Losing Papua - Jakarta Post Editorial
21 March 2006
Days after peaceful gubernatorial elections in the provinces of Papua and the newly established West Irian Jaya, three policemen and a member of the Air Force were killed in clashes with protesters demanding the closure of the Freeport gold and copper mine, the largest in the world.
We condemn the killings and urge the government to bring to justice those who are responsible for this butchery. The killings were inexcusable, whatever their motivations. We also urge the government to set up an independent team to investigate the incident and discover the real roots of the problem.
Despite criticism of the police's handling of the protests, it is in the interests of the nation and civil society that the National Police, not the Indonesian Military, remain in charge of domestic security and public order.
We also express our condolences to the families of the four victims. We hope the government will carry out its duty and ensure the families receive help to start new lives without the presence of their beloved husbands and fathers. These men and their families deserve more than just a state funeral and empty praise.
It may have surprised many how the young Papuans expressed the outrage they feel toward Freeport and the government. As the demonstration took place in front of Cendrawasih University we assume that many of the protesters were students. It seemed that they did not fear for their own safety.
One could compare the convictions, even the fearlessness, of the young Papuans to those of the student protesters who clashed with riot police in the weeks before Soeharto's fall in May 1998, and during demonstrations against Soeharto's successor, B.J. Habibie. They felt cheated by the government and no longer trusted it. They decided to confront state-sanctioned violence and terrorism, risking their lives in the process. If the Papuan students lose all trust and hope in the central government, then the situation could become much more dangerous.
The government needs to allay the concerns of the Papuan protesters as soon as possible. It needs to convince them the central government understands the aspirations of the Papuan people, and be credible in dealing with their frustrations and anger.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhohyono has repeatedly said that his government fully understands the Papuans' grievances and that his government has learned much from its dealing with the rebels in Aceh. Despite this, however, we feel that there is little reason to hope that the President will be able to realize his promises to the region. Why?
Because it was the President himself who promised his government would follow the law on special autonomy for Papua when resolving problems in the frequently rebellious territory. But West Irian Jaya was formed despite protests from the tribal chiefs' council, the Papuan People's Assembly, the Papuan Legislative Council, religious leaders and university students. Many Papuans feel grossly betrayed by the central government.
Protests against the Freeport mine are often regarded as a threat to lucrative state revenue, a tool used by members of the political elite both in Papua and Jakarta to gain financial advantages. Many if not all of the social issues that the protesters raise are ignored.
PT Freeport itself cannot simply respond by claiming that it has met its obligations to the state and the people through being the biggest taxpayer in Indonesia. The roots of the local people's dissatisfaction with the mine are not only economic. The company has little to say about the impact its mine has had on local indigenous people, and how it has changed their lives since being established in the 1970s. The company's ethical record is questioned by many observers, both in Indonesia and overseas.
In other words, the reasons for the protests in Papua are obvious. The government cannot continue to buy time by claiming that it needs to study and discuss the origins of the problems. It must deal with them now.
There is a common tendency in this country, particularly among the political elite and the decision makers, to treat Papuans as uneducated and stupid, simple tribespeople who are ungrateful for the services provided by the government. This could prove a fatal mistake.
The previous government practiced this in East Timor and we lost the province in 1999. It is only a matter of time - perhaps not long at all - before Papua is no longer a part of Indonesia. If the central government and the powers in Jakarta continue to think that only they know what is best for Papuans, then it is surely inevitable.
As citizens of Indonesia, Papuans are entitled to be treated with the same level of respect afforded to other Indonesians. They deserve the right to preserve their culture and ethnic identities. It is not impossible that Indonesia will need to redraw its map again, if the Papuans decide enough is enough and are ready to sacrifice their own lives to throw off the state which continues to oppress them.