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

II. Background to the Demonstration

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

Initially, the July demonstrations across the province were reported to have been sparked by a letter from several members of the U.S. Congress to President Habibie, calling, among other things, for a dialogue on the political status of Irian Jaya and East Timor. Representative Christopher Smith presented the letter to Habibie during a visit to Jakarta in late May; copies of the letter and translations of the text were widely circulated in Irian Jaya and construed as American support for the independence of Irian Jaya. One observer in Biak at the time noted that photocopy shops were full of people reproducing the letter, together with other documents relating to the history of the territory's incorporation into Indonesia.(3)

The timing of the letter was important, because in the euphoria following Soeharto's resignation, anything seemed possible -- demonstrations that had never been allowed before, discussions on topics that were previously taboo, even fundamental changes in the political landscape and a restructuring of the highly centralized political system of Soeharto's "New Order" were thinkable for the first time in recent memory. The accumulated resentment of three decades of harsh and often discriminatory Indonesian rule in Irian Jaya and the shared knowledge of how international politics cheated them out of having their own country in the 1960s combined to give many in Irian Jaya a sense that it was time to revisit the question of independence. While the pro-independence guerrilla movement OPM has been operating in Irian Jaya since the 1960s, it is important to underscore that the desire for self-rule and an end to the Indonesian presence is widely held among people who have no connection of any kind to the guerrillas.

The U.S. parliamentarians' letter was almost certainly a factor in the demonstrations, and it was mentioned by the leaders of the actions in Jayapura, Sorong, and Biak, but there were many other possible causes. Human Rights Watch has obtained a copy of a memo dated June 25, 1998 and marked "secret." The memo, sent by the intelligence section of the provincial police command to all police stations across Irian Jaya, warns of a rash of OPM-led pro-independence actions, "in the lead-up to the [anniversary of the] independence of West Melanesia [sic] on July 1, 1998." The memo was based on a letter that appeared in the Irian Jaya governor's office on June 2, sent by the Supreme Military Command of the Front for the Liberation of West Papua, a name for the top leadership of the OPM.

According to the memo, the letter included the text of the proclamation of independence of West Papua on July 1, 1961 and listed the symbols of statehood, among them, the "morning star" flag that was designed in 1961 as preparations for independence got underway. It demanded independence for West Papua before the year 2000. It recalled the August 15, 1962 "Rome Agreement" between the Netherlands and Indonesia where it was agreed that the principle of "one man, one vote" would be applied in the act of free choice, and noted how this agreement was violated. The letter said that on July 1, 1998, in nine districts of Irian Jaya, the people would take action to demand independence and secession from Indonesia. For Jayapura, the letter said, people would gather in Sentani and march to the provincial parliament building. At each of these demonstrations, the morning star flag would be raised.

The police memo then warned that these plans could be used by elements inside and outside Indonesia to further destabilize the situation, particularly in Irian Jaya, and create negative feelings toward the government. It called on all recipients of the memo to step up surveillance and monitoring prior to July 1.

If true, the OPM letter referred to in the memo could help explain the early July timing of the flag-raising actions and why these actions took place in so many different places. But whatever the OPM may have planned, the fact that its letter was addressed to Soeharto more than a month after his resignation does not say much about its access to information or ability to coordinate a widely dispersed set of actions. In only one of the July actions is there clear evidence of OPM involvement, and that one received no publicity whatsoever -- the raising of a flag on July 6 in Mugi, Jayawijaya district, by acknowledged OPM leader Daniel Kagoya.

Local activists believe the letter from the OPM leadership never existed and was manufactured by the military to make it seem as though Irian Jaya was still in need of heightened security measures; an OPM threat would justify a large troop presence at a time when the public was demanding troop withdrawals. They point to the military's involvement in a number of lucrative economic enterprises in the province, especially timber and mining, and note that a greatly reduced military presence could have negative economic implications for some of the commanders involved.(4)

An observer in Biak shortly after the demonstrations wrote us in relation to the above argument, "Whatever one makes of the conspiracy theory, it does seem clear that the interests of Agus Edyono, the Biak military commander, were advanced by the recent unrest. The current district head is due to step down in six months. The flag-raising is being used as an excuse for appointing a non-Biak from the armed forces -- the last three have been from the island -- and Agus Edyono is one of the leading candidates. The post has been a 'wet one' in recent years, with all the money flowing in for road-building, tourism development, and earthquake relief."(5)

Another factor in the demonstrations was the increased mobilization of local people around calls for the withdrawal of the Indonesian troops, particularly after a report released by church leaders in May citing human rights abuses during counterinsurgency operations in the central highlands of Irian Jaya. They also note that one impact of Soeharto's resignation on May 21 was a belief that the new post-Soeharto era of political reform should allow more freedom to voice aspirations for independence. In any case, the resentment against Indonesia is deep enough and the post-Soeharto political atmosphere open enough for a variety of pro-independence expressions to take place without any links to the guerrillas.

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

3. Personal communication, August 25, 1998.

4. Interviews in Jayapura, August 1998.

5. Personal communication, August 25, 1998.