In 2014, President Joko Widodo promised a fresh approach to addressing the conflict in Papua. He acknowledged that Papuans need more than schools and roads: they need to be heard. But instead of listening to critics’ calls for a review of past mistakes, his administration continues to respond to rapidly escalating violence and deepening political grievances in Papua with a musty repertoire of top-down development initiatives. So far, none of it has worked. The Free Papua Movement (Organisasi Papua Merdeka, OPM) has grown stronger, racial tensions are flaring, street protests against the central government are mounting and Papua and Papua Barat remain the poorest of Indonesia’s provinces.
The long-planned revision of the Special Autonomy (Otsus) Law offered a chance to reset the deteriorating relationship between Jakarta and Papua. Both sides have long acknowledged that in its current form, special autonomy has delivered large amounts of poorly managed cash but failed to improve the lives of ordinary Papuans. However, the diagnosis of the problem and the solution sought by each side has been completely different.
The Jokowi government, like all governments before it, insisted that higher income and better infrastructure would make the demands for independence go away. Blaming corruption and mismanagement by Papuan elites for slow economic progress, the government sought to recentralize power by supervising spending and diffusing opposition to its own priorities in Papua.
Papuan activists have long contended that development alone cannot address what are fundamentally political grievances. This time around, there were two distinct views on the future of Otsus in Papua. One camp, led by the Papuan Peoples Council (Majelis Rakyat Papua, MRP) called for an exhaustive evaluation of the Otsus law through public consultations. A rejectionist camp, represented by the West Papua National Committee (Komite Nasional Papua Barat, KNPB), organized a mass petition to discard the special autonomy law in its entirety and demanded a referendum on independence.
The new Otsus Law, passed in July 2021, adopts the government’s proposal for recentralization and curtails Papua’s autonomy in three ways. First, it undermines the authority of provincial governors by recognizing local governments ( kabupaten/kota) as direct recipients of Otsus funds and empowers the central government to carve out new provinces and districts in Papua without the approval of the MRP or the provincial governments. Second, it allows the central government to supervise and control the allocation and disbursement of Otsus funds, a power previously reserved for the provincial government. Third, it removes the provision for institutional representation of indigenous Papuans through local political parties and replaces it with a quota for them in local legislatures along with preferential access to government-funded programmes.
The unilateral process through which the new law was drafted triggered widespread protests across Papua. The MRP, which by the terms of the 2001 law must be consulted on any revisions, was largely shut out of deliberations. Provincial officials were also sidelined. But instead of presenting the government with concrete alternatives, most Papuan leaders focused on demanding a seat at the table in Jakarta and lamenting their exclusion from the process.
Tensions were still running high in December 2021. The MRP has challenged both the process and the law’s substance in the Constitutional Court, where the case is still pending. The governor of Papua, who has had a tempestuous relationship with Jakarta, condemned provisions of the law and sparred with Jokowi’s ministers over the use of unused Otsus funds.
The Jokowi government is pushing ahead with the implementation of the new law, including its most contentious provision regarding the further carving up of Papua into new administrative units. The creation of Papua Selatan as a third province has long been on the government’s agenda. Officials insist that this is necessary for improving governance. Governor Enembe has persistently blocked the move, as it would significantly diminish his power. But now that the governors’ consent is no longer required, an expedited process will likely complete the split in 2022.
Whether or not the new law achieves the government’s stated objective of increasing economic growth in Papua remains to be seen. It is also unclear whether development, if it happens, benefits Papuans or non-Papuans. But steamrolling major cuts to Papua’s autonomy risks creating new flashpoints for violent mobilization. Unless Jokowi initiates a policy reset to bring Papuans on board with the government’s priorities, instead of accelerating development, the new law may end up accelerating conflict.