A new path for troubled Papua?

By Rachel Harvey
BBC News, Papua

Image caption,
Despite its natural beauty, Papua has been the scene of a low-level separatist insurgency

Papua is one of the most beautiful and resource-rich parts of Indonesia. Lush green forested mountains meet crystal blue waters.

But the region does not feature on many tourist itineraries. There is a reason for that.

Papua, at the far east of the archipelago, has been the scene of a low-level separatist insurgency for decades.

The area, officially divided into two provinces, Papua and West Papua, is heavily militarised.

Foreign journalists are rarely given permission to travel to the region. The BBC was only granted access on condition that a government minder travelled with us.

The recent emergence of a controversial video has heightened tensions in this restless region.

Media caption,
Indonesia admits that the men seen torturing Papuan villagers in a video uploaded on the internet earlier this week are members of the military.

In it, members of the Indonesian military are seen interrogating suspected separatist sympathisers.

A knife is held to the throat of one Papuan man. Another screams in pain as a burning stick is held against his genitals.

The video has been widely circulated on the internet and the case has been taken up by both Human Rights Watch and the Asian Human Rights Commission.

The government has promised to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Papua's Governor, Barnabas Suebu, believes the investigation must be conducted openly to prevent trouble.

"If not," he said, "people will sense the injustice and there'll be a problem. This must not be covered up."

The video has added credibility to Papuan claims of continued mistreatment at the hands of the security forces, and of lingering racism.

Papuans do not look like other Indonesians. They are darker skinned, Melanesian rather than Asian.

Years of inward migration from other parts of Indonesia have left Papuans in danger of becoming a minority in their own land.

National pride

At a meeting held in a Catholic seminary in Abepura, more than 100 political activists were trying to chart a new path for Papua.

It was a heated debate. The central government in Jakarta granted this region Special Autonomy status in 2001, in an attempt to stave off calls for independence.

But despite billions of dollars of investment, autonomy has failed to deliver the prosperity and empowerment people here demand.

Moderate community leaders are arguing for direct talks with Jakarta to work out a better deal.

Neles Tebay, a Catholic priest, is now one of those preaching the gospel of peaceful dialogue.

"Every policy on Papua has been decided by somebody else," he said.

"So what Papuans are demanding now is 'treat us as human beings and ok, let's talk'. Ask us our opinion."

Image caption,
The football arena is one of the few areas where Papuans are allowed to be partisan

Papuans often say they feel like an oppressed people. But on the football pitch, they dominate.

In a packed stadium on a steamy hot evening the local Jayapuran team took on a side from the island of Kalimantan.

The stands were a sea of red shirts, the colour of the home team strip, and the fans were in good voice, singing and shouting with every surge forwards towards the goalmouth.

They had good reason to be cheerful. Their team was on its way to a convincing 8-0 victory. But the exuberance may have been about more than just the scoreline.

It is not often that Papuans are able to gather together in public and express what felt like a sense of national pride.

In the football arena Papuans are allowed to be partisan. But more blatant symbols of Papuan nationalism are not tolerated.


Yusak Pakage was convicted of treason for taking part in a pro-independence rally in 2004 during which the outlawed Papuan flag, the Morning Star, was raised.

Image caption,
Yusak Pakage says the majority of Papuans want to be independent

He was granted early release from prison in July. A leading member of the West Papuan Liberation Movement, he is vehemently opposed to any suggestion of talks with the central government in Jakarta.

"Autonomy was forced upon us by Indonesia," Mr Pakage said.

"Most Papuan people have now rejected it, apart from a few elites who benefited from autonomy because of their positions," he added dismissively.

Mr Pakage claims the majority of Papuans want to be independent, and in his view there is no point in any kind of dialogue without that.

But the Indonesian government will not countenance any discussion of separation.

Papua's position within Indonesia is non-negotiable.

"Dialogue is ongoing," said Indonesia's presidential spokesman, Teuku Faizasyah, in an interview in Jakarta.

"You talk about dialogue as if there are two parties," Mr Faizasyah said, "but really it's a dialogue among Indonesians."

"There is a problem," he conceded, "but if it's only a problem of mismanagement we need to improve that."

More bloodshed

The government clearly feels it has given enough and it is now up to Papuans themselves to make autonomy work.

But many Papuans are profoundly disillusioned with the current arrangement.

If those grievances are not properly addressed, Neles Tebay believes there could be trouble ahead.

"It could be if Papuans continue to be marginalised," Mr Tebay warned, "more bloodshed will happen."

"Not just Papuans but also migrants living in Papua, the police and military."

The mistrust on both sides has led to a stalemate which cannot persist indefinitely. Something has to give.

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