Gemma Holliani Cahya, Jakarta – A group of 57 Catholic priests from across Papua Island have demanded that the government put a stop to the "forced continuation of special autonomy [Otsus] in Papua".
The spokesperson of the group, John Bunai, a Catholic priest from the Papuan capital Jayapura, urged the government, policymakers and local administrations in a press conference last week to evaluate how the Otsus Law is enforced and to assess whether it has helped improve the lives of Papuans.
The law on special autonomy in Papua and West Papua provinces was passed in 2001 during the administration of former president Megawati Soekarnoputri to guarantee Papuans the right to manage their own region politically, economically and culturally. It also stipulates the allocation of special autonomy funds, valid for 20 years.
As the funding will stop next year, the House of Representatives has included deliberation of Papua's special autonomy status in this year's National Legislation Program (Prolegnas) priority list – the bill of which was proposed under the government's initiative. Home Minister Tito Karnavian said the government was considering extending Papua's special autonomy status, as reported by kompas.com.
In January, Tito urged lawmakers to immediately deliberate the bill on the grounds that the Otsus fund would accelerate Papua's development and help resolve the issue of discrimination in the province.
"What the government has forced [on Papua] are [special autonomy] funds. But what Papuans need is not simply funds; they instead need their lives, education, safety, health and welfare. That's what they need, not billions of [rupiah]," John told The Jakarta Post on Friday evening.
John said the group of priests was not affiliated with any political organization and that their sole purpose was only to fight for humanity and truth because they, as native Papuans, had witnessed a long history of violence against indigenous Papuans over the years.
While some Catholic priests, such as the late Neles Tebay, had become prominent voices urging dialogue between Jakarta and Papuan people, this is the first time the indigenous priests have formed a group to voice their aspirations.
John said the idea to join hands and speak out first came last year, not long after protests and riots broke out in several cities in Papua as a response to racial abuse in Malang and Surabaya.
"If we [the Catholic priests] stay quiet while our people cry, hurt and are killed, then it seems as if we support the violence. We must speak up. [...] These are the people that God has entrusted to us," John said.
The group of priests is urging the government to open up peaceful dialogue between Papua and Jakarta with the presence of a neutral third party.
"The government did that with the Free Aceh Movement [GAM] in Aceh years ago. They should have also done that with Papuans," John said.
The group also said the government should consider giving Papuans a referendum to determine their own faith as a "transformative resolution" if the government could not solve conflicts in Papua.
Human rights activists and researchers have called on the government to listen to these priests, as well as other organizations in Papua that have voiced similar demands.
"'Dialogue is the path to justice and peace' – I think that's the message these Papuan priests want to send. And their voice represents the grassroots communities," Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) researcher Cahyo Pamungkas told the Post on Saturday. "[What has been happening in Papua] is a serious issue, and their aspirations should be heard."
Cahyo said the Catholic priests were deconstructing the government narrative that special autonomy had brought benefits to Papua.
"That's how the government sees it, from a Jakarta point of view. [...] While for Papuans, they see much political violence. Human rights abuses are still happening during the implementation of special autonomy," Cahyo said. "Public services, especially in rural areas, are also still difficult to access despite the special autonomy."
Amiruddin Al Rahab, a commissioner at the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM), said that the priests' demands could push the government to take human rights issues in Papua more seriously. "But only if the government gets the message," Amir told the Post.
More and more organizations and communities in Papua have voiced their opposition to the continuity of the special autonomy status, with the latest coming from a movement of 16 groups called Petisi Rakyat Papua.
Many opposing the Otsus believe that the fund, which has been distributed since 2002 to support Papua's development, has failed to grow the region's economy. To date, the government has reportedly allocated around Rp 126 trillion (US$8.7 billion) in Otsus funds for both Papua and West Papua province.
Despite the large sum, the poverty rate in Papua remains high. The latest data from Statistics Indonesia (BPS) show Papua and West Papua were the two provinces with the highest poverty rates in the country last year, with Papua at 27.53 percent and West Papua at 22.17 percent.
The Home Ministry's regional autonomy director general, Akmal Malik, declined to comment on criticism over Papua's special autonomy status, saying only that critics were entitled to their opinions.
"Just wait for the deliberation [of the Otsus bill]," Akmal told the Post, refusing to disclose any details about the future of Papua's special autonomy.