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The first anniversary of an outbreak of communal violence in Tolikara, Papua is approaching, with a fragile reconciliation in place and many issues left unresolved. The “Tolikara Incident” on 17 July 2015 has been variously portrayed as an issue of religious intolerance (Christians toward Muslims), the product of indigenous-migrant tensions, and miscommunication. But to reduce it to one or two causes is to miss the point of the complexity of violence in Papua. It is all of the above and much more: poor governance, poor policing, corruption, isolation, and the residue of previous conflicts that have accumulated under the surface into a toxic mix. A campaign is now beginning to heat up for the election of district head in 2017 that could ignite old grievances. Among Tolikara’s many urgent needs is for the best police chief the country can offer but the likelihood of turning a remote post in Papua into a prize for the best and brightest is slim.

Download IPAC report on Tolikara Case as PDF File

Tolikara erupted after local leaders of the Evangelical Church of Indonesia (Gereja Injili di Indonesia, GIDI) issued a letter on 11 July 2015 forbidding Muslims to celebrate Idul Fitri at the end of Ramadan because of an international revival meeting that was taking place nearby. On 17 July, Muslims went ahead with Idul Fitri prayers, and GIDI youth threw rocks at the worshippers. Police at the mosque fired warning shots, but then the exact sequence of events becomes less clear. Other shots were fired from a different location, killing one youth and wounding eleven others. Several GIDI men set fire to kiosks that doubled as homes for the owners, destroying close to 60; most were owned by non-Papuan Muslim migrants from other parts of Indonesia, although a few belonged to indigenous Papuans. As the shops went up in flames, the local mosque caught fire and burned to the ground. More than 100 people were displaced. The Jokowi government moved at once to stop the “burned mosque” narrative from inflaming Muslim emotions elsewhere: one senior official after another arrived from Jakarta, bearing aid to assist the newly homeless and rebuild the mosque and kiosks. Two GIDI men were arrested for provocation, but the investigations raised more questions than they answered, and when the guilty verdict finally came down in February 2016, both men were sentenced to time served and released. Neither the arsonists nor the shooters were ever identified.

Different factors caused Tolikara to erupt on 17 July, but many aspects of the government’s response created new problems. It is exactly the kind of concrete case study that could be usefully discussed in a dialogue between the Jokowi government and Papuan civil society because it touches on so many core issues: Papuan identity, demographic developments, pemekaran and its consequences, the weakness (and frequent absenteeism) of local government, the failings of the formal legal system, the need for more accountability of security forces, both military and police, and freedom of religion. Tolikara is a useful case for dialogue because it involves no overtly separatist actors but illustrates some of the frustrations on which separatism feeds. It is also useful because there is so much shared responsibility for what happened: no institution, Papuan or non-Papuan, comes out looking good.

The kabupaten government failed to anticipate problems before the outbreak or help reduce tensions afterwards, in part because the bupati was deeply involved on one side. The bupati was chairman of the organising committee of the revival meeting and thus bore some responsibility for ensuring that the event did not violate the rights of others in his jurisdiction. His role suggests that the central government might consider setting guidelines designed to discourage the participation of local officials in religious activities that promote discrimination. Similar guidelines could be used to discourage participation of officials in events organised by groups such as the National Anti-Shi’a Alliance, the Islamic Defenders Front or other groups that preach intolerance.

At a more general level, the central government needs to put more intensive resources into training for elected Papuan executives at all levels. It is striking in Tolikara how many tasks the district military took on which should have been the responsibility of local government. Too often, however, local officials in the highlands are absent or unprepared to govern, a problem made worse by the proliferation of new districts and subdistricts. Some analysts have suggested that this fragmentation is part of a deliberate strategy of co-opting local leaders with the aim of weakening the independence movement. But the local Papuan elite has enthusiastically embraced the process, even if it means more opportunities for non-Papuan civil servants and more reliance on the military, because it translates into political and economic power.

The central government and some Papuan religious leaders failed to uphold freedom of religion for Muslims in Tolikara, then rushed into reconciliation efforts without a concerted effort to establish facts or ensure justice. While Jakarta was eager to provide assistance to the arson victims, it showed little inclination to address GIDI exclusivism, even if by doing so, it could defend a key principle of equality under the law and increase its credibility in demanding respect for that principle from hardline Muslim organisations on Java and elsewhere in Indonesia.

The push for reconciliation papered over serious grievances on both sides. A thorough establishment of the facts would have helped, but local police never even established a basic chronology of the shooting and allowed the military to “clean up” a crime site before it had been adequately searched. At a minimum, the Jokowi government should have ensured that a task force from police headquarters be sent to the site immediately to do a professional investigation rather than leave it to the locals. The model could have been the special police task force sent from Jakarta to Poso after the October 2005 beheadings of three schoolgirls, when the localpopulace needed reassurance that justice would be delivered. The problem in Papua, as elsewhere in Indonesia, is that the formal justice system is deeply corrupt and distrusted. The solution, however, is to improve it, not dispense with it. The Jokowi government could take a step in this direction by choosing the next Minister of Law and Human Rights and Attorney General on the basis of professional competence rather than political party affiliation.

The police failed to take preventive measures before the violence or to do a minimally acceptable investigation afterwards. Both shooting and arson victims are aggrieved that not a single perpetrator of violence was punished. In July 2014, before leaving his position as provincial chief of police for Papua, Tito Karnavian set out a series of lessons for police on how to handle law enforcement in Papua. None of those lessons, most of which revolve around improving communications and intelligence, seems to have been adopted. Karnavian also recommended that the incentive structure within the police be changed to ensure that personnel assigned to remote areas have a high degree of motivation and that such jobs be seen as a step toward career advancement rather than as punishment for poor performance. Karnavian’s lessons need to be implemented, especially as the need to head off violence in the 2017 elections becomes more urgent.

The speed with which the government moved to help migrant victims contrasts with the perceived slowness of Jakarta’s usual reaction toward violence against Papuans. The best way the government can respond to Papuan concerns that the government values non-Papuan lives and property above their own is to speedily fulfil its commitments to resolve several major outstanding human rights cases, such as the Paniai killings of December 2014, and to act speedily to ensure impartial investigations and prosecutions after any future outbreaks of violence in Papua.

More scrutiny of the military’s role is needed, both to examine any role in the shootings as well as the TNI’s assumption of many civilian tasks. As local government shortcomings in Papua grow ever more apparent, the Jokowi government has turned to an institution that can get things done more efficiently: the TNI. One result is an increasing role of the military in many infrastructure and construction projects, including building the new mosque in Tolikara, as well as teaching school, providing agricultural extension services and generally stepping in wherever other government services prove inadequate. One of the many reasons for strengthening the governance skills of local leaders is to protect the principle of civilian supremacy and ensure that administrative weakness does not leave a political vacuum for the TNI to fill. It would also be useful to encourage more transparency about military funding, and an audit of the post-conflict aid managed by the KODIM in Tolikara would be one place to start.

Papuans themselves need to decide how to handle intra-Papuan disputes. As soon as the Tolikara government because as soon as the district government changes hands, there will be new claimants to land on which the kiosks were built and on the land set aside for the new hospital – and thus new possibilities for conflict. One solution is to go back to the 2003 practice of banning sales of customary land and instead restrict all transactions to fixed-term contracts or rentals. This will only help prevent future disputes, however, if there is an agreement over boundaries through a mapping process; it may not help resolve disputes that are already underway. Another complicating factor is that sub-clans in Tolikara are often divided along political party lines, especially Golkar and Partai Demokrat. This ensures that political battles have communal overtones and vice-versa. In the case of the Lippo hospital, the current bupatifacilitated the customary sale, but his Golkar rival may well challenge it as the campaign heats up. Tolikara urgently needs to focus on education. The Tolikara incident shows how dependent Papuans have become on non-Papuans for their economic and administrative needs. Like every other remote highland district, Tolikara needs a better educated and more skilled population, and it has the budget to produce one, yet much of the funding goes to waste. Before the July violence, Tolikara had made the national news only once, for something positive: hosting an Asia-Pacific Astronomy Olympiade for high school students in which one young Papuan student from Tolikara, trained by an educational institute called the Surya Institute, walked away with a bronze medal. Papuans do not have to accept dependency and it is important that Jakarta’s policies toward Papuan development not increase it. But as the Olympiade shows, Papuans themselves can take more pro-active measures to ensure better access to education and the recruitment of more qualified teachers willing to serve in remote highland areas.

The anniversary of Tolikara should be a time for reflection on what might have been done differently and what lessons have been learned in a way that might help anticipate and prevent more violence in the lead-up to the 2017 elections.


Download IPAC report on Tolikara Case as PDF File