Papua: Autonomy Isn’t Independence

Source: Le Monde Diplomatique

Linus, from Papua, said: “It doesn’t matter who the leader is, the dice are loaded against us.” For him, as for many others, the re-election in July 2009 of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (known as SBY) as Indonesian president was no surprise. Linus and his friend Agus are from Jayapura, the provincial capital of Papua, the western part of the island of New Guinea (1). They are studying to be civil servants in the city of Surabaya in eastern Java.

“Instead of independence we have ‘special’ autonomy,” said Agus. That status was won in January 2002. “It is so special nobody trusts it. All I know is I will at last get a job in a new district in the south of Papua. To separatist Papuans, I am a traitor. To most of our Javanese teachers, I am a monkey they are trying to lure down from the trees. I just want to feed my family.”

There was unrest, and more than 13 arrests, in several cities across West Papua when hundreds of demonstrators raised the Morning Star independence flag in December 2009. The Indonesian press condemns the Papuan separatist movement and claims it tried to stop free elections in a democratic country. “Free?” asked Agus. “Democratic? So why does Papua keep counting its victims?”

There was hope of change when General Suharto resigned in 1998 after 30 years of absolute rule. His centralist authoritarian dictatorship, backed by the army, had contained the racial, ethnic and religious mix of Indonesia – the largest archipelago in the world with 6,000 inhabited islands and a population of 
240 million. After he left it fell apart. From Aceh to Papua, separatist forces rose, and many ethnic groups tried to reclaim their independence and identity, long stifled by the dominant Javanese culture.

The people of Papua, who rejected their annexation by Indonesia in 1962 and their official incorporation into the archipelago in 1969 after a sham referendum (2), were granted “special autonomy”. Indonesian nationalists think even that is too indulgent. They say the constitution has been amended enough times already to satisfy the demands of separatist movements: amendments recognising regional differences, creating autonomous regions, decentralising fiscal power. They believe all these changes threaten the integrity of the nation state; that the time has come instead for unity and not more autonomy, which will only serve as a springboard for Papuan independence, and encourage other separatist movements.

“Nationalism is very strong,” said Jacques Bertrand, professor of political science at the University of Toronto, in Canada (3). “Indonesians see any attempt to divide their country as an attack against the integrity of the state and Indonesia’s concept of itself as a nation. The entire political discourse and the teaching of Indonesian history supports this idea. Jakarta’s annexation of Papua was recognised internationally, making it legitimate in international law.”

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