Public discourse about prolongation of Papuan Special Autonomy intensifies

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The period for the special autonomy in the provinces Papua and Papua Barat will be over in 2021. While the Government of Indonesia promotes the prolongation of the special autonomy, the discussion about a “second special autonomy” is polarizing the society in West Papua. Many indigenous Papuans argue that the special autonomy has failed to bring upon prosperity for indigenous Papuans and boost development, while a small political elite has benefited from the large special autonomy funds. The inconsistent implementation of the special autonomy law over a time span of 20 years has created disappointment among many indigenous Papuans and re-fueled demands for self-determination as the special autonomy period is coming to an end.

The special autonomy was adopted by the Indonesian government under President Megawati Soekarnoputri in 2001 as a compromise to counter demands for political self-determination. After the downfall of Indonesia’s military dictator Suharto, aspirations for self-determination in West Papua were on the rise. The Government of Indonesia reacted to the demands of Papuan pro-Independence groups and gave green light to Law No. 21/2001 on the Special Autonomy for Papua Province, allowing Papuans to manage their own region politically, economically and culturally for 20 years.

Self-determination instead of second special autonomy
In July 2020, non-governmental groups launched a petition against the prolongation of the special autonomy status for West Papua (Petisi Rakyat Papua, PRP). Due 27 July 2020, 31 organisations joined the petition, among them indigenous organisations such as the Papua Customary Council (DAP), political movement organisations like the West Papua National Committee (KNPB) and student organisations such as the Papuan Student Alliance (AMP) or the Papuan Peoples’ Youth and Student Movement (GempaR) (see into image, source Suara Papua). The Spokesperson of the PRP is Sayang Mandabayan, a former political prisoner who had been sentenced to 9 months imprisonment in May 2020 under provisions of treason. On 30 July 2020, Mandabayan handed over a petition with seven points to the Papuan Peoples’ Assembly (MRP) of Papua Barat Province.

 The petition lists the following points:

1. Strictly reject the extension of the implementation of Special Autonomy Chapter II in any form and name in the territory of West Papua (Provinces Papua and Papua Barat);
2. Refuse all forms of unilateral compromise, discussions and decision-making agendas that do not involve the Papuan people as the subject and object of all problems in West Papua;
3. Immediately allow the people of West Papua to choose and determine their own destiny; whether to accept Special Autonomy or choose political independence;
4. We support the vote of 1.8 million Papuans who have signed a petition in 2017 asking for an act of self-determination through a referendum under international supervision;
5. We ask the West Papua People's Assembly to approve and sign the PAPUA PEOPLE'S PETITION to determine the fate and future of the people of West Papua
6. The West Papua People's Assembly shall soon hold a large Papuan People's Consultative Assembly (MUBES) to determine the aspirations of the people of Papua related to the status of Special Autonomy in West Papua
7. If the points 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 will not be implemented, we will call on the people of West Papua to carry out a peaceful National Civil Strike throughout all regions in West Papua.

Many groups who have joined the PRP are outspoken supporters for an act of self-determination in West Papua. Their main criticism is that special autonomy was installed by the central government 'as a tool to control aspirations for political independence'. As a result, the special autonomy law was adopted but never fully implemented because the government did not want to lose control over its resource-rich provinces of Papua and Papua Barat. Furthermore, many migrants and a small political Papuan elite took advantage of the significant autonomy funds circulating in West Papua, accelerating the economic marginalisation of indigenous Papuans instead of empowering them.

Similar as the PRP, a group of 57 Catholic priests from different regions in Papua called on the Indonesian government to stop the "forced continuation of special autonomy in Papua" and conduct a firm assessment whether the special autonomy was a success story as government representatives commonly promote it. "What the government [Papua] has enforced are [special autonomy] funds. But what the Papuans need is not just money; they need their life, education, security, health and well-being instead. That is what they need, not billions of [rupiahs]," said the group's spokesperson, John Bonai, during an interview with the Jakarta Post.

The existence of the PRP has also led to the formation of a smaller counter movement called of ‘suara campuran’, who is promoting a prolongation of the special autonomy. Some people argue that the special autonomy allowed the local governments on the regency level to implement programs and policies in support of the local indigenous population. However, the number of special autonomy supporters among indigenous Papuans is estimated to be much smaller than those opposing its prolongation.

The Government’s position   
While President Joko Widodo has not made any public statement about the fate of the Papuan special autonomy, some of his ministers have recently expressed support for its prolongation. During a discussion between Papuan civil society representatives, the Indonesian Minister for Internal Affairs, Tito Karnavian, and the coordinating Minister for Politics, Law and Human Rights, Mahfud MD, on 22 July in Timika, the misters spoke in favour of a second special autonomy. They argued that the government’s financial budget was sufficient to allocate special autonomy funds to the Papuan provinces. Karnavian explained that a continuation of special autonomy would be beneficial for the next 20 years, pointing out improvements in infrastructure, roads and ports.  Minister Mahfud admitted that there were complaints from civil society that funds did not always reach its target. He stated that the government would address the shortcomings to ensure that the funds will be used accordingly in the future.

Many people in West Papua fear that the prolongation of the special autonomy will be unilaterally ‘imposed’ by the Government without prior consultation of Papuan civil society. Such fears were amplified by a statement of Paulus Waterpauw, chief of the Papua regional police. Waterpauw announced that he would not allow protests for the rejection of a second special autonomy, calling the PRP nothing more but an act of provocation. Parliamentarians and public figures criticised Waterpauw for imposing additional restrictions on the freedom of expression and assembly. The aspirations of the Papuan people towards special autonomy were an essential component for a democratic and free discourse in West Papua. Other local government representatives like the governors of the provinces Papua and Papua Barat have adopted a wait-and-see attitude for the time being.

Evaluation of Special Autonomy
The special autonomy law appointed the MRP to determine the aspiration of the Papuan people. The MRPs in the provinces of Papua and Papua Barat will, therefore, conduct a series of consultation meetings (so-called ‘Rapat Dengar Pendapat’ or RDP) with civil society representatives in all of the 41 regencies across West Papua to evaluate the special autonomy. The MRP has delegated a team of 19 persons who will prepare the meetings in all regencies of the Papua Province between August and October 2020. The first meetings took place in various locations across Jayapura on 12 July 2020. Some of the events were interrupted by PCP supporters who asked the MRP not to conduct any evaluation of special autonomy, arguing that the Papuan people had already decided that they don’t want a second special autonomy.

The chairperson of the MRP, Timotius Murib, stressed the importance of engaging all segments of Papuan civil society in the consultation meetings, including those groups opposing a prolongation of the special autonomy. However, the participation of PRP groups in the evaluation process under the supervision of the MRP is still vague. In mid-July 2020, the KNPB and student movements – both supporters of the PRP – also called upon Papuan academics not to participate in any evaluation activities and instead allow the Papuan people to decide whether they want the special autonomy to continue.