Max Lane – The application for asylum by 43 West Papuan political activists and their families, who arrived on Australia's Cape York peninsula in January after a five-day voyage on a rickety boat, brought the political and social situation in the Indonesian province of Papua to the attention of the Australian public. Public meetings and protest actions have been organised in a number of cities in solidarity with the West Papuan independence movement.
Solidarity actions in Indonesia itself in support of Papuan democracy activists have been mainly organised by a group called Papua Aceh Solidarity (SAP), which has staged street protests, mainly involving Indonesian and Papuan students, since at least 2004. There are several other Indonesian groups sympathetic to the plight of Papuans, in particular human rights organisations, one of the most prominent being the Institute for Policy Research and Advocacy (ELSAM). While these human rights institutions concentrate on research and advocacy, SAP has concentrated on public protest actions. At the core of SAP, alongside the Acehnese and Papuan activists, are members of the left-wing People's Democratic Party (PRD).
Indonesian solidarity protests
In 2004 and 2005, many of the SAP demonstrations combined Acehnese, Papuans and activists from other parts of the Indonesian archipelago. Protests were held at the Electoral Commission, on campuses, at the national parliament, and in several different city centres, including Jakarta, Jogjakarta, Surabaya and Denpasar. The protests usually took up specific policies being imposed by the central government, but in particular the military operations in Aceh prior to the recent ceasefire and the regular acts of violence against indigenous Papuans in West Papua.
There have also been regular protest actions by organisations of Papuan students based in different cities in Java, Bali and Sulawesi. Several hundred Papuans are studying in Indonesian universities in these areas at any one time, usually on national, provincial or church scholarships.
Last October, 100 students from the Papuan Students Alliance (AMP) held a demonstration outside the campus of the State University of Gajah Mada in the city of Jogjakarta. They were protesting the swearing in of members of the Papuan Peoples Assembly (MPR), a new, purely advisory body set up by the national government as a concession to independence sentiment in Papua. The students saw the MPR as part of a policy package offering "special autonomy" to Papua without any real transfer of decision-making power.
Sections of the Papuan elite, based in the government bureaucracy that developed during the Suharto years and on connections with national and international business, have given the MPR some support. The demonstration was supported by several left-wing groups, including the PRD and the National Democratic Students League (LMND).
On January 19, Papuan students from AMP held a demonstrated outside the US consulate in Denpasar. They were protesting the connections between the US mining giant Freeport and the Indonesian military (TNI). There was also concern about the arrest of Papuans charged with the murders of three US teachers in Timika, which many regard as a scapegoating exercise against Papuan activists. The demonstration was supported by the PRD and LMND as well as a progressive Islamic student organisation.
A few days later in Jogjakarta there was another joint protest action by Papuan students supported by the PRD, LMND, the National Student Front (FMN) and several other organisations. The protesters marched from Gajah Mada University into the city centre. They demanded the release of the Papuans arrested for the murders of the US teachers in Timika, the arrest of implicated police and army personnel and the immediate withdrawal of the TNI from Papua.
On January 20, a demonstration organised by the Students Action Front took place in Menado in North Sulawesi during a visit by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Twenty demonstrators were detained by police, including four Papuans, but were released later in the day. The protesters demanded the resolution of human rights violations cases in Papua, as well as other parts of Indonesia. They also demanded an end to the import of rice into Indonesia; rejected recent rises in fuel and electricity prices; called for repudiation of the foreign debt; demanded an end to the increase in the number of military command posts throughout the country; and called for the seizure of corruptly gained assets and for cheap education and health for the people. The Menado protest came one day after a separate demonstration by Papuan and non-Papuan students.
Papuan politics are now reported daily in the Indonesian national media. In 1999-2001, during the presidency of Abdurahman Wahid, considerable political space was opened up in Papua. A Papuan People's Congress was held, involving a very broad representation of the indigenous Papuan section of the population in West Papua. (A majority of the province's population is now made up of poor farmers and traders from Sulawesi, Java, Bali and other Indonesian islands.) The congress called for a "straightening out" of Papuan history – a not-so-veiled reference to the fake "act of free choice" organised by the Suharto dictatorship in 1969 under which Indonesia's annexation of Dutch New Guinea was supposedly given popular endorsement.
The congress elected a Papuan Presidium Council (DPD) and established a Customary Law Council (DAP, made up mainly of traditional tribal leaders). At the core of the DPD was the Papuan political elite, many of whom had been members of Suharto's Golkar party.
Wahid also allowed for the Papuan flag to be flown publicly alongside the Indonesian flag. His government changed the name of the province from Irian Jaya to Papua.
After Wahid's toppling by a massive campaign of destablisation organised by Golkar, the new government of President Megawati Sukarnoputri took several measures aimed at halting the momentum toward Papuan sovereignty that Wahid's policies had unleashed. These measures included a law to divide the province into two or more provinces, potentially pitting resource-rich and resource-poor parts of Papua against each other. This went against an earlier law on autonomy that had created the Papuan People's Assembly, which was required to approve any such new laws.
It was during Megawati's rule that violent harassment of Papuan activists and leaders increased. The Papuan political figure who had emerged as dominant out of the Papuan People's Congress, Theys Hiyo Eluay, a former Golkar politician, was murdered on November 10, 2001 – just a few months after Wahid had been deposed. Although Theys maintained close relations with the TNI generals, he was killed by army personnel.
More harassment and violence has occurred since then, but it has not been sufficiently systematic or intense enough to stop open political organising. There are now many political and student groups operating in West Papuan towns. Important organisations are the Papuan Student Alliance, the Papuan National Students Front, and the West Papuan People's Struggle United Front. There are also a range of human rights advocacy groups, some connected to the churches.
The Free Papua Movement (OPM), a confederation groupings striving for Papuan independence, is also active, but not openly. It is still illegal to openly advocate independence.
According to left-wing Papuan activists in Jakarta, it is the DPD and the DAP, dominated by the Papuan political elite (some of whom have ties with Freeport and BP) that wields the greatest political authority among the indigenous Papuan population. These bodies are ambivalent on issues of sovereignty and popular empowerment, using these issues to gain support at election times and exert pressure on Jakarta through public meetings, but then seek deals with the Jakarta political elite.
While sporadic killings of grass-roots activists continue to occur, more scope has been created for the Papuan elite to participate in the province's official politics. At the moment, there are elections for local sub-provincial heads, attracting a wide range of candidates.
The majority of indigenous Papuans have not been able to emerge out of their traditional rural subsistence economy. The urban-based capitalist economy developed after the Dutch colonialists left in 1962. It was based on the influx of poor farmers and others into Papua from different parts of Indonesia, blocking indigenous Papuan involvement. However, during Suharto's 1966-98 New Order regime, a modern class structure did develop in the towns, with a Papuan capitalist class being integrated into the Indonesian capitalist ruling class through the business networks that stretched into the province.
The majority of Papuans in the subsistence sector are even more deprived of education and health facilities than the more than 1 million poor non-Papuans and Papuans in the urban centres.
A recent statement of the PRD observed that the "suppression of democracy and of any kind of welfare in Papua under militarism and economic exploitation by the national government of the bourgeoisie has resulted in a process of forming a Papuan national character. However, this is still at the level of the embryo of a nation. It is not yet manifested in a total conception of a nation. The fundamental political and economic problems facing Papuan and Indonesian society are the same: neoliberalism."
The PRD sees the key task in relation to Papua as being the creation of the widest democratic space so that a broad, open dialogue among the Papuan people can help form, free of any intervention from the current national government, a democratic autonomous government. The PRD demands the withdrawal of the TNI from Papua, rejection of any attempts to split up Papua, rejection of the imposition of the advisory MPR, the starting of a pro-people program of industrialisation and the formation of a solid Papuan people's democratic united front.
[Max Lane is the chairperson of Action in Solidarity with Asia and the Pacific (APSN), a network of activists around Australia who are building solidarity with movements for social justice, genuine democratisation and self-determination around the Asia Pacific region. For more information visit