A. Muh. Ibnu Aqil, Jakarta – After a year's delay due to the pandemic, the 20th National Games (PON) started in Papua over the weekend under heavy security – the first major sporting event in the restive easternmost region of Indonesia and despite virus concerns.
The games are taking place until Oct. 15 in and around Jayapura, as well as in the regencies of Mimika and Merauke, and will be followed by the National Paralympic Games from Nov. 2 to 15.
The government seems confident with hosting the games safely, even after a string of clashes between authorities and Papuan rebels occurred in Papua and West Papua in the weeks leading to the games and recent international scrutiny of how the government treats its human rights activists in Papua.
More than 7,000 athletes are participating in the quadrennial games, some of whom had arrived a week earlier for the preliminary matches held ahead of the opening ceremony in Jayapura on Saturday, when President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo gave his speech.
Jokowi said that the hosting of the games showed that infrastructure development and the people in Papua had progressed to the point of being able to host a major national event. "These Papua Games have shown that we are united and equal in moving toward prosperity as citizens of the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia [NKRI]," Jokowi said during the opening ceremony at the Lukas Enembe Stadium.
Prior to the ceremony, the President inaugurated seven new sport venues built for the games: Istora Papua Bangkit sport complex, a cricket field, indoor hockey, archery arenas and an aquatic stadium in Jayapura regency, as well as a roller rink and a rowing venue in Jayapura city. "We must use these venues to nurture sports talent, so Papuan athletes can leave their mark, at the national level and the world," he said.
The sporting event is heavily guarded by around 6,000 police and military personnel from Papua and other provinces. The police previously said they would focus on anticipating any security threats by the rebels, who the government refer to as an armed criminal group (KKB). Coordinating Political, Security and Legal Affairs Minister Mahfud MD and Home Minister Tito Karnavian conducted final security checks at the Lukas Enembe Stadium on Friday ahead of the opening ceremony. "We have anticipated all layers of security threats [for PON], but in a peaceful manner.
This is a sporting event, after all, it should not be a scary [experience]," Mahfud said. Late last month, on Sept. 26, a joint team of police and military personnel was in a shootout with a Papuan rebel group in Kiwirok district, within the restive Pegunungan Bintang regency. A police officer was killed in the incident.
The clash follows nearly a dozen incidents occurring in Papua and West Papua this year alone, including the tragic death of nurse Gabriella Meilani on Sept. 13 in a rebel attack on public services in Kiwirok. She was reportedly harassed and killed by the rebel forces, but they have denied the allegations, and have called for an independent investigation involving the United Nations. Early last month, some 30 Papuan rebels ambushed a military outpost in Maybrat regency in neighboring West Papua province, killing four soldiers and injuring two others.
However, with the security threats being relatively far from the places where the sporting event is being hosted, experts and activists have called for the central government to refrain from using excessive security measures during the games, and instead use it as an opportunity for peaceful Indonesian nation-building among Papuan people.
Papua researcher Cahyo Pamungkas of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) said that the mobilization of security and police forces from outside the province would only foster the view that Papua was not safe, even if they were only additional personnel. Papuan activist detained in Indonesia at risk of death, UN expert warns
He said Jakarta took an "ambiguous approach" in using the games as a way to win the hearts and minds of Papuan people: trying to assert its sovereignty over Papua using economic and infrastructure development, while heavily increasing security during the event. "We don't need super strict security [for PON]. [Military and police] personnel that were already stationed in Papua should be enough," Cahyo said.
Frans Maniagasi from activist group the Sabang Merauke Discussion Forum said that the Papua Games was actually an opportunity to strengthen nation-building in Papua and trust-building between Papuan people and Jakarta if the latter could follow up the games with dialogue. "After this event, the central government must establish a democratic forum for dialogues with all Papuans, even including those who had been hostile to the central government," he said.
He said the central government should also close the socioeconomic gap between native Papuans and other Indonesians, whether in Papua or in other provinces."[Infrastructure] development will not be useful if native Papuans are still marginalized," he said.