Indonesia Clamps Down on Simmering Independence Effort in Papua

A Papuan activist during a rally in Jakarta, Indonesia, last year. Indonesia, despite its transition in 1999 to democracy from authoritarian rule, continues to be criticized for the plight of its easternmost provinces of Papua and West Papua.

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Yanto Awerkion knew quite well that he would infuriate the local Indonesian authorities for organizing a meeting to discuss a petition for an independence referendum in the strife-torn Papua region — but he did it anyway.

“I was exercising my right to free speech,” said Mr. Awerkion, a senior official of the West Papua National Committee, a pro-independence organization, who said his ensuing arrest on accusations of treason was the third time he had faced charges for his political beliefs.

The local police, however, did not see the case as a free-speech issue. He was arrested after the gathering in his hometown Timika, where he is vice chairman of the local branch of the independence committee, in May last year on charges of trying to overthrow the state. He was jailed for 10 months.

At his trial this March, Mr. Awerkion, 28, was convicted of treason under an archaic Dutch colonial law, but released on Easter Sunday for time served.

“During the trial, there was no proof I was involved in treason,” he said in a telephone interview after his release. “And I wasn’t. As a member of the young generation, I have to fight against injustices.”

Comparatively speaking, Mr. Awerkion got off lightly. At least three Papuans considered as political prisoners by human rights groups are serving lengthy prison sentences for promoting independence from Indonesia or raising the separatist flag of the armed Free Papua Movement in public. Dozens of others supporting the cause have been incarcerated in recent years.

Indonesia, despite its largely successful transition to democracy in 1999 after decades of authoritarian rule, continues to be criticized for the plight of its easternmost region of Papua — split into the provinces of Papua and West Papua. Despite being some of Southeast Asia’s richest regions in terms of natural resources, the two provinces remain among the country’s poorest.

Human rights groups have reported a long list of official abuses there, in the name of fighting a small, armed separatist movement. They include arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial killings, official corruption, rigged local elections, and police and military personnel who use abusive tactics.

“They are using colonial laws to arrest people in modern, democratic Indonesia,” said Calum Hyslop, an Australian who is a longtime political observer of the Papua region. “They fail to understand the difference between freedom of speech and real acts of armed separatism.”

Indonesia’s Papua region lies on the western side of New Guinea Island, the eastern side being the nation of Papua New Guinea.

Indonesia annexed the former Dutch-controlled region in 1963, and took sovereignty after the 1969 Act of Free Choice, a vote on whether to remain part of Indonesia. Opponents say the voting was rigged, as only handpicked representatives were allowed to vote, rather than the entire population. There has been a small-scale armed rebellion ever since, most notably by the Free Papua Movement.

Mr. Awerkion’s organization, the West Papua National Committee, is not armed and is a nongovernmental organization supporting a referendum on Papua’s future.

Over the decades, the Indonesian government’s human rights record in the Papua region, formally known as Irian Jaya, has drawn widespread criticism. Pro-independence activists have been tortured, murdered or have gone missing, with no arrests or prosecutions. The recently released United States State Department report on Indonesia said of Papua: “The lack of transparent investigations continued to hamper accountability in a number of past cases involving security forces.”

Development in the region is further cause for concern. Papua Province is home to one of the world’s largest gold and copper mining operations, run by the Indonesian unit of the American mining giant Freeport-McMoRan, and a large natural gas plant in West Papua Province, run by a local unit of BP.

But some of the region’s demographics are comparable to sub-Saharan Africa, according to analysts, with an alarming gap between Papuans who live in coastal areas and those who live in the remote highlands, mostly only accessible by airplane.

Most Papuans live in rural areas, and poverty rates there are the highest in Indonesia, at around 41 percent, compared with only 5 percent in urban areas. Papuans have the highest rates of illiteracy in Indonesia, with around 25 percent of children not in school, and the region has the highest infant, child, and maternal mortality rates in Indonesia, while having the lowest basic child vaccination rates.

“When it comes to broader questions of human rights in Papua, the real violation relates to the complete lack of services in the countryside,” said Bobby Anderson, a researcher with the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. “Things like lack of health care, lack of education, with teachers no-showing at schools.”

“Indonesia has a detailed policy for mineral extraction, but they have no real policy for the people of Papua,” he said. “It’s like they’re not even citizens.”

After taking office in 2014, President Joko Widodo of Indonesia promised a new deal for the Papua and West Papua provinces, releasing some so-called political prisoners and promising an ambitious economic program. However, his own government has continued to enforce restrictions on foreign journalists visiting there.

The Papua region continues to be troubled. The Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, a Jakarta-based research organization, while noting that Mr. Joko had given more attention to the region than his predecessors, said in an October report, “Conflict there — among clans, between indigenous Papuans and migrants, between pro-independence groups and the state — remains high.”

Amnesty International has labeled three Papuans serving prison sentences as “prisoners of conscience,” but notes that hundreds of other human rights and pro-independence activists are routinely arrested and briefly detained, including more than 40 members of Mr. Awerkion’s organization just last month.

Papuans Behind Bars, a separate nongovernmental organization, has documented more than 40 people sentenced to various terms in prison under the treason law.

Usman Hamid, director of Amnesty International Indonesia, said that the Indonesian government’s “focus on development and putting aside human rights in Papua is a wrong approach to deal with the complexity of problems.”

Earlier this month, just after Mr. Awerkion was released, the website of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, the main international partner of Mr. Awerkion’s group, was hacked, as were the websites of other pro-referendum Papuan organizations. They say a state-sponsored actor was likely behind the hacking attacks.

For his part, Mr. Awerkion is not letting his jail time affect his independence cause, saying a fourth arrest would mean nothing to him.

“Please tell all the people out there to keep a watch on the Papua issue,” he said.

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