Oct 01, 2022 Last Updated 2:22 AM, Sep 25, 2022

Platitudes of Papua

Sobaham Anderson 1
Published: Feb 11, 2014

Bobby Anderson

Sobaham, on the path to Ninia: no police, no army, no services.   Bobby Anderson

Over the last year, in a series of articles on Papua for Inside Indonesia, I have tried to bring to light the struggles and concerns of many of the people who live there. These struggles are divorced from the political discourses of independence and integration that many outsiders mistakenly believe are paramount to the lives of most Papuans.

A recent rejoinder to my piece on ‘The failure of education’ by Jenny Munro, ‘Blaming Papuans’, claims that I do exactly that: ‘blame Papuans’ for the collapse of the educational system across the highlands. Munro asserts that the blame lies with the usual suspects: Papua’s history, state security actors, and extractive industries. This article discusses the flaws in her analysis and how they resonate with broader myths about Papua that are widely believed by foreign authors who write about the territory.

Failing Papua

Let’s start by briefly reviewing my arguments. My articles have all touched upon the failure of governance and service delivery in the remote parts of Papua where I work and travel, but none more pointedly than my last articles, ‘The failure of education’ and ‘Dying for nothing’, which argue that Papua’s special autonomy has failed, but that the greatest failure has little to do with the aspects of special autonomy that were not implemented by Jakarta. The greatest failure, for ordinary people, concerns the parts of special autonomy that were handed over to provincial and district officials: health and education services. I detailed how many indigenous officials see special autonomy as a way to access greater subsidies, which they take for themselves or spread through their patronage networks. No-show jobs in health, education and other sectors have proliferated and these sectors have weakened and even ceased to function as a consequence.

The damage all this inflicts upon services is enhanced by the uncontrolled creation of new districts, sub-districts and villages under the process known as ‘pemekaran’ (proliferation) which splits larger administrative units into smaller ones, theoretically making them more accountable, but in reality allowing indigenous elites to access more funds while pushing ordinary Papuans further away from services. Special autonomy has created a dividing line between Papuan elites who benefit directly from it, and the majority, who receive a pittance.

Nearly all analyses of Papua focus on the region’s troubled history within Indonesia, especially the separatist insurgency, the state security apparatus, and natural resource extraction. I purposely do not delve into these important concerns because they are thoroughly covered elsewhere, and also because they do not palpably affect the everyday lives of most Papuans. But problems of analysis about Papua arise when observers begin to see Papua’s political and security issues as the only issues worth serious concern.

As one travels further away from the works of select academics, researchers and journalists who have added to our understanding of Papua – Richard Chauvel, Benny Giay, Sidney Jones, Denise Leith, Robin Osborne, and Jaap Timmer come to mind, although there are many more – one encounters a more and more generic view, seductive in its simplicity, that blames all of Papua’s current ills – everything from transport to health – on the Indonesian state and the military. Eventually, nuanced analyses become simple enough to be painted on placards.

The counterpart of this blanket condemnation of the national government as being responsible for all of Papua’s ills is a view that promotes a formless Papuan identity that is sacrosanct and sinless. If the government is the source of all evil, then Papuans can do no wrong. This view infantilises Papuans, denies them agency in controlling their own destinies, and prevents them from holding to account those Papuan elites who take advantage of them. So much of what has been written about Papuans only reduces them to a passive, naked, feather- and cowrie- decorated stereotype, and many Papuan activists play upon these expectations to foreign audiences.

By the logic of this approach, the plague of teacher and administrator absenteeism and the dire implications for the future of highland children would be all about repression, racism, and natural resource extraction. Viewed through this prism, if I encounter empty schools in Boven Digoel, Jayawijaya, Keerom, Lanny Jaya, Memberamo Raya, Memberamo Tengah, Tolikara, Yahukimo, or any of the other districts I work in, that have never had teachers present, even though indigenous teachers are drawing salaries to teach there, I shouldn’t be blaming those teachers for the illiteracy of the children they are supposed to teach, or the absent indigenous administrators, or the indigenous district head who appointed the district education department head who then employed unqualified people who aren’t expected to teach. Rather, I should be blaming the Indonesian military and mining companies.

Such a flawed analysis will not generate possible solutions to the problems which beset service delivery in Papua. And Munro’s rejoinder propagates numerous myths about Papua that require disassembling.

Myth 1: Insecurity and repression are the cause of education and other system failures

In criticising my article, Munro writes that ‘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.’ In this she echoes a broader myth that all the problems of contemporary Papua can be directly linked to the pernicious role of the Indonesian security apparatus. But the ‘police state’ alleged by numerous activists, academics and journalists is a fiction across the vast majority of Papua. And it is not the source of Papua’s health and education failures. The Indonesian military and police are not the reason why teachers do not teach. They’re definitely not the reason why kids aren’t learning.

On occasion, parents withhold their children from schools (in the few highland areas lucky enough to have functioning schools) during particular violent incidents involving the Indonesian military, or TNI. Sometimes these incidents involve TNI as the sole agent of violence, such as in the reprehensible 6 June 2012 rampage that soldiers went on in Wamena after one of their own was killed by a mob after running over a child with his motorcycle; other incidents are between TNI and the Free Papua Movement or OPM; still others are between security forces and anyone conducting any protest or expression that can be labeled ‘makar’ or treasonous.

But most of the violence, real or anticipated, that makes parents keep their children at home involves clan feuds, which occur with such frequency that they receive practically no coverage in the local, and hence national and international, media. The most recent is a Nduga intra-tribal conflict that has killed over a dozen in Wamena alone (which is not even a Nduga area) since the beginning of 2013. These clan struggles are particularly violent during elections, which are intense competitions between clan leaders assuming the garb of Indonesia’s vacuous political franchises. These are the most common conflicts generating high numbers of wounded and dead in the highlands. This is hard for many outsiders to accept, but it’s accurate.

Sinokla Anderson 2Sinokla: no police, no army, no teachers, no doctors. Even the village head is in Jayapura. Bobby Anderson

It is also untrue that remote areas are overrun with security personnel. The exception to this is parts of Puncak Jaya, especially Tingginambut, which hosts the most active OPM cell in Papua, as well as portions of Indonesia’s border with PNG.

Another fiction is an alleged atmosphere of repression that is so prevalent that not even non-separatist dissent or protest is impossible. The remote areas where I work are plagued by opportunistic civilian roadblocks, clan demonstrations, shows of force, and the occasional intergroup riot. I’ve seen the ruins of schools that were burned by parents angry that an indigenous teacher failed their children. Protest and conflict are endemic.

Repression is pervasive, however against groups and activities labeled as separatist. Moreover, all too often, people who raise issues of accountability, human rights, and military impunity are accused by the authorities of being separatists. But most commentators just don’t pay attention to violence conducted outside of separatist activities and the state response to them.

Myth 2: the locally-implemented aspects of special autonomy failed because of Jakarta

Munro writes that Special Autonomy was imposed by the national-level government, and that Papuans were ‘ignored’ by Jakarta when they predicted it would fail. In addition to forgetting the high level of indigenous consultation that went into the original special autonomy draft (something that the current provincial government is dangerously forgetting to do in the development of its new Special Autonomy Plus formula) in favour of the opinions of select and un-named commentators, Munro fails to distinguish between the aspects of special autonomy that were to be implemented by Jakarta, and the aspects that are implemented by Papua.

Here lies the fatal weakness in Munro’s rejoinder: the responsibility for management and supervision of primary and secondary schools in Papua is found at the district level. Power in the education system therefore lies with district heads who under the Special Autonomy Law can legally only be Papuans. And in every district I work in, it is the district head’s appointees, from his clan or an allied clan, that constitute the mass of these failed systems.

It is correct that significant aspects of special autonomy agreed under Abdurrahman Wahid were not implemented under Megawati, and this was a trust-destroying event. But the greatest failures in special autonomy result from an absence of clear provincial legislation to guide implementation. Occasional legislative efforts to guide allocations for services (such as Regional Regulation No. 6 of 2005, which set vague rules for educational service delivery) and prescribe penalties all failed as the Special Autonomy package degenerated into a slush fund that saw the majority of Papuans denied what that legislation was theoretically supposed to deliver. The impetus to create such legislation lies within the provincial parliament and its elected legislators, and it is within that body that fault lies for poor service delivery. The Indonesian government should have played a technical role in the creation of such legislation. It did not, and so it shares in the blame. But to many, ‘ignored by Jakarta’ is enough of an explanation.

Myth 3: Papua’s civil service is all either bad non-Papuans or good Papuans

Munro writes that there is no evidence to support my assertions regarding the Papuanisation of the civil service. Munro learned this by reading newspapers. In 2009. In Jayawijaya. Which is one out of 14 highland districts. Lucky for Munro, it’s the only one with a newspaper.

I would argue that the only place in Papua where special autonomy has made a visible difference is in the Papuanisation of the civil service. This is especially true in pemekaran districts. During the Suharto regime, Papuans were thoroughly excluded from the civil service: since the advent of special autonomy in 2001, the clear preference for migrants in civil service employment that existed under the New Order has ended. Accurate figures do not exist with regard to the ratio of Papuans to migrants in such positions. But in new districts and remote areas – and in the highlands, this means everything outside of Wamena and maybe Tiom and Oxibil – Papuans are predominant in civil servant positions. And pemekaran over the last decade has continued at such a frantic pace that more and more new positions need to be filed, allowing for more and more Papuans to fill them. My own qualitative experience in the districts I work in indicates this is so: when I deal with health, education, and other officials, in Tolikara, Memberamo Tengah, Yahukimo and other districts, I am dealing with Papuans.

Of course, there still are positions that are occupied by non-Papuan civil servants in various parts of the bureaucracy. It’s also worth noting that despite the stereotype that most ‘migrant’ civil servants are Muslim, and Javanese, in fact many are from Maluku or North Sulawesi; they are often Christians, and they often belong to the same congregations as their Papuan counterparts. Many of them are from families that have been in Papua for generations.

Papuans resent the idea of migrant civil servants working in Papua, just as highlanders resent the idea of lowland Papuans working as civil servants in highland areas. But within these broad categories exist individuals who distinguish themselves by action or inaction. I’ve seen Papuans prefer to visit a particular migrant doctor and I’ve seen migrants prefer a particular Papuan teacher. I’ve listened to an indigenous district education head bemoan the flight of a migrant administrator who failed within her system: what she did not mention is that the man concerned tried to pay her staff directly rather than allowing her to take a cut of their salaries. That migrant was missed by the indigenous staff, just as he was resented by her indigenous boss. But such stories find no purchase within the platitudes we hear. There’s a deeper stereotype extant in the thinking of many Papua-watchers here: Papuan civil servants are necessarily good, and migrant civil servants are automatically bad.

This Papuanisation has allowed for the growth of a Papuan technocratic class in much of West Papua province and select areas of Papua province such as Jayapura, Merauke and other areas. But it has not improved services in remote and pemekaran areas. A local reinterpretation of the affirmative action policies encoded in Special Autonomy has occurred in such areas whereby these policies are no longer seen as involving the elevation of previously excluded Papuans to roles of responsibility in the civil service, which would require extensive training and mentoring. Rather, affirmative action is seen as a mechanism to award no-show jobs to clan members and supporters within a pre-existing patronage structure. And it is often justified by the idea that a civil service salary is an individual return on Papua’s mineral wealth: a Special Autonomy arrangement of one’s own.

Of the areas I know, it is Merauke alone where affirmative action occurs according to a plan of empowerment. In nearly every other area, hiring is not linked to the needs of the job. Of course, many individuals do seek to do their jobs properly within this morass, and such people are to be admired. But the mess they are trapped within again relates to the lack of clear guidelines for Special Autonomy.

Holowan Anderson 3Holowan: no police, no army, no services, except for a local church foundation. Bobby Anderson

Myth 4: Papuan bureaucrats are powerless and poor

Munro also writes that where indigenous power does exist, Papuan authorities are mere figureheads, underwritten by the Indonesian state, corporate interests, and migrants. Pointing to assumptions about the ‘simplicity’ of Papuans, she offers as evidence the high costs of election campaigns. An average cost of US$ 41,000 is too much money for a Papuan, she assumes. The only people with such money must be non-Papuan businesspeople and security actors. Here Munro displays a lack of understanding of electoral money politics across Indonesia, which are driven by success teams constituting anyone who can provide funds, and are often made up of contractors, old-school political party operators, and, yes, security actors. And in new and remote districts of Papua, the powerful elites in this system are also Papuans with clan loyalties and bureaucratic posts.

As for where the money comes from, one of the greatest sources of rural electoral funding can be found in the Rencana Strategis Pembangunan Kampung (Village Development Strategic Plan) or RESPEK program, which has provided 120 million rupiah to every village in Papua, every year, since 2007, with the majority of these funds not accounted for. There are also district-level top-up programs which are also misdirected. Papua is awash with special autonomy development funding to misspend, and this money bankrolls election campaigns and handouts.

I can understand that someone might not believe that conditions are as dire as I have described if that person has visited the highlands but limited themselves to Wamena, the capital of Jayawijaya, and areas reachable by road from that town. Systems function relatively well in these areas, which host the oldest established bureaucratic entities in the highlands, and are an elite sphere of commerce and education. But Jayawijaya is just one highland district out of 14 (and counting).

Wamena and its environs are often misrepresented by researchers and other visitors as an edgy area of danger and inaccessibility. When we move beyond Wamena, and then Jayawijaya, we find a preponderance of new administrative units where newly-elected clan leaders award posts based on who they seek to reward rather than the services they prioritise. And in an environment where educational credentials are for sale, we find civil servants unable to undertake the administrative duties they were nominally hired to do. This also results from the failure of an educational system that, at its best, barely reached the majority of highlanders in the first place.

An analysis of ‘Blaming Papuans’, and some of her other work, shows that Munro’s experience occurs in an area of Papua where the educational system has functioned over generations, as her assertions about educated parents taking an interest in their children’s education suggest. Perhaps this is why Munro cannot conceptualise the problems I am discussing. A quick look at Munro’s research indicates a possible preference for more elite informers, beginning with her PhD thesis on Dani university students in Manado, North Sulawesi, and continuing in a body of work that focuses on functioning educational systems in Wamena town and its environs. In particular, she has written a powerful piece about such people in the April 2013 edition of the Cornell University journal, Indonesia.

Her focus on Papuans entering the upper reaches of the formal education system in places like Wamena may also be the reason why Munro disbelieves my statement that many rural Papuans view education as a supernatural key to advancement in an animistic belief system: her discussions with wealthier and educated highlanders do not reveal this, unlike many of my own discussions with ordinary villagers in remote parts.

More fundamentally, in my writings I have tried to describe the struggles of people who have been thoroughly excluded from the system that Munro’s informants struggle within. In the areas I work in, children do not get to grow up and go to university in Manado, because the schools are shuttered and the teachers are not teaching. These children are being cheated out of an education by other Papuans.

The simplicity bottleneck

Munro’s ‘Blaming Papuans’, captures much of the simplification I take issue with, from the title on downwards. In particular, her analysis does not allow for a frank discussion of the culpability of many Papuans in the failure of service delivery to other Papuans. The narrowness of her view only allows for ‘pro-Papuan’ and ‘anti-Papuan’ positions, and at points she comes close to suggesting that, by doing things such as revealing nepotistic practices in the awarding of no-show jobs to select Papuans, I am echoing long-standing anti-Papuan prejudices. And when I speculate that rural Papuan parents might accept a broken educational system because they have never seen a functioning school, Munro claims that I am ‘blaming Papuan parents’.

The historical issues of Papua within Indonesia are an important framing context for many of the issues I discuss. However, they are only a part of the problem. Until we recognise that Papuans are also, at least in part, responsible for their own individual fates and those of their people, there will be little prospect of seriously addressing the marginalisation that is the legacy of Dutch and Indonesian rule. To assign absolute primacy to the central government for all of Papua’s ills is to deny Papuans agency and responsibility, and leave them in the position of being permanent and helpless victims of history.


Bobby Anderson (rubashov@yahoo.com) works on health, education, and governance projects in Eastern Indonesia, and he travels frequently in Papua province.

Inside Indonesia 115: Jan-Mar 2014


#14 +12 Inside Indonesia 2015-08-04 02:04
The Editorial Team at Inside Indonesia feels compelled to respond in light of some recent comments published here in relation to this article and II's more general editorial position. 1. The coverage of II on Papua is not determined by any international agencies (as any glance at our record of articles on the topic would suggest) and Bobby Anderson was invited strictly in his personal capacity 2) II is open to well written analyses on any aspect of contemporary Papuan politics and would especially welcome contributions by Papuans. 3) II’s mission is to raise awareness about the diversity of Indonesian society, and about the struggles of those Indonesians who aim to achieve greater democracy, human rights, gender and racial equality, tolerance and environmental sustainability.
#13 -12 Martin Pelcher 2015-07-07 22:42
I am endlessly amazed at the smug confidence that strengthens outsider experts in invalidating indigenous political analysis. Ms. Rochak casually dismisses me as 'hysterical' for suggesting that Mr. Anderson's job as a representative of global capitalist institutions somehow shapes his arguments (note that his writings never once mention Freeport even though Papuan nationalists themselves often identify this as the heart of the conflict); or maybe for proposing that we take Papuan analysis seriously. Mr. Anderson is not a serious analyst - his job is management consultancy and the production of compelling images. It is to Inside Indonesia's discredit that they allow USAID and the World Bank to determine its coverage of West Papua. Papuan writers and activists are still asking to be included in this international discourse.
#12 +19 Ellie Rochak 2014-08-29 04:35
My partner and I worked in Papua for years. When we arrived, we brought with us an image that was created by outsiders, of genocide and state terror. But what we actually found when we arrived was not that at all. I don't agree with everything Anderson says, and I do not think he gives enough weight to issues of social justice and racism, or even the thuggishness of some of the soldiers that I have witnessed, but he adds a level of thoughtfulness- or even sanity- to discourses that are all too often dominated by the hysterics we find in posts like that of Martin Pelcher below. He seems to confirm Anderson's statement that a 'eventually, nuanced analyses become simple enough to be painted on placards.'
#11 -14 Martin Pelcher 2014-08-20 07:28
The most ironic part of this debate is that Anderson strictly avoids considering the analysis of Papuan writers and activists themselves. He self-righteously claims to be connecting with the 'real people' in ways that Papuan political actors supposedly refuse to. This is sheer imperialist arrogance. If Anderson cared to notice, he would see that Papuans themselves anticipated many of his observations long ago, predicting the corrupting effects of Otsus and pemekaran. Papuan thinkers have formulated a rich tapestry of political discourses that challenge both Jakarta's militarization and wider transnational neoliberal strategies for pacifying and governing the Pacific. Readers seeking to learn about Papua should take Anderson's risk-managing counter-intelligence with many grains of salt, and do the work necessary to research the ideas being developed by diverse West Papuan groups themselves - including those facing the Western-backed state terror Anderson claims is of no importance.
#10 -10 Martin Pelcher 2014-08-20 07:18
Mr. Anderson, like any good risk consultant, positions himself as the wise God-like all-knower, who pierces through the delusional and incorrect propaganda of those who ridiculously believe that social justice and political emancipation are worthy political objectives. Since Mr. Anderson examines Ms. Munro's background as a way to discredit her critique, let us turn the lens on him: should we be surprised by the anti-political oeuvre of a foreign 'expert' whose professional mandate is to stabilize the consolidation of capitalism in a strategic corner of the Pacific?
#9 +5 Mike Westerman 2014-04-10 02:54
Bobby - a powerful and compelling analysis. And if any are left doubting, look over the border where similarly disgraceful impoverishment is meted out on the general populace by "leaders" enjoying the fruits of connection with the west, but accepting just as few of the responsibilities. Sure a huge challenge in too short a time against the power and organisation of external agents, in order to transition from primarily isolated and self sufficient successful tribal or clan society to one able to define its own destiny in the face of unprecedented access by outsiders. But at present failing all the same. I have faith in the current upcoming generation of Papua New Guineans and hope that Papua has these same fantastic resources to grow thru a similarly painful period.
#8 +4 Marlon Arthur Huwae 2014-03-03 03:21
Great analysis: food for my thought. The government response is in fact altered and influenced as well as clouded by the interest to be on better position. It is stated that there are at least 200 languages existing in Papua. This means that, special autonomy is likely to be controlled by the ruling party (powerful local indigenous) at the expense of others and the priority program. My comparative study on conflict in capital city and new established city driven by special autonomy shows that the conflict building up in this region is totally different. In the new established city, the conflict centered on the identity, while in another one, the conflict centered on the rights to be priorotized in government program. This means the development is Papua can not be optimized due to the conflict among Papuans either latent, structural or horizontal. The development might effective, if only West Papuan can embrace themselves and non-natives
#7 +14 Gisete Leeuwen 2014-02-28 11:14
I like this series but 'like' is perhaps not the right word. What is very interesting to me is that Anderson and Munro's positions can exist in the same 'Papua', they seem to write about different places, different concerns, different conflict. Even different memories. All in a very large land. This article is different from the others because Anderson seems to avoid what is written and said over all these years and instead talk about what he sees. This is why I like this series. I think he should write more about history because it does play a part.
#6 +3 Naomi 2014-02-27 06:22
If we are to try and find realistic solutions to the failure of service delivery which is the topic of Anderson's articles we need to look at the local level - the schools, the teachers, the management and the governance systems. If we keep regurgitating arguments about the state and security and oppression - no matter how valid they are - but providing no realistic solutions about how to deal with these who are we really helping? Seems to me that Munrow's arguments - even though I agree that most of what she mentions are factors in wider development - are not helpful in moving forward the agenda for improved basic services in rural areas. Despite the context of marginalisation - at present in the highlands the power for moving forward development agendas is largely in the hands of Papuans.
#5 -12 Richard 2014-02-21 00:08
It is nice that Inside Indonesia can generate some interest in this topic, but Anderson seems to deliberately misconstrue Munro's comments and other work for the sake of his argument. If he needs to reiterate and clarify his earlier points, then its probably fair to say he didn't make them well in the first place.

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