After More Than 40 Years of Harsh Occupation, Papuan Struggle Enters New Phase

Last week, twenty thousand indigenous Papuans, many in indigenous dress, walked and danced their way through the streets from Kotaraja to the city centre in Jayapura. Shops shut in the busy student suburb of Abepura and in the downtown business center, unwittingly turning the march into a strike. Thousands more converged on the Provincial Parliament building in the capital, occupying it overnight. Demonstrators completely overwhelmed police through sheer volume of numbers. This is the largest civilian based mobilisation since the Papuan Spring of 1998-2000.

After more than forty years of harsh occupation, there is a new feeling amongst Papuans in Indonesia’s restive Pacific periphery. Groups previously divided are now working together towards the same goal: a rejection of Special Autonomy, commonly known as Otsus, a package of finance, policy and legislation introduced by Jakarta in 2001 to quell Papuan demands for independence.
The occupation of the parliament building has been brewing for years, but the plan took shape over the last month.

On 9-10 June, the Papuan Peoples Assembly (Majelis Rakyat Papua or MRP), a kind of rubber stamp Indigenous senate, held an open forum to evaluate Otsus. The conclusion was that Otsus had failed, or “totally failed” as Papuans emphasise. The reasons are clear. Otsus promised protection and prosperity. Instead, torture and human rights violations by the security forces worsened, migrants continued to pour into the province, further marginalising indigenous Papuans, and the multinational oil, gas, mining, and timber companies (like BP and Freeport-Rio Tinto) continued to operate business as usual, safe in the knowledge that the military is keeping a repressive lid on boiling Papuan anger. As Benny Giay, a spokesperson for Forum Demokrasi Rakyat Papua Bersatu (the Democratic Forum of the United Papuan People or FORDEM for short) who organised the demonstration, says, “Otsus threatens the existence of indigenous Papuans in the land of their ancestors. That is why we say Otsus has totally failed.”

On 18 June, 15,000 Papuans from seven districts coordinated by the United Democratic Forum of Papuan People converged on the DPRP to officially hand over the people’s decision. FORDEM leaders demanded that the DPRP sign an agreement to hand back Otsus to Jakarta in no less than three weeks. Last week, the DPRP’s time was up.

In the past, the Papuan movement has been targeting Jakarta and the international community, asking others to give them independence while their own political representatives wait on the next injection of cash from Jakarta. This time is different. Papuans are targeting their own leaders. FORDEM is demanding that the provincial legislature in Papua (the DPRP) convenes a special session to return Special Autonomy to Jakarta. The goal may be more modest than independence, but it is more achievable. Papuans are getting their own house in order.

That doesn’t mean it will be easy. Papuan political parties are banned. All the political parties represented in Papua are national Indonesian parties with their head office in Jakarta. Papuan political interests are marginal to elites in Jakarta. At the grassroots, Jakarta may have lost its legitimacy years ago, but Papuan’s political representatives sing to Jakarta’s tune. If FORDEM can secure the DPRP’s agreement to hand back Otsus then Papuan noncooperation with Jakarta will be total.

Papuans understand Jakarta will do everything they can to derail and dilute Papuan demands, including using force if they believe they can get away with it. The pretext for this will be to prevent a referendum on Papuan independence, Jakarta’s worst nightmare. A number of Papuan leaders know this but are under intense pressure from grassroots constituents to accept nothing less. But to push for a referendum now could mean risking losing everything else as well. The challenge for Papuan strategists is to secure tangible victories that Jakarta will concede to, but also one they can sell to the restive masses that have come to the capital to usher in independence. At the least, that will include concessions like opening up Papua to international journalists, releasing political prisoners, and ensuring there is freedom of expression. But for a people who value dialogue, Papuans also want Jakarta to listen to them, to sit down and talk about their grievances. This includes the fraudulent transfer of sovereignty from the Dutch to the Indonesian government during the 1960s.

Publicly, Provincial Parliamentarians are still refusing to meet with the protesters, although privately a block of ten have said they support FORDEM’s demand. This morning after negotiation with protest leaders, police had extended the permit to protest for another day. As one protest leader says, “We have won one day. We are building the Papuan spirit to struggle.” Whether the Papuan protesters win their immediate goal for a special parliamentary session to return Otsus to Jakarta is not yet clear. But for now Papuans have won valuable political space.