Ryan Dagur, Jakarta – Indonesia's Catholic leaders have urged the central government to listen to the aspirations of local people in Papua while making plans for new provinces in the easternmost region.
The Ministry of Home Affairs is proposing to have six new provinces in place of the current two – Papua and West Papua – drawing protests from Papuans who suspect it may further tighten government control over the territory and marginalize the indigenous peoples.
Father Yohanes Jeharut, executive secretary of the Lay Apostolic Commission of the Indonesian bishops' conference, said the conference has not officially stated its position on this proposal as it respects the autonomy of bishops in the Papua region.
However, he said, it was hoped the government would prioritize people's safety as the highest law principle in implementing this proposal.
Speaking at a discussion organized by Catholic Youth on Feb. 22, Father Jeharut underlined the need to appreciate that the Papuans are stakeholders, not the interests of the central government, political parties and capital owners.
He cautioned the central government not to rush the proposal as it had the potential to trigger a big conflict.
The birth of a new autonomous region causes indigenous Papuans to be increasingly marginalized due to massive transmigration of residents from outside the region
"A comprehensive evaluation of the government's approach so far in Papua is needed," Father Jeharut said.
Stefanus Asat Gusma, chairman of Catholic Youth, said: "Don't let this new autonomous region only be in the interests of the elite in Jakarta."
Father Alexandro Rangga from the Franciscans' Secretariat for Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation in Papua said he could perceive the proposal's motive to gain control over Papua's natural resources.
"The birth of a new autonomous region causes indigenous Papuans to be increasingly marginalized due to massive transmigration of residents from outside the region," he said.
He said the policy was not a solution for the welfare of the Papuan people because it was proved that in several new districts that were divided in the last few years, problems such as malnutrition and poor health services continued to occur.
"Let the government sit down and discuss with the local people because public services have not been fully felt by the community," he said.
Father Rangga pointed out that according to the recommendations of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences research, the government should focus on solving four main problems – development failure; marginalization and discrimination of indigenous Papuans; human rights violations; and the history and political status of the Papua region.
Emanuel Gobay, director of the Papua Legal Aid Institute, said that in accordance with a 2021 government regulation, the proposed Papua administrative regions needed to be aimed at elevating the dignity of indigenous Papuans.
Meanwhile, Veronica Koman, a leading Papuan rights activist, expressed apprehension that the military and police presence would increase with the proposed provinces in the region.
"This will bring Papuan people's lives under more militarism," she said, urging local people to reject the government plan to introduce more provinces.