Jakarta – Amid the deepening trust deficit between the Papuan people and the government, many in the country's easternmost territory suspect that the disruption to the local internet service in April was actually a deliberate move to silence anti-government critics and activists.
When it comes to Papua, anti-government voices reportedly dominate social media chatter, so it makes sense that the government might opt to cut digital access as an easy way to censor them.
The cause of the disruption could be purely technical as the government has claimed, but it is also probable that political and security considerations played a part. Overwhelmed by the noise on social media, the government could certainly take a shortcut by shutting down the telecommunications network. Such a tactic would only worsen the situation, however, as it would prompt rumors and fake news to spiral out of control.Believe it or not, state-owned telecommunications giant PT Telkom needed one whole month just to start fixing the undersea fiber optic cable, located about 700 kilometers off Sarmi regency, which broke on April 30 to cause the disruption. But it's not clear when the repairs will finish and access restored.
Papua administration secretary Dance Yulian Flassy has called force majeure on the network outage and asked the public not to believe the rumors. But then again, since an internet shutdown in Papua is not unprecedented, many are skeptical that a technical issue is really behind the current outage.
It is a fact that the government has been cutting off Papua from the outside world for decades by measures that included restricting foreign visitors, especially foreign journalists. Jakarta remains stubbornly insistent on maintaining its isolation policy for Papua, although it has become increasingly irrelevant amid the rapid growth in social media use and internet penetration, which has allowed the world to keep an eye on the region.
In the meantime, the local elite are alleged of misusing the Papua special autonomy funds to enrich themselves and their cronies. As the 20-year autonomy status is to end this November, political maneuvering has intensified to pressure the central government to extend the privileged status.
Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati has said she agrees to extend the funding provision to Papua and West Papua on the condition of tighter and more transparent accountability of spending. In continuing to isolate Papua, the government has not learned from its failures in East Timor. Rampant human rights abuse, uncontrolled corruption and blatant abuse of power, as well as closing off the region from the outside world, were among key factors that led to the former Indonesian territory to claim independence as Timor Leste in 1999.
At the same time, there is no quick fix to the Papua issue, which is very complex. Many Papuans feel they are treated unfairly as Indonesian citizens, and this needs proper and prompt addressing.
The social and economic gap between Papua and the rest of the country is also growing, especially with Java. And ethnically and culturally, many Papuans feel much closer to Pacific islanders for their Melanesian heritage than other Indonesians, the majority of who do not share this ancestry.
In the meantime, the government should push to fix the undersea cable and restore full access.
Any and all efforts to silence people must end in this era of digital democracy, especially those that resort to means stemming from a primitive mindset.