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Dividing Papua: How Not To Do It


A presidential instruction (Inpres) issued in January 2003 to divide Papua, Indonesia’s easternmost province, into three parts has done more to create tension and turmoil there than any government action in years. The instruction undercuts a special autonomy law passed by the parliament in November 2001 that assumed the province to be a single territorial unit, and it has thrown Papua’s administrative status into legal limbo. It undermines moderate intellectuals who saw special autonomy as a way of strengthening Papuan institutions and encouraging independence supporters to work within the Indonesian state. It has infuriated many Papuans, pro-independence and pro-autonomy alike, who have a deep attachment to Papua as a single political unit with a distinct history and who see the decree as a divide-and-rule tactic by Jakarta. All major religious leaders in the province have come out against it.

At the same time, the decree has generated intense acrimony within the governing elite in Papua between those who stand to gain from the division – known as pemekaran in Indonesian – and those who benefit more from the status quo. In the first category are the individuals likely to be appointed to top jobs in the new provinces; those who believe that the province will be further divided and have their eyes on future governorships; and those who believe that loyalty to the central government in supporting pemekaran will be suitably rewarded. In the second category are some of the top officials in the current provincial government who will see their administrative authority, and perhaps their access to spoils, substantially weakened.

The division of Papua has major political ramifications as the 2004 national elections approach. The former ruling party, Golkar, still dominates the provincial government and parliament, and supporters of its main rival, President Megawati Sukarnoputri’s PDIP party, have accused the governor of using special autonomy revenues for Golkar’s 2004 war chest. Golkar members in turn suggest that the division into three provinces would benefit PDIP and enable the new governors to divert funds to the local PDIP campaigns.

The overriding motivation behind the decree appears to have been the weakening of the Papuan independence movement, but far from lessening the possibility of conflict, the decree may actually increase it. The possibilities include:

  • increased resentment and distrust of the central government by Papuans;

  • mobilisation of grassroots support (including through strategically distributed payments) by the leaders of pro- and anti-pemekaran positions respectively, leading to physical clashes; pre-election Golkar and PDIP rivalry could easily add to the tension; so could the interest of the National Intelligence Agency (Badan Intelijen Negara, BIN) and the army in portraying any tensions in the province as an intra-Papuan conflict; and

  • unwillingness of pro-autonomy moderates to work with the central government.

Other consequences could include:

  • emergence of different and competing demands for new provinces from those who support pemekaran but do not agree with how Jakarta has drawn the dividing lines; and

  • increased competition over resources and business contracts.

Whatever the merits of the pro-pemekaran argument, the way in which the Inpres was issued and the lack of consultation with senior Papuan leaders and even some Cabinet ministers was ill-advised.

In the current political climate, with elections looming and an increasingly nationalist mood in Jakarta, it is going to be difficult to undo the damage. The government has three options: revoking the decree, implementing it over massive objections and dealing with the consequences; and deliberate bureaucratic inertia, so that for all practical purposes, special autonomy remains in effect.

Of these, revocation by President Megawati is highly unlikely. Given the outcry, the government would lose too much face. The Indonesian parliament might move to have the decree repealed or demand a judicial review from the Supreme Court, but as of this writing it looks as though the government is determined to move forward.

Speedy implementation, however, is also unlikely; at the very least, the pro-pemekaran forces need time to show that they have some popular support, and the government has made clear that it is not going to rush into inaugurating the new governors, even though one has installed himself.

It may be that the best one can hope for is inertia, with implementation postponed at least until after the 2004 elections and perhaps beyond. Unfortunately, the expectations created by the decree, particularly in the western part of the province, could make this position untenable, unless the government can offer some attractive consolation prizes to the would-be beneficiaries.

Jakarta/Brussels, 9 April 2003

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