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Special Autonomy Works in Indonesia's Aceh Province, But Not Papua

  • Brian Padden

Papuan activists in traditional costumes and shirts painted with the colors of 'Morning Star' separatist flag take part in a rally marking the 50th anniversary of failed efforts by Papuan tribal chiefs to declare independence from Dutch colonial rule in 1

Papuan activists in traditional costumes and shirts painted with the colors of 'Morning Star' separatist flag take part in a rally marking the 50th anniversary of failed efforts by Papuan tribal chiefs to declare independence from Dutch colonial rule in 1

For decades Indonesia has been unable to find a political solution to the low-level separatist insurgency in restive Papua Province. The government in Jakarta says it has given the region local autonomy similar to that given Aceh in 2005 to settle a long-standing insurgency there, but, there are significant differences between Aceh and Papua.

Former Indonesia vice president Jusuf Kalla negotiated the 2005 local autonomy agreement in Aceh. But he warns against expecting him to play a similar role in Papua, which gained local autonomy in 2001 after negotiations involving three past presidents.

“Papua have done the deals 10 years ago," said Kalla. "So many discussions, so many dialogues. When still Suharto, Habibi and Gus Dur, and finally we achieved special autonomy.”

Papuan separatists are not appeased by the peace deal.

In October, activists released footage of a police crackdown on a peaceful gathering of Papuan separatists. The video shows police firing guns into the air, pushing and kicking independence activists to break up a gathering of Papuan separatists.

These police are from the 30,000 national police and military stationed in Papua, which points to one of key the differences between autonomy in Aceh and Papua provinces.

While the 2005 Aceh autonomy agreement empowered local police to keep the peace, in Papua national security forces from outside the province enforce internal security and are seen by many as an occupying force.

Human Rights Watch researcher Andreas Harsono says the Indonesian government reinforces that sense of occupation by restricting local political parties.

“One major difference is that in Aceh you have local political parties," said Harsono. "In Papua you do not. If you have local political parties the people will be empowered by themselves to control their politicians. In Papua, we do not have it.”

Although former vice president Kalla sees Papua as part of the nation's sovereign territory, like many Indonesians from other regions, he speaks of the Papuan people as a different culture, with a poor work ethic and dependent on help from other regions of the country.

“Because all that they do it from by outsider," said Kalla. "They need road [the get a] contractor from Java or Sulawesi, school from Bugis, rice, shop all [come] from outside.”

This, he says, explains in part why Papua has a significantly higher poverty rate than the rest of the country even though it has abundant natural resources.

Human Right Watch's Harsono disagrees and points to the recent labor strike at the world's largest gold and cooper mine as an illustration how Papuans do not share in the wealth of their natural resources. He says stereotyping them as lazy is not only false, but dehumanizing.

“They blame that the Papuan are being inferior, being consumer only, being non productive and mostly for, being lazy, being primitive, being not able to organize themselves, which is racist,” said Harsono.

Ultimately he says the devastation of the 2004 tsunami and the ensuing influx on international organizations into Aceh province helped bring both the insurgents and the government forces to the negotiating table.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono recently named an economic development task force for Papua, but the government continues to restrict access for journalists and international organizations to the region. Harsono says without international involvement in Papua both sides will remain deadlocked and the conflict only get worse.

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