President Joko Widodo has made Papua and the resolution of conflict in the area a priority for his administration. He campaigned in Papua in his quest for the presidency. He has made two visits since assuming office. His announcement in May of the release of five Papuan political prisoners and opening up the Papuan provinces to foreign journalists was the first time since Abdurrahman Wahid in 2000 that a president has made symbolic gestures towards Papuan grievances.
Jokowi’s gestures related to the symptoms rather than the substance of the conflict, but they were framed in terms of solving the conflict. Symbolic gestures are important in a conflict where there is so much mutual distrust and misunderstanding. Jokowi hoped that clemency would be seen in the context of conflict resolution and making Papua into a “land of peace”. The president said that foreign journalists would no longer require special permits and would be able to work in Papua without restrictions, as in other regions of Indonesia. The clearing house process that had been used to limit the access of foreign journalists would no longer operate.
“We want to create Papua and West Papua as a land of peace. So, don’t be provocative again.”
Within a couple of days, a senior minister, military and police figures had qualified, if not negated the announcement. The head of police in Papua, Insp. Gen. Yotje Mende, made it clear that foreign journalists would still have to comply with Ministry of Foreign Affairs procedures and report to the police in Papua so that they could be kept under surveillance. He explained that conditions in Papua were different from other regions in Indonesia, as there were still armed civilian groups, and maintaining security was the responsibility of the police.
Tedjo Edhy Purdijatno, the coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, confirmed that foreign journalists would still have to follow Papua-specific procedures because “there are parties who deliver negative information about human rights violations in Papua”. He stated that the clearing house, renamed the “foreign monitoring team of Indonesia”, was essential to “preserve national interests and national sovereignty”. General Moeldoko, the commander of the Armed Forces (TNI), emphasised this concern about outside interference. “We must be tough,” he said. “We are a sovereign nation that cannot be allowed to become a play thing for foreigners.”
Two matters are apparent. The security forces are reluctant to relinquish their control over Papua. They perceive Papua to be different from the rest of Indonesia and should be treated differently. The question is whether the president’s writ extends to Papua and whether his policies will be implemented by his security forces.
Even releasing political prisoners will not be a straightforward exercise. Jokowi estimated that there were about 90 political prisoners, of which according to Papuans Behind Bars, 38 are Papuans (excluding the five released). He indicated that it was his intention to release all political prisoners. The five Papuans already released – Linus Hiluka, Apotnaholik Enos Lokobal, Kimanus Wenda, Numbungga Telenggen and Yafrai Murib – had been imprisoned since 2003 for attempting to seize arms from the TNI in Wamena. The released prisoners made it clear that the offer of clemency came from the president and was not at their request. Given the large number of Papuan political prisoners, including many imprisoned for peaceful political activities like raising the Morning Star flag, why these five were chosen for release is not clear.
Filep Karma, sentenced to 15 years imprisonment for flag raising in 2004, is the best known of the political prisoners. Filip rejected an offer of clemency from former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in 2013. He argued that granting clemency was not consistent with the attitude and actions of the security forces, which are still detaining activists and criminalising peaceful political activity. Jokowi acknowledged that he wanted to release Filip, but the independence activist demanded amnesty, which would require the approval of the House of Representatives.
Jokowi saw his release of political prisoners and lifting of the restrictions on foreign journalists as the beginning of a process to resolve the conflict in Papua. While in Jayapura, the president requested an audience of hundreds of military and police personnel: “I want the approach in Papua to change. Not a repressive security approach, rather replaced by a development and welfare approach.” While implicitly recognizing that the security approach developed since the time of Soekarno and Soeharto had been counterproductive, he was reluctant to acknowledge the political dimensions of the conflict. In response to a question about the dialogue desired by many sections of Papuan society, Jokowi explained that he had already talked with customary and religious leaders and heads of local governments. “Isn’t that dialogue?” he said. “There is no longer a problem in Papua. What’s dialogue for?”
Jokowi considers that because policies in Papua are now welfare and development orientated, there is no need for a political Jakarta-Papua dialogue. The Army Commander, General Gatot Nurmantyo, the army chief of staff, expressed this understanding more explicitly. “[I]f development in Papua is smooth and rapid, the [independence] movement will disappear”. The security forces’ use of terms such as “armed civilian group” and “armed criminal group” to describe the pro-independence fighters is another example of how the authorities are disinclined to recognize the political dimensions of the conflict.
The belief that providing greater welfare and economic development for Papuans would somehow make the desire for independence disappear informed the Papua policies of President Yudhoyono. Perhaps ironically, it was retired General Bambang Darmono, who led the Yudhoyono government’s Unit for the Acceleration of Development in Papua and West Papua (UP4B), who acknowledged the political nature of the conflict in Papua. Interviewed after Jokowi’s visit, he recalled that granting foreign journalists access to Papua and releasing political prisoners had been discussed with Yudhoyono, but was politically too difficult to pursue. In any case, he did not believe these sorts of measures would solve the problem because the core issue was that Papuans wanted independence.