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Indonesia: Ending Repression in Irian Jaya


Indonesian policy in Irian Jaya is at a critical point. Since August 2000 the government has been able to restore its authority in the province by closing in the political space that had developed after the fall of President Soeharto. The government has curtailed open demands for independence and the mobilisation of popular support for this objective. However, the methods used represent a return to those employed by President Soeharto -- relying principally on the government’s near monopoly of military power. The effect of this has been to compound the political problems posed by Papuan demands for independence.

Simultaneously with the crack-down on Papuan political activity, the government has been promoting a policy of Special Autonomy for the province. This policy offers the best prospects for a long-term resolution of problems that have plagued Irian Jaya’s integration into Indonesia since 1963. A strong Special Autonomy law could help break the cycle of repression and alienation. However, it is difficult to envisage that this policy can be successfully promoted and implemented in conditions where Jakarta’s authority rests on its use of repressive security measures and the seemingly inevitable abuse of human rights.

Irian Jaya was the last region of the Netherlands Indies to be incorporated into Indonesia, twelve years after the rest of the country. Papuans were only marginally involved in Indonesia’s struggle for independence. During the last eighteen years of colonial administration, the Dutch successfully fostered a Papuan identity separate from Indonesia. They established a program of decolonisation that envisaged the establishment of an independent state of West Papua by 1970. Incorporation in Indonesia, rather than transforming Papuans from being subjects of a European colonial power into citizens of an independent state, has served to consolidate a separate Papuan identity. The Papuan feeling of marginalisation is related to the massive influx of migrant settlers from elsewhere in the archipelago, facilitated and supported by Indonesian governments. The Indonesian migrant settlers dominate the economy of the province. Many Papuans consider that Indonesia is more interested in exploiting their land’s resources than in its indigenous peoples.

Papuan resistance to Indonesian control commenced with incorporation. The guerrilla resistance was more effective in keeping alive the ideal of independence than ever threatening Indonesian control. The fall of President Soeharto facilitated the transformation of Papuan resistance into a movement led by an urban elite, supported by key leaders with traditional authority, advocating independence by non-violent means. The pro-independence leaders, who came to form the Papuan Presidium Council, successfully mobilised support broadly in Papuan society and established a province-wide organisation.

The Indonesian government’s policy responses to the Papuan demands for independence have been uncertain and inconsistent. The revival of Papuan national ideals poses particular difficulties for the government and the broader political elite. The twelve year struggle Indonesia waged to reclaim Irian Jaya from The Netherlands had broad support and its success in 1962 is regarded as a national triumph. Like Aceh, Irian Jaya is resource rich. The governments of presidents Habibie and Abdurrahman Wahid recognised that the people of the province had suffered political repression, abuse of human rights and economic exploitation during Soeharto’s New Order government. President Megawati apologised for the suffering caused by past policies. The post-Soeharto governments have had considerable difficulty in formulating new policies of regional governance in Irian Jaya that are compatible with national ideals for democratising the political system. This challenge has become more acute since the separation of East Timor heightened fears of the disintegration of the state.

Presidents Habibie and Wahid established a dialogue with Papuan leaders. Wahid made important symbolic gestures by allowing the Papuan “Morning Star” flag to be flown and gave his blessing for “Papua” to be used as the name for the province, rather than “Irian Jaya” although this change was never formally implemented and was in fact rejected by the MPR in August 2000. He provided financial support for the pro-independence Papuan Congress. However, his accommodating and tolerant attitude was severely criticised by national legislators and the President was instructed to take more decisive action against separatist activities in Irian Jaya, as in Aceh. In August 2000, the Special Session of the National Consultative Assembly’s criticism of the President marked the beginning of a much tougher approach to pro-independence activities in Irian Jaya.

The detention and trial of pro-independence leaders, the show of force to mark Papuan “independence” day and the tough security measures that have been taken subsequently mark the end of political openness and the return to the forms of governance, dependent on the use of force, that have characterised the Indonesian administration of the territory since 1963. Unlike in Aceh, Indonesia has been able to reassert its authority in Irian Jaya. However, killings, torture and indiscriminate reprisals have accompanied this. The counterproductive dynamic of repression and alienation has been resumed.

The government of Indonesia has a responsibility to maintain its territorial integrity. The issue with respect to Irian Jaya is whether the methods currently being employed will assist in the resolution or whether they will compound the problems that have bedevilled Indonesian governance since 1963.

The objective of the “Special Autonomy” is political. It is to persuade Papuans that their preferred future should be as citizens of Indonesia – an Indonesia in which they can manage their own political development and enjoy the produce of their land and its resources. Experience has made Papuans highly sceptical of the government’s intentions. A form of “Special Autonomy” that does not reflect Papuan aspirations will have little or no utility and will serve to discredit autonomy as an alternative to independence and undermine the credibility of those Papuans leaders who have publicly advocated autonomy. The House of Representatives has passed “Special Autonomy” legislation for Aceh and is considering a draft for Irian Jaya.

A strong Special Autonomy law, however, will only be the first phase of a long process of capacity and institution building. It will provide an institutional and policy framework in which Papuan social and economic disadvantage can be addressed but it does not in itself overcome those disadvantages.



1. Adopt the law on Special Autonomy based on the proposals submitted by the governor of Irian Jaya.

2. Conduct a systematic dialogue with Papuan political groups, including those represented in the province’s legislatures and pro-independence groups, including the Papuan Presidium Council.

3. Release all political detainees not accused of crimes of violence and end the trial for subversion of the five leaders of the Presidium.

4. Withdraw military units not required for the external defence of the province.

5. Minimise the use of force in police and military operations to help the implementation of the Special Autonomy law and the establishment of political dialogue.

6. Make the security forces accountable for human rights violations.


7. Step up training of officials, particularly in financial management and policy formulation, to ensure locals can manage autonomy.

8. Seek support of the UNDP and other international organisations such as the World Bank in the design and provision of capacity-building programs to manage the increased revenues under Special Autonomy.

9. Take steps to ensure a greater role for Papuans at all levels of government.

10. Establish programs to encourage and support Papuan participation in the non-government sector and in the economy.

11. Work with churches and Moslem organisations, Papuan and non-Papuan, to establish processes of reconciliation in local communities.

12. Request the assistance of the UN Commission for Human Rights, under the Technical Cooperation Program, to train the proposed Papuan police force and officials of the provincial Justice Department.

13. Request the assistance of the UN Commission for Human Rights in making human rights a priority in provincial legislation and to build up local human rights bodies


14. Support the Indonesian government’s determination to implement Special Autonomy in a form that reflects Papuan aspirations.

15. Encourage the Indonesian government to minimise the use of force in its military and police operations

16. Make clear that continued human rights violations by the military and police will incur tangible sanctions against the institutions involved and the leaders responsible.

17. Support Elsham and other human rights organisations in Irian Jaya with training and financial aid.


18. Encourage the Indonesian government to use the Forum’s ‘good offices’ in the search for a peaceful resolution to the violence in Irian Jaya.

19. Consider granting the autonomous province of Papua observer status with the Forum.


20. Appoint a Special Rapporteur for West Papua to report on human rights.

21. Include Elsham, and other human rights organisations in Irian Jaya, in UNCHR technical cooperation projects in Indonesia.

Jakarta/Brussels, 20 September 2001


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