Victor Mambor, Jayapura, Indonesia – Dividing Indonesia's Papua region further could complicate efforts for a peaceful solution to the separatist conflict, after the national parliament approved a draft bill this week for the creation of three additional provinces despite local opposition, activists and community leaders are warning.
They say the division violates the spirit of autonomy, erodes the trust of Papua's indigenous people and can be used to increase Indonesia's military presence in the region.
On Wednesday, the House of Representatives' legislation committee approved a draft law for the creation of the new provinces of South Papua, Central Papua and Papua Central Highlands, paving the way for their passage at a plenary session, the date of which has not been announced.
"The approval of the bills on the three new provinces of Papua is like lightning in broad daylight," said Timotius Murib, chairman of the Papua People's Assembly (MRP), an organization consisting of customary leaders.
"Without adequate consultations, suddenly the House of Representatives approved the three bills. This undermines the spirit of special autonomy," he told BenarNews.
He stressed that Jakarta should not be hasty about carving up Papua, warning that new administrative units could erase the MRP's cultural territories.
"These bills ignore the rules stipulated in the Special Autonomy law which requires consultations with the people of Papua. Under Special Autonomy, the establishment of new administrative units must be consulted with and approved by the MRP," Murib said.
Indonesia's parliament last July passed a new special autonomy law for Papua that boosts central government funding for the troubled region at Indonesia's far-eastern end.
Jakarta granted special autonomy for Papua in 2001 to mollify desires for independence, but Indonesian security forces have been accused of human rights abuses during anti-insurgency operations there.
The government said that last year's legislation, which replaced the 2001 special autonomy law, would spur development in the Papua region, which currently comprises Papua and West Papua provinces.
In November 2021, Mohammad Mahfud MD, the coordinating minister for political, security and legal affairs, said that breaking up Papua into more provinces would help economic and social benefits reach those it was intended for more efficiently and sooner.
"In addition to our national strategic interests to strengthen the integrity of the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia, there is also the need to accelerate social welfare," he had said about why the government wanted to divide Papua into smaller units.
Under the law, Papua is entitled to a lion's share of proceeds from its natural resources, including 80 percent from the forestry and fisheries sectors, and 70 percent from oil and gas, for the next 20 years.
Papua Gov. Lukas Enembe warned that new provinces could undermine the protection of indigenous people.
"The presence of new autonomous areas must benefit the communities, because most of the funding will be absorbed for infrastructure [projects]," Enembe said.
'A counterproductive situation'
The plans to carve up Papua have been widely opposed by indigenous people.
Protests against the plans have been held in major Papuan cities including Jayapura, Wamena, Yahukimo, Timika, Nabire and Lanny Jaya.
In Yahukimo, two people were killed and six others injured when security forces opened fire during a rally last month.
Cahyo Pamungkas, a researcher at the National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN), said Jakarta's policy to divide Papua could backfire and make it more difficult to reach a settlement in the separatist conflict.
"The cycle of political violence in Papua has resulted in civilian casualties and displaced people," Cahyo said in a statement released by the Humanitarian Coalition for Papua.
"The revised autonomy law and the policy to divide [Papua] have created a counterproductive situation. As a result, the indigenous people of Papua increasingly feel that they lack security and continue to be reminded about the dark past," he said.
Clashes between rebels and government forces have intensified since December 2018, after rebels killed 20 people who worked for a state-owned construction company building a road in Papua.
Since the 1960s, Papua has been home to a separatist insurgency, while the country's security forces have been accused of human rights abuses in counter-insurgency operations.
In 1963, Indonesian forces invaded Papua – like Indonesia, a former Dutch colony – and annexed the region that makes up the western half of New Guinea Island.
Papua was incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 after a United Nations-sponsored vote, which locals and activists said was a sham because it involved only about 1,000 people. However, the United Nations accepted the result, essentially endorsing Jakarta's rule.
The future South Papua province has only four regencies – Merauke, Mappi, Asmat and Boven Digoel – said Yorrys Raweyai, a Papuan member of the Regional Representatives Council, one of the two houses in the national assembly.
"This could violate the constitution. The [autonomy] law stipulates that a new province should have at least five regencies or cities. In South Papua, there are only four regencies," he said.
Miya Irawati, executive director of the Public Virtue Research Institute, said Jakarta should scrap or postpone the plan to establish new provinces until there is a decision by the Constitutional Court on the challenge to the new autonomy law filed by the MRP.
"This is a setback for democracy in Papua. Instead of respecting the spirit of special autonomy, the government has recentralized the politics of local governance," Miya said in a statement.
Hussein Ahmad, a researcher from the human rights group Imparsial, expressed concern that Papua's divisions would be used to justify an increase in the military presence., which he said could exacerbate the conflict.
"If there are three new provinces then it will likely be followed by the formation of three new military commands and new units under them, which will certainly increase the number of military personnel in Papua," he said.
"Amid efforts to resolve the ongoing conflict and violence and the lack of accountability for military operations in Papua, the establishment of new territorial units and an increase in the number of troops could increase violence and human rights violations in Papua," Hussein said.