Suharto-Era Repression Survives in One Corner of the Indonesian Archipelago: West Papua

by Ed McWilliams
Pacific Vision Contributed Article

For many concerned about the plight of people living under severely repressive regimes that receive military and other support from the United States, Indonesia has been a prime case. For decades during the cold war, and even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Suharto dictatorship in Jakarta was recipient of unfailing US support. Although Congress placed restrictions on US military assistance to the regime after a massacre of civilians in East Timor in 1991, Pentagon-led Administration efforts persisted in seeking to reinstate military-to-military assistance to the unreformed Indonesian military.

The fall of the Suharto dictatorship in 1998 and a succession of democratically elected governments in Jakarta since then have reduced Congressional opposition to US military assistance to Indonesia. The Indonesian military-led retaliatory brutality in East Timor in 1999, following a massive Timorese vote for freedom from Jakarta rule did lead to several years of renewed restrictions. However, support for such restrictions has since weakened. Taking advantage of a "national security waiver" attached to 2006 Appropriations legislation which continued restrictions on military aid, the Bush Administration began a broad program of assistance to the Indonesian military (TNI), absent any substantial reform of that rogue institution. Arguing that the United States need to "partner" with the Indonesian military in order to confront terrorism, the Bush Administration continues to deflect concerns about TNI corruption, unaccountability and continuing human rights abuse.


Democratic Progress in Indonesia

In fact, the democratic evolution in Indonesia since the Suharto regime's collapse in 1998 has been impressive. Elections, particularly the 2004 election of current president Bambang Yudhoyono, the first popularly elected president, have been largely democratic. Indonesian boasts a vociferous free press and NGOs are active and effective, though both press and NGOs still sometimes encounter security force intimidation when they turn attention to their misdeeds. The murderers of leading human rights activist and military critic Munir Said Thalib in 2004 have yet to be identified with strong indications of involvement by senior retired military officials in the state intelligence agency.
US backers of closer ties to the Indonesian military, including US corporations with significant interests in Indonesia, have also utilized the 2005 agreement ending decades of conflict in the province of Aceh as a basis to contend that the TNI is sufficiently under control of the civilian government to press forward with full military assistance.  

Repression and Colonialist Policies Persist
Notwithstanding democratic progress in the rest of the Indonesian archipelago, West Papua remains much as it was during the decades of Suharto's military dictatorship, the scene of racial and religious discrimination, security force brutality and destructive exploitation of the natural resources on which the increasingly marginalized Papuan population depends for sustenance.
Jakarta's annexation of West Papua in 1969, under guise of a UN-organized "Act of Free Choice" widely acknowledged to have been fraudulent, set the stage for what has emerged as a colonial policy entailing the marginalization and displacement of the Papuan population and the destructive extraction of Papuan natural resources. For decades, West Papua, along with several lesser populated islands in under Jakarta's rule, have been inundated by government organized "transmigrant" settlers from Java and other densely populated regions. These settlers, with Jakarta government backing, have forced Papuans off of native lands, displaced Papuan businesses and assumed administrative control in what had been Papuan-controlled territories. Government provided health, education and other services go principally to settler "transmigrants" who tend to occupy towns and resource-rich areas.

Jakarta, from the outset keenly aware of the natural resource wealth of West Papua (initially named Irian Jaya after annexation), partnered with major international corporations to install infrastructure that could successfully, if destructively, exploit those resources. The first major firm to be invited in was the New Orleans-based Freeport McMoran which established in the Tembagapura area what was to become the world's largest gold and copper mine. Freeport-McMoran early on struck a deal with the Indonesian military which was to serve as an example for subsequent international corporations, i.e., relying on the military to de-populate and disinherit Papuans whose traditional rights to the land extended back millennia. The military, in a relationship which sometimes amounted to extortion, obtained millions of dollars from Freeport for its "services." On the rare occasions when the giant US firm sought to resist the military's extortion, it faced "security incidents" organized by the military. In 2002, a lethal attack on contract American school teachers followed a sharp cut in Freeport-McMoran payments to the military. Despite extensive reporting, including by the police, of military involvement in the incident, there has been no serious investigation of the likely military role.

The US Government, in service of its special relationship with the Suharto dictatorship and now with the Indonesian military, has ignored the military's pressure tactics targeting Freeport McMoran and even failed to pursue leads in the 2002 attack on US citizens. For its part, Freeport-McMoran accepted periodic military pressure as the price to pay for its massive profits. Indeed, Freeport McMoran's relationship with the military generally has been close. Its complicity in the military's campaigns against Papuan people in the area of its mining concession has extended to provision of equipment and facilities, and the air transport of armed personnel aboard its airline. Freeport McMoran's collaborative relationship with the military has also earned it a dispensation with regard to environmental devastation. Its disposal of waste tailings transformed an entire river system into a desert delta within what had been a pristine rainforest providing rich fishing and hunting land for the local Amungme and Kamoro peoples. The massive operation relied upon transmigrant labor, reducing local Papuans to a marginal existence – as one Papuan described it, "like dogs around a garbage dump." 

Cultural and racial condescension and blatant discrimination has been a constant. Papuan dress, culinary, religious and tribal traditions have been a constant target of Jakarta's "reform” policies. Pressure on the Papuan's largely Christian and animist faith includes attempts to link church leaders to militant freedom fighters. Traditional land rights have been ignored. At the same time, Jakarta has failed to extend modern health or education services or employment-creating policies to the Papuan population. As a result, West Papua, and particularly its Papuan population, endures by far the lowest living standards in the Indonesian archipelago. In recent years HIV-AIDS has exploded as a result in part of military-run brothels. The absence of even a semblance of a health infrastructure in the area presents the prospect of an HIV-AIDS epidemic as severe as that afflicting parts of sub-Saharan Africa.
The relationship between the Indonesian military and police and the Papuan people constitutes the most egregious aspect of Jakarta's long rule in West Papua. Indonesian military and police abuses of Papuan human rights are rarely prosecuted, and if prosecuted (usually as a result of infrequent international pressure), human rights violation perpetrators nearly always either escape justice through appeal or are assessed minimal sentences. Military special force thugs responsible for what the presiding judge in the trial described as the "torture-murder" of leading Papuan political leader Theyes Eluay in 2001, received sentences of three and one half years in prison. Subsequently, the chief of the Indonesian armed forces lamented publicly that the four murderers were in fact "Indonesian heroes." Other crimes typically go unprosecuted. Indonesian officials confidentially explained to one non-Papuan human rights defender, that rape charges against Indonesian military personnel involving Papuan women were never prosecuted because "our soldiers would never have relations with these dark people." Police beating of over 100 students in Abepura in 2000, that led to the death of several of them, took five years to prosecute and ultimately resulted in the acquittal of the (only) two police officials charged.

Papuans Respond to Four Decades of Repression
Despite severe intimidation by the Indonesian military and police, and with limited international support, Papuans have resisted repression from its onset. For six years Prior to the 1969 fraudulent "Act of Free Choice," in which 1,022 Jakarta-selected Papuans, under severe intimidation, voted "unanimously" for annexation by Jakarta, Jakarta had faced peaceful and militant opposition to its UN-mandated administration of West Papua. Declassified US Government reports demonstrate that the US (and UN) were fully aware of the growing opposition to Jakarta's administration and its brutal treatment of Papuans demanding their rights, but for cold-war geopolitical considerations ignored the courageous but doomed Papuan struggle for their rights and their future. Subsequently, in the 1970's, the Indonesian military utilized US-provided aircraft to attack Papuan villages, in the same way and at the same time as it used US aircraft to strafe Timorese villages.

Today, international attention to and support for the Papuan struggle for their rights is constrained by a tight cordon first drawn around West Papua by the Suharto dictatorship, and maintained by successor democratic governments in Jakarta since. That cordon strictly limits access to West Papua and travel within it by UN personnel, international journalists and researchers, as well as international NGO personnel. Even Jakarta-based diplomats must seek special permission to visit West Papua. Those few international visitors who manage to get into West Papua face travel limitations once inside and are invariably surveiled by Jakarta intelligence officials.

With international solidarity hobbled by travel restrictions that effectively conceal Jakarta's brutal and exploitative rule, Papuans themselves have evolved a remarkably resilient human rights defender network involving local NGOs such as the widely respected ELS-HAM, youth groups, and a vocal Papuan clergy that unites Catholic, Protestant and Islamic religious leaders. Papuan civil society has also developed a coherent and widely-supported non violent strategy aimed at securing Papuan fundamental human rights. They are pressing demands for a de-militarization of West Papua, creation of a "Papua Zone of Peace concept," local control over such issues as emigration, and Papuan control of policy regarding resource development.

Papuans broadly have rejected Jakarta's 1999 "special autonomy" plan which was to have increased Papuan self-rule but in fact has only entrenched the power of the largely non-Papuan economic and political elite. Under "special autonomy," an augmented flow of national assets was intended to address the broad unmet social service needs of Papuans. Instead, those funds have been channeled to the colonial-style administrative elite or, in some instances, to the military to support its "security" functions. In addition, notwithstanding provisions with the "special autonomy" law which require that any division of West Papua be first approved by a special Papuan council, Jakarta, absent consultations with Papuans, has created new provinces and districts within West Papua. These new provinces, which have generated significant Papuan protest, create a basis for expanded military presence and facilitate the flow of assets to an expanded pro-Jakarta, migrant-controlled administrative elite. Moreover and perhaps most importantly, "special autonomy" has utterly failed to improve justice mechanisms so as to address the unaccountability of security forces for their routine violation of Papuan human rights.

Led in particular by Papuan religious leaders, Papuans have rallied to a call to peaceful non-violence in their struggle for their human rights in the face of massive provocations by the Indonesian military and police which have sought to infiltrate and manipulate the tiny armed Papuan resistance force, the OPM. Although the OPM has largely accepted Papuan civil society leaders' appeals for a ceasefire, the Indonesian military and police continue to stage provocations or manipulate isolated OPM units that lead to clashes. Security forces exploit and sometimes generate these incidents to "justify" their presence in the region. That presence, which facilitates the security forces' own exploitation of resources such as massive illegal logging, continues to inflict a particularly heavy burden on isolated rural Papuan populations. Periodic military "sweeps" displaced thousands of Papuans, forcing them into the forests where they lack food, medical support and shelter. Hundreds of Papuans have died in recent years due to such sweeps, including one in West Papua's central highlands as recently as December 2006-January 2007. Typically, the military preclude even local Papuan humanitarian workers from transporting essential provisions to thesedisplaced populations.

While victories are rare, Papuan unity and loyalty to a non-violent approach have been vindicated periodically. In April, a peaceful four-day strike by thousands of Papuan workers at Freeport-McMoran's Tembagapura mine forced that powerful corporation to accede to wage demands and to agree to consider policies that would correct anti-Papuan policies in hiring and promotion. This year, the Papuan Protestant Church has successfully separated itself from the Indonesian Synod, forming a Papuan Synod which has won court recognition. Notwithstanding that April 30 court decision, police in mid-May 2 (just this month) intervened forcefully to deny the Papuan Church officials control of Church property in Jayapura. That police action, following an earlier assault on Papuan Church officials, has led to large demonstrations protesting the police action.And abroad, the plight of Papuans has begun to generate concern with demands for reform of Jakarta's policies coming from the US Congress and many other Parliaments. A petition calling upon the UN to review the "Act of Free Choice" received support from Parliamentarians around the world.

But for Papuans the time is short. Although formal "transmigration" no longer exists, informal Jakarta government support for non-Papuan settlement of West Papua means that Papuans, like the Dayak of Kalimantan, might soon become a minority in their own land. Continued brutal repression by security forces and policies that marginalize Papuans could yet lead to a violent reaction by desperate Papuans with horrific communal bloodshed as seen elsewhere in the archipelago. The international community must demonstrate greater determination to compel Jakarta to end its Suharto-like repression in West Papua. Governments such as those in the United States and United Kingdom, which profess concern for human rights, must curtail support for an un-reformed, rogue Indonesian military which persists in terrorizing civilians in West Papua. Moreover, Papuan human rights, including the right to self-determination, must be placed on the "action-now "agenda of the international community.

Ed McWilliams is a former political counsellor with the US Embassy in Jakarta. He works with the West Papua Advocacy Team and the East Timor & Indonesia Action Network..

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