Indonesia's president pledges reforms in restless Papua. What next?

The sparsely populated island of Papua has long remained Indonesia's poorest, most repressed region. But President Joko Widodo appears determined to usher in a new era of change.

Hafidz Mubarak/ Antara Foto via Reuters
Indonesia's President Joko Widodo granted clemency to five political prisoners at a West Papua prison on Saturday.

Last Friday, Linus Hiluka was midway through a 20-year prison sentence for his role in a raid on a military arsenal in Jayapura, the capital of Indonesia's easternmost territory. The next day he was shaking hands with President Joko Widodo, who granted clemency to him and four others who had participated in the raid.

“At first we didn’t believe the news that we were free,” Mr. Hiluka says. “This is tremendous.”

Mr. Widodo told reporters after the ceremony that he was taking away the “stigma of conflict” from Papua, a remote and thinly populated half-island where a low-level separatist insurgency has dragged on for decades and spawned widespread military abuse and grinding poverty. On Sunday, Widodo announced the lifting of a longstanding travel ban for foreign journalists. Both moves help fulfill the reform-minded president’s promise to improve human rights in Papua, whose native population is largely Christian. 

What remains to be seen is whether these opening steps are a harbinger of further reforms in Papua. While rich in natural resources, the region has seen little of the windfall from Indonesia’s democratic transition that followed the overthrow of a dictatorship in 1998. It suffers from poor public services, crumbling infrastructure, and an HIV rate that’s nearly 15-times higher than the national average and remains the most repressively governed corner of Asia’s second largest democracy.

“That Jokowi is making good on this campaign promise so early in his term suggests Papua is a big priority for him," says Ken Conboy, a Jakarta-based security consultant.

Another 90 or so political prisoners that remain in custody in Papua, many for non-violent offenses, appear likely to be freed, too. “This is probably just the start,” Mr. Conboy says.

Widodo has made two trips to Papua, some 2,300 miles from Jakarta, since taking office in October. That’s rare for an Indonesian president. Former president Megawati Sukarnoputri, who stepped down in 2004, visited only once during her three-and-a-half years in office. Her successor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, made a half dozen trips during his decade in power that tended to be marred by protests. 

During his first trip to the region in December, Widodo attended national Christmas celebrations and met with church and political leaders to discuss their grievances. On his return visit last weekend, he pledged $300 million for toll roads, bridges, and health care.

Jayapura has also been selected to host the 2020 National Games, an honor typically bestowed to cities on Indonesia’s main island of Java. An estimated $45 million has been allocated to build sporting venues, housing, and to improve roads.

Military impunity stirs unease 

The latest reforms come as a 50-year insurgency in Papua has all but fizzled. But fear of persecution remains pervasive. Just raising the pro-independence “Morning Star” flag can lead to a 15-year prison sentence. Meanwhile, reports of abuses committed by the Indonesian security forces continue to percolate. 

Hiluka, a farmer by trade, says he and the other four men had made the ill-fated decision in 2003 to raid an armory in protest at what they saw as heavy-handed military conduct. Two soldiers were killed in the attack.

Speaking by phone from Jayapura, Hiluka says Widodo’s civilian background makes him sympathetic to activists who campaign against military harassment and government overreach. He says he hopes the president will pull out the military, which appear to operate with impunity, so Papuans “can live a tranquil life.” About 30,000 soldiers and police are stationed in the region, according to Indonesian human rights watchdog Imparsial. The region's population is estimated at 3.6 million. 

The military says its continued presence in Papua is needed to secure the land border with Papua New Guinea as well as build roads and improve services such as health care. Indonesia’s chief military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Fuad Basya, says any tensions that exist within the region are caused by “insignificant insurgents.”

“Papua is already free from conflict,” Maj. Gen. Basya said. “It is not a military area.”

Conboy says Papua has few remaining security threats that justify a large military presence. The banned Free Papua Movement, an armed guerrilla group that has fought for independence since 1963, has carried out fewer and fewer attacks in recent years. About two dozen of its members are thought to have recently surrendered to security forces.

“Poverty and logistics are more pressing issues,” Conboy says.

Papuans and human rights activists are hopeful that change is finally on its way, despite growing complaints over Widodo’s reformist mettle. Western leaders and advocacy groups strongly condemned the president last month for allowing the execution of eight people convicted of drug offenses, including seven foreigners.

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