruction of 2003, a new province, West Papua has been created in the western part of Papua, with its capital in Manokwari. Megawati’s attempt to establish a second new province of Central Irian Jaya had to be abandoned in the face of riots in Timika. However, proposals to establish three new provinces – South Papua, South West Papua and Central Papua –have found support in the respective regions as well as in the national parliament. In January 2008, draft legislation was initiated in the parliament to establish these three new provinces.

Jakarta’s unilateral creation of the province of West Papua in 2003 has done much to undermine the goodwill and trust created by the negotiations for and the enactment of the 2001 Special Autonomy Law

Apart from the establishment of two new provinces, Megawati’s Presidential Instruction also created three new district governments and a municipality – Paniai, Mimika, Puncak Jaya and the city of Sorong. In addition, twenty other district governments have been created, making a grand total of 36 districts and municipalities for Papua and West Papua. This meant the number of local governments has tripled since the Special Autonomy Law was introduced. While there has been an increase in the number of local governments throughout Indonesia, from 344 to 471, the proliferation in Papua has been much more pronounced and the impact on governance more significant.

Megawati’s Presidential Instruction and the subsequent proposals to create further provinces in Papua have been the focus of conflict between the central government, the provincial government in Jayapura and other Papuan politicians. Much of the debate touches on the nature and extent of autonomy enacted under Special Autonomy; specifically whether the relevant provisions of the law mean what they say or, alternatively, that the central government retains the power to determine the provincial and district government structures in Papua. Jakarta’s unilateral creation of the province of West Papua in 2003 has done much to undermine the goodwill and trust created by the negotiations for and the enactment of the 2001 Special Autonomy Law.

The objective of the Presidential Instruction was to undermine and devalue the Special Autonomy Law, which some sections of the Indonesian Government considered to be too generous in its concessions to Papuan interests and values and a threat to the unity of the Republic of Indonesia. The Governor’s arguments likening Special Autonomy to independence might be effective among his fellow Papuans, but such arguments have only heightened the anxieties of those in the intelligence services, security forces and the Department of Internal Affairs who opposed Special Autonomy from the beginning.

Local elites

However, it would be misleading to suggest that the proliferation of district governments and the proposals for more provinces was simply a result of the central government’s divide and rule policies. Some Papuan elites also have an interest in territorial fragmentation. The proliferation of local governments created new arenas for political competition among the Papuan elites for government positions and access to resources, greatly increased under Special Autonomy, that go with these new positions.

It is as though there is an alliance of convenience between local politicians in Papua and those in Jakarta interested in undermining the Jayapura-based political and bureaucratic elite

Some of the advocates of new districts and provinces are local political figures, while others are politicians and officials out of power in Jayapura who have seen advantage in supporting new provinces and districts as a means of acquiring position and access to resources. Two principal advocates of the province of South West Papua, Decky Asmuruf and Don Flassy, had been senior officials in Jayapura. Decky Asmuruf had been an unsuccessful candidate in the election for Governor in West Papua, while Don Flassy had been a member of the pro-independence Presidium Dewan Papua. Lukas Enembe, who narrowly lost the election for Governor in Papua to Suebu in 2006, was subsequently elected as head of the district government in Puncak Jaya, his home area. Johanes Gebze, the leader of the campaign for the province of South Papua, has been the Bupati in Merauke for two terms and cannot be elected for a third term.

The proliferation of local governments has brought about the dispersal of political activity and authority away from Jayapura. Campaigns to establish new district and provincial governments have involved lobbying in Jakarta, especially with those sections of the central government who have their own interests in fragmenting administrative structures in Papua. It is as though there is an alliance of convenience between local politicians in Papua and those in Jakarta interested in undermining the Jayapura-based political and bureaucratic elite. Often the provincial government in Jayapura is seen as an obstacle to the creation of more local governments.

In 2007 Lukas Enembe won the election in Puncak Jaya by defeating Elieser Renmaur, the incumbent district head and a Keiese. The heads of district (Bupati) in both Papua and West Papua are Papuans, mostly from the districts they govern. The deputy heads are a mixture of local Papuans, Papuans from elsewhere and non-Papuans. The dominance of local government positions by indigenous local leaders itself conveys something of the Governor’s sense of self-government under Special Autonomy. The introduction of electoral politics in local government since the fall of Suharto together with Special Autonomy has facilitated ‘Papuanisation’ and localisation of political leadership in local government. Elieser Renmaur was the last of the non-Papuan bupati to lose his position. The localisation of political leadership in district government as well as the proliferation of administrations suggests a revival of local and regional identities, reversing the growth of a Papua-wide identity evident from the last years of the Dutch regime, consolidated and broadened during the Suharto years and the years of Papuan nationalist mobilisation that followed it.

There are insufficient numbers of qualified Papuans to become officials. The International Crisis Group estimated that about 85 per cent of the officials are non-Papuans in some of the new districts

It is worth noting that in contrast to ‘Papuanisation’ and localisation of political leadership in district governments; the reverse pattern is evident among the government officials. There are insufficient numbers of qualified Papuans to become officials. The International Crisis Group estimated that about 85 per cent of the officials are non-Papuans in some of the new districts.

Problems of proliferation

With respect to the proliferation of district governments in the central highlands, the Catholic Church’s Office of Justice and Peace have wondered to what extent the enthusiasm for even more local governments reflected the wishes of the people or just the interests of the local political elites. Some Church leaders in the highlands considered that proliferation of district governments was a means to compartmentalise Papuans, making Papuan society easier to control with a greater military presence. In the campaign to establish six more district governments during 2007, there was some opposition from highland student groups, who argued that the new local governments would not benefit the people’s welfare but merely expand the opportunities for corruption. The students demanded that the Governor stop the establishment of the new governments. Suebu declared that the decision was in the hands of the central government.

One obvious problem is that district governments in Papua, especially the newly created ones in remote areas, are incapable of delivering even the most basic services. The lack of capacity in service delivery has meant that the increased revenues provided under the Special Autonomy Law have not resulted in any discernable improvement of welfare. Governor Suebu had attempted to address the problem of weak district governments by distributing development funds directly to villages, bypassing the district administrations. One of the highland district governments created in 2008, Dogiai, was recently confronted by the tragic circumstances of a cholera and diarrhoea outbreak that resulted in the deaths of about 173 people. Church leaders noted the irony that the new local government had been too busy celebrating the district’s foundation to take any action against the outbreak of disease.

Benny Giay, a Church leader from the affected region, urged the government not to busy itself with the creation of new district governments, but rather provide quality health services as dictated by the Special Autonomy Law. Giay and other Church leaders regretted that the inaction of both the old district government in Nabire and the provincial government had created suspicions in the community and exasperated tensions between Papuans and immigrants, leading to the destruction of some immigrants’ houses. The implication of the Church leaders’ criticism was that the new government in Dogiai did not have the capacity to deal with the outbreak.

Looking forward

The advocates of more and smaller district governments argue that this will enhance equity in development, bring government closer to the people and improve public services. There has been no evaluation of whether these ideals have been realised by the new district governments. Papua has particular challenges in its extensive and difficult terrain and very limited transportation and communication infrastructure. The proliferation of administrative structures over the past six years has been ad hoc, but it might not be too late for a systematic assessment of what the appropriate structures of administration in Papua consist of.

Hopefully, a newly (re-) elected Indonesian government will feel secure enough to permit Papuans to enjoy the same democratic freedoms and responsibilities as their fellow Indonesians

The national government and Papuan society have a shared interest in establishing administrative structures that support good governance and enable Papuans to benefit from the greatly increased government revenues generated by Special Autonomy. Expanding the frontiers of democratisation and demilitarisation into Papua is a prerequisite for creating a single political realm in which governments are held accountable and their activities are transparent. Special Autonomy is the only policy game in town as far as the national government is concerned in Papua. Its credibility and legitimacy in the eyes of many Papuans was undermined because, simultaneously with its formulation and implementation, the government closed down the reformasi political space and created what I have described as the closed political realm of Papuan nationalist politics. Hopefully, a newly (re-) elected Indonesian government will feel secure enough to permit Papuans to enjoy the same democratic freedoms and responsibilities as their fellow Indonesians.     ii

Richard Chauvel ( teaches at Victoria University.

Inside Indonesia 94: Oct-Dec 2008

Latest Articles

Labouring in vain?

May 03, 2024 - HASNA A. FADHILAH

The Labour Party (Partai Buruh) was revived in the wake of opposition to the Omnibus Law on Job Creation, but failure in the 2024 election shows they failed to connect...

Book review: Uncovering Suharto's Cold War


Film review: Inheriting collective memories through 'Eksil'


A documentary embraced by TikTokers is changing how young people understand Indonesia’s past

Indonesians call for climate action through music


Self-education and lived experience of the impacts of climate change, are driving a grassroots environmental movement

Book review: Clive of Indonesia

Apr 05, 2024 - DUNCAN GRAHAM

Subscribe to Inside Indonesia

Receive Inside Indonesia's latest articles and quarterly editions in your inbox.

Bacaan Bumi: Pemikiran Ekologis – sebuah suplemen Inside Indonesia

Lontar Modern Indonesia



A selection of stories from the Indonesian classics and modern writers, periodically published free for Inside Indonesia readers, courtesy of Lontar.