The Indonesian province of Papua has grown distrustful of the national government over its inability to deliver the autonomy and progress it was promised 19 years ago, write Petrus K Farneubun and Johni RV Korwa.
The historical roots of special autonomy in Papua can be traced back to two major events. The first was a meeting of 100 Papuan representatives with President Habibie in Jakarta on 26 February 1999. The second was the Second Papuan Congress held in Jayapura from 29 May to 4 June 2000. At both events, Papuans demanded political independence. In response, the central government granted special autonomy through the enactment of Law No. 21/2001 (Special Autonomy Law).
Although special autonomy is valid for an unspecified period of time, Article 34(6) of the Law states that special autonomy funding shall be valid for 20 years. While the central government has decided to extend the allocation of special autonomy funds beyond 2021, various Papuan groups recently voiced their opposition. This rejection arguably has roots in differing perceptions of special autonomy between Jakarta and Papua.
There were mixed reactions when special autonomy came into effect in Papua in 2001. Among political elites, academics, community, and religious leaders, the response appeared to be positive. JP Solossa, Governor of Papua at the time, viewed the Special Autonomy Law as an opportunity not only for self-government and improved welfare of Papuans, but also the ultimate solution to resolve political independence in Papua. This view was also shared by his successor, Barnabas Suebu. Similarly, some community and religious leaders perceived it as a ‘gift from God to enhance the wellbeing of Papuans’.
Many Papuans considered special autonomy as an opportunity to affirm their distinct identity and to pursue justice for human rights violations. For that reason, some Papuan nationalists supported the Law when it was formulated because it incorporated many of the values and ideas of political independence. In this sense, special autonomy was perceived as a political instrument embedded in a legal system that could help to regain political liberation.
However, this positive reaction was short-lived. Papuans realised that special autonomy was not a pathway to political independence. Consequently, distrust of the Indonesian government began to emerge. This reached its climax on 12 August 2005 when the Papua Customary Council (DAP) made a symbolic return of the Special Autonomy Law to Jakarta because it had failed to improve the living conditions of Papuans. Since then, Papuans have become increasingly resistant and distrustful of special autonomy.
While past governors were supportive of special autonomy, the current Governor of Papua, Lukas Enembe, has become increasingly sceptical, claiming that special autonomy did not solve key problems in Papua. Although Enembe did not openly oppose the renewal of special autonomy, his proposal of ‘special autonomy plus’ to provide more authority to the Papuan government has apparently not yet been answered. Likewise, while religious leaders in the past appeared to embrace the Special Autonomy Law, recently 57 Indigenous Papuan priests expressed their opposition towards special autonomy and advocated a national referendum to settle the matter on 21 July 2020.
A different view has been taken by the Indonesian central government. Signals from Jakarta indicated that special autonomy is seen as the best solution to promote Papua’s economic inequality. This approach underlies the continuities in Jakarta’s approach to special autonomy, from the Megawati presidency (July 2001 – October 2004) to the current government.
Jakarta perceives economic and infrastructure development as the top priority within the context of special autonomy. Today, as in the past, Jakarta has little interest in addressing the contested history of Papua’s integration and its outstanding political and human rights issues. While these issues are central for Papua, Jakarta’s focus on the economy and infrastructure seems based on the assumption that if economic welfare in Papua can be improved, then the other issues around human and political rights, and Papuan historical claims would fade away.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono focused on improving food security through the creation of a large-scale agriculture project — Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate (MIFEE) — and accelerating development through the Special Unit of Acceleration of Development for Papua and West Papua (UP4B). His successor and current national leader, President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) has followed the same strategy, prioritising infrastructure development projects such as the Trans-Papua Highway, full electrification, and building seaports. For Jokowi, physical infrastructure should help reduce economic inequality.
Successive central governments have considered special autonomy as a means to prevent secession and have used it as a diplomatic instrument to gain international trust for territorial integrity. Indeed, Jakarta believes that the granting of special autonomy is a part of strengthening national integrity within the unitary state. At United Nations General Assembly meetings, for instance, Jakarta pointed to the massive development and progress in both Papua and West Papua provinces and claimed that “Papua is, has, and will always be part of Indonesia”.
In this context, any call for a referendum to determine the political status of Papua is very unlikely to be accommodated by Jakarta. Thereby, the only long-term option for Jakarta is to extend Papua’s special autonomy funds.
Papuans generally prefer a political solution while Jakarta prefers an economic solution. These divergent perceptions have led to the poor implementation of special autonomy. Papua is ranked the poorest province of Indonesia and the lowest on the Human Development Index despite coming 17th out of 34 provinces in gross regional product in 2019. However, the major unresolved issue is Jakarta’s delay and non-compliance in delivering on the provisions of the Special Autonomy Law.
For example, Article 5 of the Law mandates the establishment of a Papua People’s Assembly (MRP), which was delayed until 2005. Article 45 requires not only the establishment of a Papuan representative office of the Human Rights Commission, which has been realised, but also a Human Rights Court and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (KKR), which has not. The KKR is crucial because, as specified in Article 46, it would help clarify the history of Papua within the Republic of Indonesia and formulate and set steps for reconciliation.
The Indonesian Institute of Science (LIPI) has regarded human rights violations as one of the root problems of persistent conflicts in Papua. Hence, the establishment of the KKR and Human Rights Court should provide an opportunity for the central government to demonstrate its political will to address human rights abuses. If the national government can establish these two mechanisms, it may increase Papuan trust around the continuation of special autonomy.
While Papuans repeatedly expressed their hope for the establishment of a Human Rights Court and KKR, the Indonesian Constitution Court in 2006 cancelled the law that enacted the KKR, stating that it contradicted the constitution. This decision has in turn increased the discontent with the Indonesian government and revived the view that Jakarta lacks political will to implement all of the political provisions in the Special Autonomy Law.
Overall, key provisions in the Special Autonomy Law have not yet been fully realised since its introduction 19 years ago. This means that, although further transfer payments have been agreed upon by central government, the continuation of special autonomy will be challenged in the near future, unless the competing perceptions can be overcome and trust restored. To reduce the tension between Jakarta and Papua over special autonomy, there should be an open and constructive dialogue about all political provisions specified in the text, a comprehensive evaluation before special autonomy fund is due next year, and annual evaluations afterwards, as mandated by Article 78 of the Law.
This article is based upon a paper published by the ANU Department of Pacific Affairs (DPA) as part of its ‘In brief’ series. The original paper can be found here.