Darmawan Triwibowo, Jayapura – On a Sunday evening, after considering various advice from colleagues, I decided to fly to Jayapura – just 10 days after violent protests rocked the city. There were friends to visit and people to meet to understand the current circumstances.
Gloomy news greeted me as soon as I landed in Sentani. A brief meeting with a local human rights lawyer at the airport provided me a vivid illustration of the widespread arrests and detentions in the cities of Jayapura, Fakfak, Deiyai and Timika by security forces in the aftermath of the demonstrations in each city.
In Timika, the lawyer cited data showing that 33 people had been arrested with 10 still in detention since Aug. 21. Some of them experienced violence and excessive use of force – including being shot – during their arrests.
Moreover, although human rights organizations in Papua and West Papua are trying to organize legal aid and court monitoring, some more remote areas – such as Deiyai – will be too expensive to cover as police used to maximize the detention periods prior to trial.
Without intervention from civil society, the public will never know what happens there. There is a small likelihood of a fair trial, with virtually no obligation from the government for transparency. After a depressing one-hour talk, the lawyer flew to Timika to provide assistance for those 10 people.
On the way to a hotel, my driver, who had personally observed the protest on Aug. 29, described how chaotic the situation was. "It was very different from the peaceful rally on Aug. 19," he said. "People looked more hostile, angrier and seemed prepared to make trouble." He wished the central government was quicker in taking the right steps to calm tensions. He praised the swift move by Jayapura Mayor Benhur Tommy Mano who prevented further escalation of violence by announcing local government readiness to cover the physical damages and financial losses from the riot.
However, I spotted three trucks of the Mobile Brigade Corps (Brimob) parked in the streets of the Waena area. Dozens of armed Brimob officers stood on alert along the roadside within a 200-meter perimeter, while some entered houses, climbed stairs and knocked on doors in search of new suspects under the anxious glances of Papuans outside the perimeter. I imagined the implications and the psychological effects of this scene toward fellow Papuan witnesses.
Later I joined a press conference held by the Papua Civil Society Coalition, which opened a pos pengaduan (help desk) in Jayapura for families of riot victims who were looking for information and wanted to submit reports. The initiative aims to provide the public with independent and reliable information regarding the Aug. 29 incident, as the government tended to monopolize and control the flow of information by temporarily shutting down the internet in Papua.
The statement from coalition members showed how the police restricted access to victims in the hospital even for organizations with church affiliation. The coalition also criticized government unwillingness to disclose the number of those killed or injured – as represented by the previous statement of Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister Wiranto – while being so fast to estimate the cost of physical destruction and financial loss in the city.
American statesman Thomas Jefferson once said that "information is the currency of democracy". The people's government requires a free flow of information – when data can be exchanged deliberately to provide citizens with choices, best options and a push for government accountability in addressing policy problems. Problems arise when information is controlled and its absence results in disinformation, state propaganda and repression.
Unfortunately, the government opts for the opposite way to handle the Papua issue. A security approach requires control. Control is easier to achieve through fear and there is no breeding ground of fear more fertile than secrecy.
As I turned on the television for the evening news, Wiranto was on screen to inform the public that the government has mobilized 6,000 security officers in Papua. Why so many? No explanation. For how long? No exact period was unveiled. How will the expense be covered? Zero information.
Similar patterns of strategy have been seen over and over again. In the eyes of the government, citizens-cum-taxpayers do not have the right to know. For Papua, the "why" is out of the question. After the news, my phone rang. Buchtar Tabuni, a member of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua was arrested earlier in the evening. A chill crawled up my spine. It could be anyone, anytime, for any reason as the morning scene in Waena returned to my brain.
Maybe Jefferson, as well as the journalist Edward Murrow, were right once again: "A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves." But we are not sheep, are we?
[Darmawan Triwibowo is a civil society activist.]