Yuliana Lantipo and Ronna Nirmala Jayapura, Indonesia, and Jakarta – Twenty years after Indonesia introduced legislation for special autonomy to pacify a clamor for independence in Papua, residents of the underdeveloped and impoverished region are not seeing a better economy while violence from a separatist insurgency persists.
Locals say the legislation to empower Papua and West Papua provinces, a region at the far-eastern end of the Indonesian archipelago, has not brought economic benefits to its indigenous Melanesian population but has instead lined the pockets of those in power.
Now, Papuans are skeptical about a new law that was passed in July to replace the old special autonomy legislation and extend regional autonomy for another 20 years. The old law expires this weekend and the new one is set to take hold on Sunday, but a local group is trying to have it blocked through Indonesia's Constitutional Court.
Emanuel Dumupa, a resident of Jayapura, the provincial capital, said he did not know details of the law, but was not optimistic about it because he feared that non-Papuans would have disproportionate control of economic sectors.
"If it favors ordinary people, then thank God, but if it only benefits the political elite and big businessmen, I don't agree with it," Emanuel told BenarNews.
He pointed to a simple concern – betel nuts which are consumed in Papua and Papua New Guinea.
"Why do outsiders also sell betel nuts? Why don't they just make a local regulation that only Papuans can sell betel nuts?" he asked. "If there is no such rule, things will just be the same as during the first autonomy period."The Indonesian government said it had disbursed 138.65 trillion rupiah (U.S. $9.72 billion) in special autonomy funds for Papua and West Papua – which make up the Indonesian part of New Guinea Island – over the past 20 years.
Papua province nonetheless rates lowest on the Human Development Index in Indonesia, falling below West Papua. The index measures factors such as life expectancy, education and standard of living.
Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati has estimated that the government might need to spend 234 trillion rupiah ($16.4 billion) over the next 20 years.
Under the new legislation, the central government's fund for Papua and West Papua provinces has been raised to 2.25 percent of the total earmarked for the country's 34 provinces, from the earlier 2 percent.
In addition, the legislation calls for prioritizing indigenous Papuans for jobs in the region, which is home to the Grasberg mine, one of the world's largest gold mines.
The Papuan Indigenous People's Council (MRP), meanwhile, has lodged a petition with the Constitutional Court to revoke articles in the law, including ones that abolish local political parties and create new administrative regions.
Rebels designated as terrorists
Violence and tensions in Papua have been simmering after separatist rebels killed 19 workers who were building a bridge in Nduga regency in late 2018, accusing them of being government spies.
In 2019, more than 40 people were killed in violent unrest across the Papuan region after police raided a dorm in Surabaya and arrested dozens of Papuan students amid allegations they had disrespected the Indonesian flag. Video circulated of the armed police using racial slurs against the students.
In April, the government designated separatist rebels as terrorists after insurgents ambushed and assassinated an army general who headed the regional branch of the National Intelligence Agency. The killing prompted President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo to order a crackdown.
"Development programs have been implemented based on one-sided considerations, while the root cause of separatism has not been resolved. There is a gap between development programs and conflict resolution efforts," Cahyo Pamungkas, a Papua researcher at the National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN), told BenarNews.
"This is the failure of the first special autonomy period. There was no dialogue," he said.
In 2019, Jokowi said he was ready to hold talks with separatist leaders, but no such dialogue has taken place to date.
Cahyo said government programs must focus on education, health and the economy by involving all parties, including those in favor of independence.
"All programs that are not important, such as the governor's plan to build a 12-story building, should be replaced with those that are more beneficial to the Papuan people in general," Cahyo said.
"Honestly, I am pessimistic about the Jokowi regime's policies. As long as development fails to involve indigenous Papuans, there will more displacements."
During a Constitutional Court hearing on Tuesday, security minister Mohammad Mahfud MD defended the new law, saying the government had consulted Papuans during the deliberation process.
"The law was designed to strengthen unity and achieve progress for Papua," he said. "We invited all parties. Everyone was heard."
Jaleswari Pramodhawardani, a deputy at the Presidential Staff Office, acknowledged shortcomings in the implementation and urged the local government to crack down on corruption.
"The non-ideal condition should give us pause. Development policies in Papua must no longer be business as usual, partial and sporadic," she said.
'Not a political solution'
In 1963, Indonesian forces invaded Papua – a mainly Melanesian region and like Indonesia, a former Dutch colony – and annexed it.
Papua was incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 after a U.N.-sponsored vote, which locals and activists said was a sham because it involved only about 1,000 people.
The Free Papua Movement (OPM) has fought for independence for the mainly Christian region since the 1960s.
Markus Haluk, executive director of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP), an umbrella group seeking independence for the region, said special autonomy had failed.
"The law is not a political solution, but the government has been advertising it as it were a political resolution," he told BenarNews.
Haluk alleged that democracy and respect for human rights in Papua had deteriorated in recent years because of increased military presence.
"Arbitrary arrests, detention, torture, shootings and killings under special autonomy have been massive, systematic and blatant. Political and human rights activists have been targeted and arrested anytime, anywhere," he said.
Semi Pigome, who lives in the city of Manokwari in West Papua province, said he hoped future development programs would focus on empowering indigenous Papuans.
He said the planned division of Papua into smaller administrative units as sanctioned by the new law could further marginalize indigenous Papuans.
"This will slowly reduce opportunities for indigenous Papuans and provide more job opportunities for our brothers and sisters from other parts of the country," Pigome told BenarNews.