Keith Loveard, Jakarta – Construction workers building a bridge as part of the Trans-Papua Highway late last year knew there was a separatist group in the area. Indeed, from later accounts, the construction crew was close enough to the separatists' camp to be able to watch them celebrate the Dec. 1 founding of the Free Papua Organization (OPM).
According to one account, one of the workers took a photograph of the commemoration. That enraged the separatists, who attacked the workers, cutting down and shooting anyone they could find. Up until now, accounts of the massacre vary, but at least 19 people died.
What is also unclear is what has happened in the months since then.
President Joko Widodo immediately insisted that the project would not be stopped by the violence, stating that better roads into the interior were essential if the area was to be developed. But the violence has continued, often with Indonesian soldiers guarding the highway becoming the victims.
The latest incident on July 20 saw one soldier killed when he and a number of other troops were guarding the highway project. Since the beginning of 2018, 23 civilians and 15 soldiers have been killed in an upsurge of violence in Nduga district in the Papuan highlands.
Many more are reported to have fled the violence, though numbers are uncertain. A group calling itself the Humanitarian Evacuation Team claims that a total of 18,000 people have fled their homes across the highlands. Hundreds of others have decided to take refuge in forests, spending nights "between life and death," its report claimed.
Theo Hesegem, director of NGO Foundation for Justice and Integrity of Papuan People, said 139 of those who had fled their villagers had died, insisting he had proof of the deaths. Police denied the death toll was so high and on July 29, a senior official with the Social Affairs Ministry, Harry Hikmat, said only 53 people, including 23 children, had died since the beginning of the year. The deaths of children were not considered an extraordinary case, he said.
Indonesian authorities are striving to paint the situation as normal, although they haven't denied that security is fragile in the region. Other sources are insisting that a major humanitarian disaster is unfolding.
The propaganda tug-of-war comes as the Pacific Islands Forum is about to meet in Tuvalu. A preliminary meeting of foreign ministers agreed on July 19 that allegations of human rights violations in Papua must remain on the agenda. The foreign ministers acknowledged a reported escalation in violence and abuses in Papua.
The forum has long been an important venue for lobbying by Papuan separatists, along with another regional association, the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG).
One prominent Papuan separatist grouping, the United Liberation Movement of West Papua (ULMWP), officially submitted an application for full membership of the MSG in June. That will bring to a head divisions within the Melanesian grouping which have long been utilized by Indonesia, which has associate member status. Up until now, Papua New Guinea and Fiji have taken Indonesia's side in opposing full ULMWP membership.
At the Pacific Islands Forum, the foreign ministers welcomed an invitation by Indonesia for a team from the office of U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet to visit Papua. They "strongly encouraged both sides to finalize the timing of the U.N. visit and make every endeavor to provide a report on the situation before the PIF leaders meeting in 2020."
While Jakarta has issued an invitation to the high commissioner, there has been no comment on when a visit might occur, if ever. The Indonesian side in the past has arranged quick and carefully guided visits to Papua that have provided little real opportunity for the visiting delegations to find out what is happening.
This situation makes the death toll and associated accounts in the Papua highlands useful ammunition for both sides of the argument. Jakarta is keen to see the situation pictured as business as usual, the separatists want to play up the disruption to normal life.
For Indonesia, the worst-case scenario is for the Pacific nations to succeed in pushing the U.N. to revisit the so-called Act of Free Choice of 1969 under which the world body agreed to transfer sovereignty to Indonesia. Critics say the 'free choice' was limited to a carefully chosen group of local leaders and was in no way representative.
The Pacific Islands Forum and the MSG are among only a handful of allies of the Papuan separatist movement. Indonesia is vociferous in its defense of its position, recently loudly criticizing the granting of the freedom of the city of Oxford to ULMWP leader Benny Wenda, who lives in exile in the city.
The British government had to remind Jakarta that Oxford City Council did not necessarily represent its official view, adding that it did not question Jakarta's sovereignty. Other nations, including neighboring Australia, are similarly cautious about not upsetting the Indonesians.
While there is plenty of evidence that Papuans aren't particularly happy with Indonesian rule – the ULMWP managed to present a petition with 1.8 million signatures to the U.N. in January – politics is not foremost on the minds of many.
Although Jakarta continues to pour billions of dollars into the area, poverty remains widespread. This year, the region's village development program will receive the equivalent of $371 million, but much doesn't reach the target.
The Central Bureau of Statistics even recorded an increase in Papua's poverty rate from 27.43 percent in September last year to 27.53 percent in March this year. Poverty is concentrated in rural areas, where it reached 36.84 percent of the population in March this year, up from 36.65 percent last September. That means 1.54 million people are living in poverty in Papua.
Commenting on the situation, the Papua administration's public and village empowerment head, Donatus Mote, stated that the figures indicated an "inefficient" use of the funds, noting that there was "low integrity" among those managing the funds.
As Jakarta strives to keep the lid on separatist sentiment, it might be better engaged stamping out some of the inefficiency and lack of integrity and improving the use of its funds.
[Keith Loveard is an Indonesia-based journalist and analyst. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of ucanews.com.]