Violence Hits Papua (Again): A Crisis in Need of a Leader

June has probably been the most violent month in years for Indonesia’s Papua province. First, two Indonesian soldiers speeding on a motorbike hit (or nearly hit, depending on the source) a young Papuan boy June 6 in a village outside the town of Wamena. In anger, a local mob attacked the soldiers, stabbing one to death and seriously injuring the other. Fellow soldiers from the local Indonesian army battalion retaliated the same day with an attack on the village. They burned several homes and attacked a number of villagers. Details remain unclear, but at least one villager was killed and 13 others were reportedly injured.

Meanwhile, the capital of Jayapura has been plagued by a seemingly random spate of shootings that began with the May 29 killing of a German tourist. The National Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras) has said that at least 8 people have died and 15 have been injured. Indonesian authorities have been quick to point the finger at Papuan pro-independence groups, but no evidence has been offered in support of that claim.

Things only got worse when police fatally shot independence activist Mako Tabuni June 14 while attempting to arrest him in connection with the shootings. The result was a riot that left shops and vehicles across parts of Jayapura in ashes. As with most cases of violence involving the security forces in Papua, the circumstances surrounding Tabuni’s death are murky. Police insist that he was shot while resisting arrest. His fellow activists contest that account.

Unfortunately, the recent spate of violence in Papua has been underreported, both within Indonesia and abroad. To some it might merely be unimportant, but most observers are simply too jaded to be surprised. Papua has been a tinderbox of ethnic tension and separatist conflict for a half century. After the British gave the eastern half of the island of New Guinea independence, creating modern Papua New Guinea, the people of the island’s western half expected the same. They wrote a constitution, established the early organs of government, and petitioned the United Nations for recognition. Yet, after years of negotiations, the Dutch and the UN allowed what was then called Netherlands New Guinea to be incorporated as the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya.

For the rest of the twentieth century, Papua’s chronic low-level insurgency played second fiddle to Islamist separatism in Aceh, regular outbreaks of communal violence in the Malukus, and, beginning with its invasion in 1975, a guerilla war for independence in Timor-Leste. A peace deal was reached for the Malukus in 2002, Timor-Leste gained formal independence the same year, and a political solution ended the insurgency in Aceh in 2005. Yet Papua remains as restive as ever. Why?

The roots of Papuan resentment are varied and complex. They involve ethnicity, religion, economics, and historical legacies. But Jakarta’s inability to make any significant progress in resolving the issues can be boiled down to three closely related factors:

  1. an unwillingness by Indonesians to recognize Papua’s unique situation,
  2. a lack of sustained attention from the central authorities, and
  3. a culture of impunity among the military and law enforcement agencies.

The first step to address the simmering conflict would require the authorities in Jakarta to finally admit that the situation in Papua is fundamentally different than elsewhere in Indonesia. According to the latest census in 2010, Indonesia’s population consists of roughly 300 ethnic groups spread across 13,700 individual islands speaking 250 languages. The ability to build a state amid such diversity has given Jakarta a sense that cultural, ethnic, or linguistic differences present no real barriers to implementing policy. The largely successful decentralization of authority following the country’s transition to authority further convinced the authorities that they had found the happy medium between local autonomy and central control.

Recent history has shown, however, that any solution to Papua will require a far more tailored approach to satisfy local cultural and historical needs. The province is ethnically, culturally, and linguistically distinct from the rest of Indonesia. Its people are predominantly Melanesian and it is the only sizeable part of the country in which Malayo-Polynesian languages are not dominant. It is also predominantly Christian and its people often feel threatened by their Muslim neighbors. Add to this the bitter legacy of Indonesian occupation and the result is a region whose desire for self-determination will require a far more robust approach than the special autonomy status granted to Papua in 2001.

The distinctiveness of Papua, and the sense of otherness it breeds, contributes directly to the second problem with Jakarta’s approach—a lack of sustained attention. Papua is simply too far away and its people and problems too alien to command the attention of the central government. The last real attempt to grapple with the problems in Papua took place under the presidency of Megawati Sukarnoputri (2001–2004), but the authorities quickly washed their hands of the situation after the law granting special autonomy was enacted. Papua policy has been left in the hands of the armed forces and local police and officials. The situation has steadily deteriorated until even this month’s violence fails to surprise many.

This willingness to keep Papua policy on autopilot unfortunately remains the case today, as President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono spared little attention for the recent violence before jetting off to the G20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico. The sense that Jakarta is not watching what happens on the ground, along with the military’s outdated system of independent regional commands, feeds a tendency for commanders and local officials to treat their areas of responsibility in Papua as personal fiefdoms. Soldiers and police alike carry out their duties with neither transparency nor accountability. After years of conflict and often heavy-handed responses from authorities, Papuans have little faith in law enforcement or the courts. In such an atmosphere, the turn to mob justice on display in Wamena is unfortunate, but it should not be surprising.

Indonesia’s system of government is by design decentralized and unwieldy. Left to its own devices, local administration tends toward inertia. If the situation in Papua is to improve, it will take a concerted effort from the president himself. He will need to do far more than pronounce that soldiers had “overreacted” and would be investigated, as he did following the Wamena incident. Nor is it sufficient to dispatch army chief Agus Suhartono to Jayapura for a “dialogue” with local leaders but no clear mandate to make progress. Such half-measures only reinforce the sense of Papuans that they are being ignored by the center and convince local commanders and officials that there are no consequences for their actions.

Haris Azhar, commissioner of the National Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence, has called on Yudhoyono to “unravel the Papuan conflicts with his own hands.” The president should heed his advice. It took determined action by Megawati, with help from Yudhoyono himself as coordinating minister of political and security affairs, to end the crisis in the Malukus. Yudhoyono employed similar determination to secure peace in Aceh. Now the president needs to commit himself to a personal and sustained role in seeking a solution in Papua.

The United States also has a supporting role to play. Washington has expressed its concern about the violence in Papua and should continue to do so. U.S.-Indonesian military-to-military relations are still recovering from hitting rock bottom during the violence in Timor-Leste and Aceh in the 1990s and early 2000s. The situation in Papua is not likely to reach that level of crisis, but it will remain a thorn in the side of the bilateral security relationship until it is resolved. The United States should therefore stress its interest in seeing the Indonesian experiment—the world’s most diverse country unified and at peace—finally completed. That is a legacy that Yudhoyono should be eager to leave behind when he steps down in 2014.

(This Commentary first appeared in the June 21, 2012, issue of Southeast Asia from the Corner of 18th and K Streets,

Gregory Poling is a research assistant with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Gregory B. Poling
Senior Fellow and Director, Southeast Asia Program and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative