Jokowi has promised a softer approach, but the country’s powerful generals may have other ideas.
Marie Dhumieres September 12, 2014 00:22
JAKARTA, Indonesia — “It’s safe here in Papua. There is nothing to hide.”
That’s what Indonesian President-elect Joko Widodo said when asked on the campaign trail whether foreign journalists would be allowed into West Papua.
“Why not?” he said.
It was as if foreign journalists and activists hadn’t essentially been banned for decades from Indonesia’s easternmost province, a rugged jungle outpost replete with oppression, rag-tag insurgents and wildly destructive mineral exploitation.
If Jokowi, as the future president is known, honors his promise to allow scrutiny of Papua after he assumes office in October, it will be a sharp departure from the preferences of Indonesia’s entrenched security apparatus.
Currently, the authorities say they restrict access to the province for safety reasons, due to ongoing conflict with the Free Papua Movement, a lightly armed separatist movement. The Indonesian military has a strong presence in the region, and the few foreign journalists granted permission to visit are constantly shadowed by local officials.
Jokowi, a populist political neophyte with a man-of-the-people image, is one of very few Indonesian leaders not hailing from the military.
Already, the security forces appear to have called his bluff.
Weeks after he was elected, they arrested two French TV journalists, Valentine Bourrat and Thomas Dandois, for illegally working on a tourist visa. The pair were researching a documentary for Arte on Western Papua’s separatist movement.
While unauthorized journalists are usually deported immediately, the pair have now been in police custody since early August. The local authorities have said they were present at an exchange of ammunition by a separatist group. They face possible criminal charges and five years in jail.
To Human Rights Watch, “Indonesia’s Papua censorship obsession” aims to cover recurrent human rights abuses. “Over the last three years alone,” says Phelim Kline, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, his organization has documented “dozens of cases in which police, military, intelligence officers, and prison guards have used excessive force when dealing with Papuans exercising their right to peaceful assembly and association.”
Western Papua was annexed by Indonesia in the late 1960s, after a lengthy independence struggle. Papuans campaigning for self-determination are still at serious risk.
Two weeks ago, the body of Marthinus Yohame, a 27-year-old Papuan activist with a local non-violent committee, was found floating in the sea, tied up in a sack. Human rights organizations report “a litany of violence and abuses,” police firing into crowds, torture, unlawful detention and the killing of activists.
“Democracy in Western Papua is very superficial, Human rights are very weak,” says Jim Elmslie, co-convener of the University of Sydney’s West Papua Project.
With Jokowi’s election though, some hope change is coming. Elmslie says Jokowi, who “has expressed a desire for a more open and democratic Indonesia,” and his non-military background is grounds for optimism.
Jokowi visited the province twice during the electoral campaign. Outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has been there only three times during his 10-year term. In Papua, Jokowi insisted he wasn’t just fishing for electoral support. “This is not about votes. It’s about giving attention to Papua,” he said in June.
Last month, he met with political and religious Papuan leaders and unveiled a plan to build a presidential palace in West Papua. He says he wants to hold regular meetings with Papuan leaders.
Damien Kingsbury, a political analyst who has written extensively about Indonesia and Papua, says that if Jokowi really goes down the path of dialogue with the Papuans, his task will be “extraordinarily difficult.”
Papuans “definitely want more autonomy, most of them want independence,” he says. “Assuming that’s not possible, they will want proper negotiations around an alternative. That can only happen if the president is prepared to go into these negotiations, and if he has the power to do it.”
He says Jokowi will have to face opposition from both the parliament, where he lacks a majority, and the military, which “has much more influence in national politics than it’s actually given credit for.”
Leonie Tanggahma, a Papuan activist who lives in the Netherlands, says she feels Jokowi does want dialogue. “The question is whether he can do it. He’s not going to have to fight us, he’s going to have to fight his own people.”