West Papua: National Dialogue - to what end?

Down to Earth No 40, February 1999

Talks on the future of West Papua are planned early this year. But just what will be on the agenda, when exactly it will be and who will attend is still unclear. President Habibie, who will attend this planned 'National Dialogue' has said independence from Indonesia is not to be discussed, but many Papuan leaders believe that excluding it from the agenda means that the talks will fail to address the main aspiration of the West Papuan population: the right to decide their own future.

The goal of Papua Merdeka, an Independent West Papua, inspired the wave of protests and flag-raising actions that swept through the towns of the territory in mid 1998. The raising of the West Papuan flag in the towns of Biak, Manokwari, Sorong and Jayapura, followed the ousting of Suharto in May and marked a surge of optimism that Jakarta's brutal occupation of West Papua would come to an end.

The response of the military was to commit yet more atrocities, adding to the long list of unspeakable acts visited upon the indigenous peoples of the territory during the past three decades. In Biak, an island off the northern coast of West Papua, an unknown number of people were massacred after a five-day long flag-raising rebellion in July. Hundreds were injured when troops opened fire without warning during a pre-dawn raid on sleeping protesters. Eye-witness reports and investigations to uncover the scale of the atrocity documented how more people were rounded up during house-to-house searches; women were raped in the back of army trucks and more local people, including children, were taken onto navy ships to be dumped overboard out at sea. When bodies started being washed up on the shores of the island the military said they were victims of the tsunami disaster in neighbouring Papua New Guinea. The bodies were buried quickly and no proper autopsies carried out. Reports indicate, however, that at least some of the bodies were local people.

Harsh treatment continues for anyone resisting Indonesian rule in West Papua. In October the trials of four people involved in the Biak flag-raising started and more were expected following a further flag-raising protest that same month in Manokwari. Such 'criminals' include people who merely want to discuss the political status of West Papua. Also in October eight people involved in preparing a two-day discussion were arrested. They included a senior tribal leader from Sentani, Theys Eluay, leader of the newly-formed Committee for the Independence of West Papua. He had previously worked in the provincial government and had recently been inaugurated as head of the Conference of Traditional Peoples of Irian Jaya. This title has now been withdrawn by provincial Governor Freddy Numberi.

At the same time, the military is trying to change its image in West Papua, from human rights abusers to peace-makers. West Papua's status as an Area of Military Operations (DOM) was withdrawn in October and a cease-fire called between the Indonesian army and the Free Papua guerrilla (OPM) units in one part of the territory. According to the local military commander, Major General Amir Sembiring, troops will be withdrawn gradually, while others are being sent to work on village development programmes. But these measures may not be as hopeful as they look: in Aceh where DOM status has been lifted and troop withdrawals announced, there has been a sharp increase in atrocities and more troops secretly brought in. In West Papua the DOM status has been replaced with another which still provides for troops to be stationed at 'vulnerable' sites. It must be hard for the people of Biak or the highland villages razed by the army in their mopping up operations against the OPM, to wipe their memories and see the soldiers now as keepers of the peace.

It is that same traumatised town, Biak, which has been chosen by the government as the location of the forthcoming National Dialogue on West Papua planned for early this year. This may be no coincidence. The talks are the government's response to the political turmoil, a peace-offering to a population which has had enough abuse from Indonesia's troops and enough discrimination from government bureaucracy. Why not choose Biak, scene of the worst massacre last year as the place to try and start afresh? There are more practical reasons, however: Biak has a large number of hotel rooms to accommodate delegates (many of these rooms are in a failed, inappropriate tourism complex on the island). More tellingly, Habibie wants to combine his visit with the opening of a development project, giving the impression that the National Dialogue is not as high on the government priority list as it should be.

Despite all the fanfare, the odds are against the National Dialogue producing anything to satisfy the urgent need for fundamental change felt by West Papua's long-suffering people. President Habibie, provincial Governor Freddy Numberi and the military are all insistent that Merdeka or independence must not be on the agenda. Military leaders in several areas have warned that anyone acting against Indonesia will be hunted down and punished severely. A former OPM leader, now believed to be close to the military has called on West Papuans to abandon the idea of independence.

The buzz-word of the government is 'autonomy' or to translate directly from the Indonesian 'autonomisation' (otonomisasi). Other options, which should be discussed, say their opponents, are federation (federasi) with Indonesia and independence (Merdeka). West Papuans now find themselves in the ludicrous position of not being allowed to discuss these last two, and especially not Merdeka because to do so is subversive (so Papuan leader Theys Eluay and others are arrested). At the same time they are supposed to be trying to find a way of sorting out the problems of their land.



What would autonomy mean for West Papua? So far the government has given little away. According to Governor Numberi, autonomy would be the answer to all problems in the territory. It means putting West Papua in control of its own natural resources and returns most of the revenues they generate to West Papua. This would mean placing responsibility for forestry, mining, fisheries under regional control. Issues like defence and security, economic policy and the judiciary would stay under central control. According to Numberi, autonomy would mean a higher standard of living for local people, no more school fees and better availability of medicines.

These ideas floated by Numberi are clearly not in line with the view from Jakarta on the key question of resources, nor on the question of who would be in charge. New legislation has been prepared to introduce regional autonomy throughout the country and this proposes to devolve power to local government at Kabupaten (district) level, not provincial level. The reason for this is to avoid encouraging centrifugal forces by giving too much power to the larger provincial units who may then demand federation or independence. The new Act also includes the idea that the proportion of revenues retained by the regions should increase, but the ratio has not yet been fixed. Whether the government proposes that West Papua should be treated as a special case outside the framework of the new Act remains to be seen.

One thing remains very clear, however. Indonesia's main motivation for holding on to West Papua has always been to secure the profits from its vast reserves of minerals and timber. Substantial percentages of state revenue have been earned by the Freeport/Rio Tinto copper and gold mine and more vast deposits are likely to be found in future. Huge natural gas reserves have been located in the Bintuni Bay area recently by the US-based Atlantic Richfield Corporation (see also DTE 39) and many more areas are under survey. Land for resettling Javanese transmigrants, for growing food and developing plantations remains a key motivation to retain central control of West Papua. Investigations into land holdings of the Suharto family found that thousands of hectares in West Papua had been handed over to companies they controlled . The pressure to develop large-scale plantations for oil palm and other quick cash-earners is all the more intensive under the present economic crisis. (For some idea of current development strategy in West Papua see DTE 37).

All this means it is highly improbable that any real measure of control over West Papua's resources will be relinquished by Jakarta. It also means that talks about West Papua's future, whatever wording is chosen for the agenda, may well be pointless. On the other hand, the momentum for change is so great that the government is unlikely to get away with a 'business as usual' policy. And, as witnessed in Aceh and East Timor, increased military violence is unlikely to deter a freedom-hungry population.

The only satisfactory long term solution is to prepare for a genuine process of self-determination free from intimidation, so that West Papuans can decide for themselves the future status of their territory.


Plantations get priority

While the preparations for the National Dialogue move ahead, it is business as usual for the plantation developers, continuing the policy of taking indigenous lands for export crops.

In October local government forestry official Ir Sudjud insisted that the district authorities in Merauke, in the southern part of the territory, must ensure that land is cleared and compensation settled in order that the plantations developed in the area by the Indonesian conglomerate Texmaco can proceed. Local indigenous Marind people are demanding that the company reconsiders the compensation rate of Rp 50 per square metre as it is too low. Sudjud said the local people should not be talking directly to the company as it was the local government's responsibility to settle the dispute.

Texmaco is developing oil palm, sugar and other plantations in the same area planned in the late 1980s for a pulp development by the US-based company Scott Paper.

Sudjud reminded the Merauke authorities that they should support the plans of every company that wanted to develop plantations projects as the plantation sector brought great benefit to the government and the people. He invited Indonesian and foreign companies to come and exploit the plentiful natural resources of the territory.

With men like Sudjud running their affairs, it is not surprising West Papuans want to distance themselves from Indonesia.

Many more such developments are planned: in October the provincial forestry office said it had submitted applications for 20 new oil palm investment projects to the Forestry and Plantations Department in Jakarta. The applications were for medium and large scale plantations and processing facilities in Jayapura, Merauke, Nabire, Fakfak, and Manokwari districts. The three companies currently operating oil palm plantations in the territory are PT Sinar Mas, PT Varita Majutama and a state plantation company.

A Jakarta Post report early this year said that another oil palm development is awaiting approval of the Ministry of Agriculture. The 47,000 hectare project is in Sorong district and the developer is the Korindo Group through its subsidiary PT Bangun Karya Irian. Two other subsidiaries of the group have developed a 3,000 hectare oil palm plantation in Merauke, according to the report. (Source: Antara 6/10/98, Jakarta Post 7/1/99)