Why human rights in Papua matter
The world is watching, and Indonesia cannot afford to mis-step in the region
06 August 2015
By: Devina Heriyanto


Many observers see Papua as the poster child of human rights violations in Indonesia. Over the years, Jakarta has been criticized for the use of excess force and other violations there, especially those related to the Free Papua Movement.

However, during his election campaign, President Joko Widodo pledged to bring justice for past human rights violations. In the 10-point agenda for Widodo proposed by the International Federation For Human Rights Indonesia (FIDH-Indonesia) and the Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence (KontraS), two NGOs working on human rights issues, Papua was listed as the second priority.

There have been improvements under the Widodo administration; the president was praised when he opened access for foreign journalists to enter Papua and granted clemency to five political prisoners in May.

However, its also been said this is just window-dressing and the reality is entirely different. Papuans Behind Bars, an online resource dedicated to political prisoners there, reported that 264 people were arrested for participating in demonstrations on May 1 against the 52nd anniversary of the Indonesian occupation of West Papua.

At the end of the same month, a further 223 were arrested for participating in demonstrations supporting the United Liberation Movement of West Papua’s (ULMWP) involvement in the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG), an intergovernmental organization, composed of the four Melanesian states of Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, and the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front of New Caledonia.

So, as five people were granted clemency, 487 more were arrested.

In less than a year into his term in office, Widodo has visited Papua four times, with his supporters saying this shows his commitment to the area. On the other hand, his detractors point to claims that 6,000 personnel from both police and the military were deployed as security, accompanied by five helicopters, two warships and 12 sniper teams.

Theo van den Broek, an independent aid worker who has spent 40 years in Papua, said that “this show of force only strengthened the stigma that Papuans are the enemy of the state” and people that Indonesia should be wary of instead of care about.

“It was not a surprise for me to see Jokowi... promising all these things, just like former presidents Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and others,” Paula Makabory, a human rights activist from the West Papua National Coalition of Liberation told the ABC news service.

Critics say that not only has Widodo failed to uphold his campaign pledge and reopen past cases, new violations are being committed by security forces.

One such example was in Enarotali in Panai regency on December 8, 2014, where a joint police and military force is alleged to have fired on a demonstration of 800 people, leaving six dead and at least 17 injured, five of which were said to be children.

The demonstration itself was a protest of claims that Tim Khusus 753 (Special Team 753), a unit attached to the Nabire-based Army Battalion 753, assaulted a 12-year-old boy after a group of youths were said to have shouted at one of their vehicles.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said these two incidents clearly show an excessive use of force by the Indonesian military, even when dealing with children.

The military justified the shooting with what critics term the classic response when dealing with brutal incidents in Papua - shifting the blame to the secessionist Free Papua Movement (OPM).

Human Rights Watch report as of May this year, 47 Papuans are in jail for involvement in the OPM, with the rights body saying some were tortured by the military, citing online videos allegedly showing military personnel kicking and punching villagers during an investigation into weapons stockpiling. Those said to be reportedly responsible were given relatively sentences of less than a year.

Meanwhile, at the end of 2014 Indonesian human rights monitor Imparsial reported that there were at least 16,000 military personnel in Papua, making it the most militarized region in Indonesia. Observers say this is worrying because the last time there was such a high concentration of military personnel was in Aceh in 2003, during the heart of the government’s counter-separatism operations.

Imparsial said that this approach only proved that human rights concerns were still being ignored in the Indonesian decision-making process.

Cost of the violations

In this age of global interconnectivity, what happens in Papua no longer stays in Papua, and criticism is not something that the Indonesian government can continue to ignore. Human rights abuses, alleged or proven, are the issues that can be exploited by separatists as a means to gather public support, and by public, that very much includes the international community.

Earlier this year, Latifah Anum Siregar, a human rights lawyer and the Chairperson of the Alliance for Democracy in Papua was awarded the Gwangju Prize for Human Rights by the Gwangju Human Rights Committee.

In her acceptance speech, she said, “I believe the Gwangju Prize Human Rights Awards 2015 shows that the problem in West Papua has finally reached a broader audience. I am personally hoping for stronger support for the West Papua cause, especially from friends from the Asia continent.”

The Alliance for Democracy in Papua says all it is doing is fighting for justice for past human rights violations and other human rights taken from Papuans. There are other organizations working on the self-determined right for independence.

One of these organizations is the International Parliaments of West Papua (IPWP), founded by Benny Wenda, an advocate exiled by Indonesia. First launched in the British Parliament, London, in 2008, IPWP has gained support from the European Parliament, Papua New Guinea (2009), the Scottish Parliament (2010), the Australian Parliament, the Guyanese Parliament (2012), and the Vanuatu Parliament (2013). And it has the capability to gather more support from other countries, especially if human rights abuses continue.

An example of how the Internet is being used to gather support and put pressure on the Indonesian government is the Papuans Behind Bars website. The site contains reports and updates about Papuans jailed by the Indonesian military or police, complete with the charges, the sentences they face, and details concerning human rights violations alleged to have occurred during the arrests. Papuans Behind Bars has been listed as a source of information by many popular media and international non-governmental organizations such as Human Rights Watch.

Observers say letting past human rights violations go unchecked would only be repeating the mistakes made by Indonesia in East Timor. Annexed by Indonesia in 1975, East Timor voted for independence in 1999 and, after an overwhelming majority (78.5 percent), rejected staying part of Indonesia with special autonomy status. Indonesia’s human rights record in East Timor stirred up much international criticism and condemnation, the most controversial cases being the use of starvation as a weapon of war, and the Santa Cruz Massacre where at lease 250 pro-democracy protestors were killed by the Indonesian military.

Given enough time, enough violations, and enough international support, it is not impossible that one day Papuans will be given another referendum to determine their statehood. The last one was the Act of Free Choice back in 1969, a series of eight regional assemblies from July to August by which Indonesia claimed the people of Western New Guinea relinquished their sovereignty in favor of Indonesian citizenship. It’s infamously known as The Act of No Choice, as many believed that the ballots were rigged and voters were intimidated into choosing to join Indonesia.

Fast forward to the present day and Independence referendums are very much part of the political landscape – Scotland and Catalonia being the most prominent examples. So why not in Papua?

Now is the time for Indonesian government to take human rights seriously, to realize and recognize that the world is watching. While caring about human rights will not automatically ease the separatism issue in Papua, not doing so will only drive both Papuans and the international community closer to the separatist cause.

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