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

I. Introduction

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

In the aftermath of President Soeharto's resignation in May 1998, political tension in Irian Jaya, Indonesia's easternmost province, has increased. The province, called West Papua by supporters of independence, occupies the western half of the island of New Guinea. Unlike the rest of Indonesia which gained independence in 1949, Irian Jaya was under Dutch control until 1963 and only became part of Indonesia after a fraudulent, U.N.-supervised "Act of Free Choice" in 1969.(1) Over the last three decades, support for independence, fueled by resentment of Indonesian rule, loss of ancestral land to development projects, and the influx of migrants from elsewhere in the country, has taken the form of both an armed guerrilla movement, the Free Papua Movement (Organisasi Papua Merdeka or OPM), and generally non-violent attempts to raise the West Papuan flag. Guerrilla activity has led in most cases to military operations in which civilians have suffered a wide range of abuses; flag-raisings and other demonstrations have led to the arrests of those involved, often on charges of subversion or rebellion.

When it took office, the government of B.J. Habibie made initial efforts to recognize and apologize for the human rights violations that its predecessor had committed in Irian Jaya. But the willingness to acknowledge past abuses in general terms was not accompanied by any concrete measures toward justice or redress for the victims. Indeed, it took until October 1998 for the military to declare an end to the designation of Irian Jaya as a combat area (daerah operasi militer or DOM). In the meantime, the independence movement grew stronger, in part because of the climate of greater political openness, in part because of a belief that international support would now be stronger. Students in Irian Jaya also organized themselves following the model of student activists in Jakarta and other cities but directed their demands toward independence rather than Habibie's removal.

As a consequence, in early July 1998 and again in October, a series of pro-independence demonstrations took place across Irian Jaya. The independence demonstrations, not all wholly peaceful, led to the shooting of demonstrators by security forces in the provincial capital, Jayapura, and in the district of Biak; to arrests in Sorong and Jayawijaya; and to rioting by angry mobs in Manokwari. One student and one police intelligence agent died in Jayapura. The death toll remains unclear in Biak; one person is known to have died in the local hospital and two others died shortly after their release from prison. There were reports of trucks taking away the wounded, however, and over thirty bodies washed up on the shore of East Biak in the weeks after the shootings took place. The government claimed they were victims of a tsunami that struck neighboring Papua New Guinea; local people are convinced they were victims of the shooting. The bodies were buried without autopsy near the sites where they were found, contributing to the suspicion of a government cover-up. The trial of suspects in the Biak demonstrations began on October 5; the prosecution was expected to rest its case by mid-December.

In Manokwari, efforts by independence supporters to raise the West Papuan flag on October 2 were stopped by police and led to a rampage through the business district and outlying areas, destroying many homes and shops. Nineteen people were arrested, all of whom were later released pending trial. In Jayapura, a man named Sem Yaru tried to organize a demonstration on the same day, but it failed after church leaders urged their followers not to take part, worried that Yaru was acting as a provocateur. Yaru and four others were arrested for planning the abortive demonstration and for helping organize the July demonstrations. The arrest of a sixth man in early October, Theys Eluay, caused such public outrage that all six were eventually released to house arrest pending trial on October 22. Their trials were expected to begin in January 1999.

But the Biak and Jayapura demonstrations and deaths shocked Jakarta into action. In July, the national parliament sent a fact-finding team to Irian Jaya to discuss local grievances under the chairmanship of Abdul Gafur, the deputy speaker; members spent much of August in the province and concluded that the independence demands stemmed from human rights violations, unhappiness with the government-sponsored transmigration projects, concerns about Islamicization of a traditionally Christian area, and underrepresentation of indigenous people in the local government -- and from the "latent influence of the OPM."(2)

In late July, a new organization called Forum for the Reconciliation of the People of Irian Jaya (FORERI), composed of church leaders, intellectuals, and nongovernmental activists, first broached the idea with the parliamentary fact-finding team of addressing the aspirations of the Papuan people through a "national dialogue." The aim would be to discuss possible political solutions for Irian Jaya, ranging from autonomy to federalism to independence. On August 1, at a seminar in Jayapura, leading public figures from Irian Jaya took up the idea and suggested that the dialogue could be followed by an international dialogue involving the United Nations. The Habibie government cautiously welcomed the idea, and concrete discussions on how to conduct a national dialogue began in earnest in October. In mid-November, the dialogue was scheduled to begin in early 1999, but there was no agreement between the government, which wanted to restrict the discussion to autonomy (known as the "O word," otonomi, in its Indonesian spelling), and many community leaders, who believed the dialogue could only be meaningful if independence (the "M word," merdeka) was also discussed. By late November, as more and more avowedly pro-independence organizations began to make themselves heard, the government was suggesting that the dialogue be pushed back until after the 1999 general elections, that is, to late 1999 or early 2000. The stated rationale was that it would be better for the dialogue to be held with a more representative government. The not-so-hidden concern may have been that the issue of independence was all too clearly going to dominate the agenda.


Human Rights Watch calls on the Indonesian government:

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

1. The Dutch territory known as West Irian was brought under a temporary U.N. trusteeship in 1962 after strong pressure on the Netherlands from the United States. The Kennedy administration was sympathetic to the Indonesian government claim that West Irian, as part of the former Dutch East Indies, was as much a part of Indonesia as the island of Java. Under the terms of an agreement brokered by the U.S., Indonesia took over control from the U.N. in 1963, and in 1969, some 1,000 tribal leaders from Irian Jaya were brought together under Indonesian military supervision, many of them at gunpoint or after well-documented intimidation, and asked to choose whether or not they wanted integration with Indonesia. A Bolivian diplomat was brought in to oversee the process for the U.N. with a total of sixteen support staff. Not surprisingly, the vote was unanimously in favor of integration. This was the "Act of Free Choice."

2. "Gafur: Bahaya Laten OPM Masih Ada di Irian Jaya," Media Indonesia (Jakarta), August 3, 1998.