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Rough road ahead for powder keg Papua

Asia Times 2017-10-11 23:15:44

As much as it will spark development in one of Indonesia’s most remote regions, Papuan leaders are growing increasingly concerned over the social impact of the new Trans-Papua Highway that will open highland tribal areas for the first time.

Papua Peace Network coordinator Neles Terbay says nothing has prepared the tribes for the expected influx of migrants from other islands, who he claims now outnumber indigenous Papuans by as much as 60-40 across the once-roadless territory.

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As many as 750,000 outsiders settled in mostly western Papua under the authoritarian Suharto regime’s now-moribund transmigration program, but more recent arrivals have come on their own accord looking for new economic opportunities.


Terbay wants the issue to top the order of business when central government representatives and Papuan provincial and community leaders begin the first round of a new sectoral dialogue, recently endorsed by President Joko Widodo.

Initiated by the Papuans, it is designed to move the conversation away from difficult political issues that have stalled peace-making talks so far and focus instead on specific areas of concern, such as health, education and the environment.

The new approach stems from an August 14 meeting where 14 Papuan leaders told Widodo that something different was needed to get around suspicions among conservative elements in Jakarta that the talks would somehow lead to independence from Jakarta’s rule.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo poses with a motorbike before getting a first hand look at the proposed Trans-Papua highway. Photo: AFP/Indonesian Presidential Palace

Widodo, who has visited Papua five times since the beginning of his presidency in 2014, and was pictured only a few months ago touring part of the Trans-Papua road, has shown a keen interest in the latest effort to improve the troubled relationship.

But there are still questions over how the process will be implemented and sustained in a way that overcomes mistrust among defense and home affairs officials. “There will be no discussions about independence,” says Tebay. “We will go nowhere otherwise.”

The combined population of Papua and West Papua provinces is now estimated at 3.6 million, with 1.7 million listed as indigenous Papuans, the majority making up the 250 different tribal groups in the interior.

Up until now, migrants from mostly South Sulawesi and Java have settled in lowland areas, especially in West Papua’s coastal towns, the Papua province capital of Jayapura, and around Timika, the logistical base of the Freeport mining operation on island’s south coast.

But the main artery of the 4,325-kilometer Trans-Papua Highway, stretching from the coastal city of Sorong in the western Bird’s Head region across the rugged Central Highlands to Merauke on the southeast coast, will change all that.

Tribal Asmats take part in a ‘canoe war’ ceremony on Papua, Indonesia on May 23, 2016. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

Public Works officials say the remaining 450 kilometers, much of it linking Wamena, the quasi-highland capital in the Baliem Valley, to the western and eastern ends of the road, is expected to be completed by election year in 2019.

As ambitious as it seems, that would be another feather in the cap for Widodo, whose bid for re-election will be built largely on his reputation as the so-called ‘Infrastructure President’, a legacy his proponents claim will endure long beyond his presidency.

The Papua highway will bring a sharp reduction in the cost of fuel and other daily necessities to Papua’s interior; a bag of cement in most remote towns, for example, currently costs 1.5 million rupiah, compared to 75,000 rupiah in Jayapura and 50,000 rupiah in Jakarta.

But it is the social cost that worries Papuan leaders. “Non-Papuans who understand trade and entrepreneurship will begin settling in the interior,” warns Tebay. “Indigenous Papuans have to be prepared for that somehow, otherwise they will see it as a threat.”

Last March, in an attack later claimed by the West Papua National Liberation Army (TNPPB), gunmen ambushed and killed four construction workers on a section of the highway in the mountainous district of Puncak Jaya, 120 kilometers northwest of Wamena.

Indonesian police guard the Grasberg copper and gold mine complex near Timika, in the eastern province of Papua, Indonesia. Photo: Reuters/Muhammad Adimaja/Antara Foto

More worrying, however, are potential religious and ethnic conflicts. In July 2015, one person died and 11 others were hurt in violence that broke out after local church leaders sought to forbid Muslims from celebrating Idul Fitri at the end of the Ramadan fasting month.

A subsequent report by the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) found the incident in Tolikara, a district straddling the Trans-Papua highway east of Puncak Jaya, was not only a product of Papuan-migrant tensions, but also of “poor governance, poor policing, corruption and isolation.”

Such a toxic mix does not bode well for the future when the road brings more newcomers into an area mostly populated by Western Dani, Protestant Christians who are also predominant in nearby Wamena and surrounding areas.

Social tensions haven’t been helped by better-educated migrants getting most of the senior positions in the creation of new administrative regions, a process known as pemakaran which is more common in Papua than anywhere else in Indonesia.

Aerial view of Papua’s Baliem valley. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

Since 2000, the number of kabupaten, or districts, alone has grown from nine to 29 in Papua province and from three to 13 in West Papua, all done more to satisfy local political demands and gain access to funding than to improve the quality of administration.

Many of the new regions are in the highlands, where Tolikara is a standout. Although it has a population of only 140,000, the number of sub-districts have grown from four to a staggering 46. It is also claimed to have 549 villages, the highest of any district in Papua.

Ominously, IPAC director Sidney Jones believes the new influx of migrants could become a significant rallying point for the Wamena-based West Papua National Committee (KNPB), the domestic arm of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP).

Outlawed last year, the KNPB has evolved from a group of student activists into a mass organization committed to Papua’s independence, which now appears to be receiving more funding from the diaspora who make up the increasingly-active ULMWP.

“There’s a danger the government will be caught flat-footed in all this,” says Jones, who has reported extensively on Papua. “The KPNB is a lot more focused and have been able to overcome the rivalries that previously existed between highland and lowland activists.”

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