Indonesia: Human Rights and Pro-Independence Actions in Irian Jaya

VIII. Arrest of Theys Eluay and the National Dialogue Debate

Other Sections

Table of Contents
I. Introduction
II. Background to the Demonstration
III. Sorong and Jayapura
IV. The Biak Demonstration
V. Bodies in Biak
VI. Wamena, Jayawijaya
VII. Riots in Manokwari
VIII. Arrest of Theys Eluay and the National Dialogue Debate
IX. Appendix: Arrests Since July 1998

Just before the Manokwari demonstrations, on September 29 and 30, five men were arrested and accused of organizing the series of pro-independence demonstrations that had begun in July. A sixth, They Eluay, a respected tribal leader (ondofolo), was arrested the next week, on October 6. All were charged under Article 110 of the criminal code with conspiracy to commit crimes against national security. The arrests, and Eluay's in particular, became a major test of how far the government was willing to go in allowing free discussion of independence.

The first five men to be arrested, Don Flassy, Rev. Agustinus Ansanai, Barnabas Yufuwai, Laurence Mehuwe, and Sem Yaru, were all known in Jayapura as pro-independence advocates; indeed, led by Don Flassy, secretary of the provincial government's Planning and Development Board, all were members of a group called Committee for an Independent West Papua (Komite Independen Papua Barat). Sem Yaru was a more controversial figure: a former OPM member who had been detained in the late 1980s, Yaru was a civilian employee of the regional military command and, according to local sources, widely suspected in the activist community of having links to the military that went beyond his job. When, at the end of September, he circulated flyers calling on people to take part in a pro-independence demonstration in Jayapura on October 2, church leaders urged their followers not to take part, fearing it was a provocation. The demonstration did not materialize. (Two students, arrested and briefly detained on October 2 for taking part in a meeting three days before that police said was aimed at organizing a pro-independence rally, wrote in testimonies made available to Human Rights Watch that in fact, they were meeting to tell students not to take part in the October 2 demonstration planned by Yaru.)

It was the arrest of Theys Eluay, however, that sparked a major public reaction. Not only was he regarded as one of Irian Jaya's elder statesmen, a man who had been among the few handpicked people to take part in the 1969 sham "vote" on integration with Indonesia but who had become an outspoken advocate of independence. At the time of his arrest, he was also head of the Customary Council of Irian Jaya, a government creation, but one composed nonetheless of influential people, and his words and actions carried great weight.

Eluay was arrested at his home in Sentani, outside Jayapura, early in the morning on October 6. When police came to his home, he told them that the next day he had planned to be tied up by his own people as a symbolic gesture and be carried to the police command where the other five were detained. He was then planning to offer to be locked up in exchange for their release. The police rejected the plan and took him off to the police command, where he was locked up with the others. He was formally charged with rebellion on October 7; in addition, police said he had violated Criminal Code Article 169 about gathering people together with the intention of committing a crime and Article 160, inciting people to violence against the authorities. "He himself admits that several times he called meetings to discuss the independence of West Papua and how it should separate itself from Indonesia," the police commander said.(16)

Eluay freely admitted meeting with Sem Yaru, whom he apparently did not regard with the same suspicion that others did, and with Don Flassy. His lawyers told the press that during questioning, Eluay made no effort to hide his belief that Irian Jaya should be a separate state or that he considered himself a leader of West Papua. He explained that he had welcomed integration with Indonesia three decades ago but that Indonesian practices had convinced him that independence was the best option for the Papuan people. "If anyone is ready to be detained for his opinions, it's Theys Eluay," the lawyer said.(17) Eluay sent letters from his cell saying he would continue the struggle for independence from behind bars; the governor of Irian Jaya responded by saying he was revoking the decree making Eluay head of the tribal council.

Eluay's arrest and detention became inextricably tied to the debate over the idea of a national dialogue One local newspaper said in mid-October that it had been flooded with calls, as people rang up to vent their anger at Eluay's arrest, asking the editors if it was true that he was arrested as a way of silencing anyone who did not agree with the government that a dialogue could only focus on greater autonomy for Irian Jaya, not independence. The paper noted the statements of provincial security officials in response to widespread demands for Eluay's release: that they would never tolerate any activities that smacked of rebellion or separatism. But, the editors asked, it was a real question if detention of independence advocates was going to suppress the sentiment or resolve the problem.(18)

Whether or not Eluay and the others were arrested to suppress debate on independence, the public airing of the belief that they were, together with the massive pressure mounted within Irian Jaya, led to all six men being released on October 22. By that time, the debate over the dialogue was in full swing.

That debate bore striking parallels with the dynamics of tripartite talks among the United Nations, Portugal, and Indonesia on autonomy for East Timor. As with East Timor, the Indonesian government indicated that autonomy in Irian Jaya could not be seen as a transition step toward independence; not only was independence not an option, but it was even banned from discussion. The government maintained that support for independence was restricted to a small, if vocal, group of people, and that any dialogue had to take place on the basis of acceptance of a unitary Indonesian state.

Freddy Numberi, the governor of Irian Jaya, said in October that the dialogue would focus on issues such as injustice, human rights violations, land, economic autonomy, and retaining a greater share of earnings from natural resources so that every child in Irian Jaya could have free schooling and health care. In an autonomous Irian Jaya, he said, security, currency, and the court system would continue to be handled by Jakarta.(19)

Church leaders were among those who argued that for the dialogue to be an open and honest forum, there should be no restrictions on content, nor should the precise contours of autonomy be set beforehand. Rev. Herman Saut, head of Irian Jaya's largest Protestant congregation, said in an interview that if limits were going to be imposed in advance, it would no longer be a genuine dialogue. Instead, it would be a repeat of 1969, when the interests of the central government determined the outcome and local people had no real say in the matter. In response to suggestions that the church was seen as backing some of the pro-independence activities, he said the church took no sides but wanted to ensure that its followers understood the full implications of the three possibilities before them: autonomy, federation, and independence. He said that independence had widespread support in the interior of Irian Jaya and wondered aloud to the journalist whether autonomy would be enough for people who had suffered so much under three decades of Indonesian rule.(20)

As the debate was growing more heated and the differences between the government position and influential community leaders growing more pronounced, Theys Eluay used his recovered freedom to begin calling for a major demonstration throughout the province on December 1 to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the date the Dutch government promised independence to what was then known as the territory of West Irian and the date the West Papuan flag was flown for the first time. Throughout November, as the anniversary approached, church leaders as well as government officials were openly expressing concern that such a demonstration could only lead to violence and/or widespread arrests. Eluay called off the demonstration at the last minute, but not before troop reinforcements had been sent to all the towns where demonstrations had taken place before. In the end, December 1 passed peacefully without either rallies or crackdowns, but the tension built up in the preceding weeks has not diminished. Eluay now says he will not take part in a dialogue; others in the church, NGO, and university communities, including some who proposed the notion in the first place and who initially greeted the government's offer with something approaching exhilaration, are increasingly convinced that it will end up as a Jakarta-engineered initiative with a foreordained outcome in which local aspirations are ignored. The fact that government officials were proposing in late November that the dialogue be postponed until late 1999 only increased the feeling of disillusionment.

Indonesia: Human Rights and Pro-Independence Actions in Irian Jaya - Table of Contents

16. "Fosmi Minta Pemimpin Papua Dibebakan Kapolda: Polisi Bentuk Tim Khusus," Cenderawasih Pos, October 8, 1998.

17. "RI Harus Membaca Fenomena Theis," Cenderawasih Pos, October 9, 1998.

18. "Pertarungan Menjelang Dialog Nasional," Tifa Irian (Jayapura), Second Week of October, 1998.

19. "Dialog Nasional Tak Bahas Papua Merdeka," Cenderawasih Pos, October 12, 1998.

20. "Bincang-bincang dengan Ketua BPA AM Sinode GKI Irja Pdt. Herman Saut: Keinginan Merdeka Sekelompok Orang Tak Didukung Gereja," Cenderawasih Pos, October 17, 1998.