Indonesian lawmakers adopt unpopular bill to reshape Papua

Papuan students protests against Otsus
Indonesian police storm a demonstration by West Papuan university students this week against the government's unpopular plans for the administration of their region. Image: RNZ

SPECIAL REPORT: By Johnny Blades, RNZ Pacific journalist

Indonesia’s House of Representatives has passed a controversial bill that is expected to reshape the future administration of West Papua.

The Revision of the Special Autonomy Law for the provinces of Papua and West Papua (known as the Otsus law) was ratified by Indonesian lawmakers despite widespread opposition by Papuans who have been calling instead for an independence referendum.

The revised version of autonomy provisions first introduced 20 years ago paves the way for further division of Papua region into more administrative areas.

It includes provision for the formation of new representative institutions at regency and municipal level, replacing the Regional Legislative Councils.

Within these institutions, a quarter of seats are to be reserved for indigenous Papuans who are not members of any political parties, 30 percent of whom should be female.

However, West Papuan customary, church and community groups say they were not properly consulted over the law, the first version of which they roundly rejected as having failed to protect their rights.

Special Autonomy status was originally granted to West Papua in 2001 in response to growing Papuan demands for independence, purportedly to empower Papuans within the Indonesian republic framework.

But implementation of the law was poor, misuse of public funds was rife, and violations against basic human rights of Papuans continued, with calls for a legitimate self-determination process persisting among the region’s indigenous people.

Jayapura Harbour, Papua province, Indonesia
Jayapura Harbour, Papua province, Indonesia … the revised version of autonomy provisions first introduced 20 years ago paves the way for further division of Papua region into more administrative areas. Image: RNZI/Johnny Blades

Papuan rights, development marred by conflict
Indonesia’s government has described the new law, which is valid for 20 years, as a conduit for fostering economic and human development in Papua.

The Home Affairs Minister Tito Karnavian, a former national police chief who last year urged nationalist militia groups to play an active role in development of Papua, told Parliament the new bill would help Papuans prosper.

But development is marred in Papua by ongoing conflict related to core grievances over how Indonesia took control of West Papua in the 1960s, without free consent from Papuans themselves, and the decades of human rights violations that followed.

Since 2018, Papua province in particular has become increasingly militarised as Indonesian security forces deploy in growing numbers to respond to attacks in the highlands region by the West Papua Liberation Army’s guerilla fighters.

It has resulted in deaths on both sides, and mass displacement of Papuan villagers caught in the middle of the conflict. It also gave Jakarta a reason to designate a new categorisation of “terrorist” for Papuans who fight for independence.

Right up until Thursday, demonstrations by Papuans against the planned Special Autonomy extension were met with crackdowns by police who say such public events are forbidden while transmission of covid-19 is rampant across the country.

A demonstration by West Papuans against the Indonesian government's plans for Special Autonomy provisions for their region, Manokwari, 15 July 2021
A demonstration by West Papuans against the Indonesian government’s plans for Special Autonomy provisions for their region at Manokwari on 15 July 2021. Image: RNZ

Dozens of Papuans were arrested for involvement in these demonstrations – it is not yet clear whether they will face treason charges like numerous Papuans involved in large anti-racism protests in 2019 are facing.

Amnesty International appeal
Amnesty International Indonesia made a last minute appeal to national lawmakers to postpone passing the Special Autonomy bill until Papuans had been properly consulted.

Its executive director Usman Hamid said the government should ensure that indigenous Papuans were given meaningful involvement in the Special Autonomy law.

“This can only happen if the government upholds the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly for all Papuans and stops using the article of treason to try peaceful protesters,” he said.

The appeal was too late. Jakarta’s revised form of Special Autonomy will likely allow for Papua region to be further carved up into more political divisions, thereby diluting Papuan leadership and disempowering any party with self-determination aspirations.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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