Siktus Harson – A multimillion-dollar graft scandal involving high-ranking leaders in conflict-torn Papua has drawn a public backlash and further impoverished people traumatized by decades of violence.
Indonesia's anti-graft agency confirmed last month a corruption scandal involving Papua's top man – Governor Lukas Enembe. He allegedly embezzled around US$36 million of state funds aimed to advance people's welfare.
He allegedly spent the money on casinos overseas and his businesses. If the money had been used appropriately, hundreds of new schools and health facilities could have been built.
The governor claimed the accusations against him are politically motivated.
However, indigenous communities, anti-graft groups and the Church believe that corruption in Papua is rife. They have called on the governor to surrender and follow the legal process accordingly.
But he has refused to do so. The police haven't arrested him, as his residence is heavily guarded by supporters and relatives, fearing it could trigger a clash.
Corruption in Papua is a latent threat and resolving it should be a government priority, just as it fights separatism.
Graft has become a widespread phenomenon in Papua largely due to the corrupt mentality of local leaders. They take advantage of Jakarta's "generosity," in unceasingly providing autonomy funds, for self-aggrandizement, ignoring people's basic rights to better health, education and improved household incomes.
Father Yanuarius You, president of the Fajar Timur School of Philosophy and Theology, said corruption in Papua is a serious issue. It causes social jealousy and conflict. Poverty and extended conflict are the results of ubiquitous corruption.
But Governor Enembe is not the only local leader who has been accused of misappropriating state funds.
In the last three years, authorities have named more than 100 graft suspects. Sadly, only a few were prosecuted and the rest vanished.
Twenty years since autonomy status was granted, Papua remains the poorest region in Indonesia. All these years, the government has spent much of its resources fighting the separatist movement.
It's possible that many Papuans, apart from seeking independence, join armed separatist groups because they feel disappointed. There's a huge gap between government promises and reality – poverty.
The situation provides fertile ground for separatism. That is not to say that the separatist movement is primarily an economic issue. It's most probably ideological.
The armed wing of the Papua Independence Movement continues to attack civilians and security forces.
Last week four highway project workers were shot dead by armed men in Teluk Bintuni, West Papua, whom they claimed were undercover agents. In July, armed separatists killed 11 people, including a Protestant pastor and a Muslim cleric.
Some observers claim that the armed conflict in Papua partially stems from the government's negligence regarding people's rights to wealth, health, education and freedom of speech.
Corruption has forced over 26 percent of Papuans to live in acute poverty, according to official data.
Compared to other provinces, the population of Papua (4.3 million people) and West Papua (1.1 million) is considered small. In the past two decades, the government has spent around $65 billion – including special autonomy funds – to support Papuans. It means they should be above average in terms of quality of life if local authorities spent the money appropriately.
However, it's the opposite. The people remain poor. Schools and hospitals are only available in certain areas. Road infrastructure is minimal. Unemployment is high among the native Papuans.
The political elite is wealthy, while ordinary people who should benefit more from government funding have little to eat.
Clinics were built but without skilled staff. Only a few doctors are willing to work there. Similarly, schools lack quality teachers or good facilities. Continued intimidation by armed separatists worsens the situation.
This has led to serious health issues, especially among mothers and children. Stunting and malnutrition remain high among Papuan children.
Government data in 2019 showed over 500 cases of stunting and around 2,220 cases of malnutrition in Papua. Those numbers could be higher because several districts did not report the health status of children.
These are some of the perennial problems that Papuans face, despite large sums of money being given to the region.
It's high time the central government fought corrupt officials not only rebels. Massive corruption in Papua happens due to a lack of state control over spending by local leaders, inefficient bureaucracy and incompetence.
The challenge gets tougher with the extension of special autonomy, marked by the recent formation of three new provinces – South Papua, Central Papua and Papua Mountains.
The goal of establishing these new provinces is to enable the government to easily reach out to Papuans.
However, if the same pattern – inefficient bureaucracy and incompetent leadership – is duplicated in the new provinces, most likely they will be tragic failures.
The government must focus on building an efficient bureaucracy in Papua, which includes careful planning, monitoring and evaluation of the use of state funds for the common good of Papuans.
Jakarta should not let local leaders run the machinery on their own. The alleged corruption of Enembe and his subordinates should lead to a change in approach to settling Papua's problems.
The administration should be more efficient and transparent so that the public can see the state is present and working in Papua, not only sending in money and troops.
Pouring in huge sums of money without proper control only benefits shady governors, district heads and their cronies. Sending more troops without equipping them with a pro-people strategy is inherently harmful.
If the government wants to create a peaceful Papua, perhaps the first priority is to create an effective and efficient government. Next is avoiding the excessive use of force.
[The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.]