Table Of ContentsNext Page

Recent Reports 
 Support HRW 
About HRW
Site Map

Human Rights Watch - Home Page


In December 1999, Indonesia's new President, Abdurrahman Wahid, announced that he would watch the first sunrise of the new century from the easternmost province of Irian Jaya. It was an unusual choice-the province, roughly the size of France, has a population under two million in a country of over two hundred million, and its capital, Jayapura, is some 3,500 kilometers (2,100 miles) from the Indonesian capital, Jakarta-but Wahid's announcement was clearly intended to signal a major change of policy after more than thirty years of authoritarian rule. At a ceremony at an army base near Jayapura on January 1, 2000, Wahid declared that the province would from that day forward be called "Papua," an important gesture of reconciliation toward the indigenous population of the province, who call themselves "orang Papua" (Papuan people). For decades, the name had been all but taboo as the embodiment of forbidden aspirations to political and cultural autonomy.1

Since coming to power in October 1999, the Wahid government has introduced significant reforms in Papua in the face of widespread demands for independence. In addition to the name change, which has yet to be officially endorsed by Indonesia's parliament, the government has declared that peaceful expression of pro-independence sentiment will no longer be punished as it had been in former years, and it released over sixty Papuans from jail as part of a nationwide amnesty for political prisoners. The government's actions, however, have not been consistent and abuses have continued. While it has permitted a number of peaceful demonstrations, which usually take the form of symbolic raising of the "Morning Star" flag signifying an independent Papua, other such rallies have been forcibly dispersed by police with resulting injuries to demonstrators. Likewise, even as Indonesia's Minister for Law and Legislation announced on December 13, 1999, that all Papuan political prisoners would be released, five men involved in a peaceful flag-raising which had taken place in the town Genyem on July 1, 1999, were charged with rebellion by a state prosecutor in Jayapura. Although those charges subsequently were dropped, at the time this report was being prepared authorities were continuing investigations into a series of peaceful flag-raising ceremonies held throughout the province on December 1, 1999 and nine people already had been named as suspects.

Human Rights Watch takes no position on Papuan claims to self-determination, but it supports the right of all individuals, including independence supporters, to express their political views peacefully without fear of arrest or other forms of reprisal. To the extent individuals are arrested and imprisoned for peaceful participation in symbolic flag-raising ceremonies, such treatment constitutes arbitrary arrest and detention in violation of international standards. According to the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which visited Indonesia in February 1999, the majority of individuals then facing charges in connection with flag-raising ceremonies in Irian Jaya were being held for peaceful expression of their views and, as such, their detention was arbitrary and in violation of international law. Under the new administration, the number of cases is down, but Indonesia has continued to prosecute organizers of peaceful protests.

Papua, Indonesia's largest province, comprising more than one-fifth of the country's total land area, was first put under Indonesian control in 1963. It was formally incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 in a still controversial, U.N.-approved process. For many years, the province was categorized as a military combat zone (Daerah Operasi Militer or DOM; literally, Military Operations Area) and under an effective state of martial law, ostensibly because of the threat posed by the Free Papua Movement (Organisasi Papua Merdeka or OPM), an armed group engaged in a generally low level guerrilla campaign for independence from Indonesian rule. At the same time, many Papuans sought to express their support for independence through peaceful means, notably the symbolic public raising of the "Morning Star" flag which had first been flown openly when local people sought to free the territory from Dutch colonial rule in 1961.

Under Soeharto, who ruled Indonesia for thirty years until forced to resign by popular protests in 1998, such flag-raising ceremonies and other pro-independence manifestations were ruthlessly suppressed. Demonstrators were forcibly dispersed and assaulted, and leading activists were subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention. Such activists frequentlywere prosecuted and imprisoned under harsh laws dealing with subversion and rebellion, as well as the notorious "hate sowing" articles of the Indonesian penal code.

Indigenous Papuans, who are Melanesians and darker-skinned than the numerically and politically dominant Javanese and members of most other ethnic groups in Indonesia, were also subject to ethnic and racial discrimination. While Indonesian rule brought unprecedented economic development, it also resulted in an influx of immigrants from other parts of Indonesia and caused resentment among Papuans as the benefits went disproportionately to foreign investors and these immigrants.When Soeharto was forced from power in May 1998, many of these long repressed sentiments could be made public for the first time.

When he took over following Soeharto's resignation, President B.J. Habibie initially made efforts to recognize and apologize for the human rights violations committed under his predecessor. But the new administration's willingness to acknowledge past abuses in general terms was not accompanied by concrete measures to establish justice or redress for the victims. In the meantime, demands for independence mounted.

The strength of pro-independence sentiment was unmistakable as early as February 1999, when 100 leading Papuan leaders met with President Habibie to initiate what was being hailed as a "National Dialogue" on Papuan concerns. But the leaders presented President Habibie with a single demand: independence. This clearly shocked and displeased the Habibie government, which had encouraged the National Dialogue up to then, and the process was soon suspended. In April 1999, the government reverted to the methods used during the Soeharto era, attempting to round up independence supporters and censor discussion of the subject. The crackdown included bans on expression, assembly, and association, arbitrary arrests, and widespread intimidation of independence supporters. With nationwide demands for democratization still mounting across Indonesia, however, opposition voices could not easily be silenced. The result was an uncertain atmosphere in which, even as the crackdown was underway, Papuan leaders continued to assert their right to advocate Papuan independence. In July and September 1999, at least four demonstrators were seriously injured, one of whom subsequently died in custody, and thirty-two were arrested after police moved in to disperse what had intially been peaceful flag-raising ceremonies.

In October 1999, following democratic elections, a new government took office in Indonesia under President Abdurrahman Wahid, and promptly initiated a number of reforms. Openly acknowledging the errors of the past, the new administration moved quickly to allow greater freedom and to permit the open expression of pro-independence views. Peaceful Papuan flag-raisings, which had been broken up under Soeharto and Habibie, were now permitted and were held without police interference in at least a dozen places in Papua on December 1, 1999. The next day, however, there was a violent clash between police and demonstrators at a flag-raising in Timika in which six people were shot by police and dozens were injured. When he met local community leaders at Jayapura on December 31, President Wahid assured them that flag-raisings and other peaceful expression of pro-independence views should and would be considered protected acts of free speech. At the same time, Wahid stated unambiguously that the Indonesian government was not prepared to accede to Papuan demands for independence.

During a visit to Irian Jaya in December, 1999, Indonesia's new minister for human rights, Hasballah Saad, acknowledged the link between the past lack of accountability for human rights abuses suffered by Papuans and the growth of the separatist movement within the territory, and announced that a new center for human rights study and advocacy would be established in Irian Jaya. "If human rights are not respected . . . that could in turn provoke people to ask what maintaining the unity of the Republic is for," Saad was quoted as saying. "This circumstance could in turn encourage people to fight for an independent state."2

This report details violations of civil and political rights in Papua from the beginning of 1999, including those associated with the National Dialogue and subsequent symbolic flag-raising ceremonies. At the outset, it provides an overview of independence demands, then describes the rise and fall of the National Dialogue and the crackdown that followed. It also reviews developments since President Abdurrahman Wahid came to power in October 1999.

As this report was being prepared, Human Rights Watch learned of disturbing developments in Merauke and Nabire in which groups of armed Papuan neighborhood patrols (Satgas Papua) clashed with police and troops, an incident in Fak Fak in which villagers clashed with the entourage of a local government official, and communal violence in Entrop, near Jayapura, in which a Papuan mob attacked non-Papuan shopkeepers. There were also reports that, in response, non-Papuan transmigrant residents in the province were being provided with firearms by government officials, and that, in at least one district, an East Timor-style pro-government militia was being set up. These reports, if true, make it all the more imperative that respect for basic civil and political rights and strict implementation of the distinction between peaceful advocacy and violent criminal acts be made components of any long-term solution in Papua. Although the Indonesian government has recognized such rights in principle, it has not yet consistently respected those rights in practice.

1 The names "Papua" and "Irian Jaya" are used interchangeably in this report to refer to the province. 2 "Rights abuses fed separatism in Irian Jaya," Jakarta Post, December 10, 1999; "Indonesia proposes rights center in Irian Jaya," Radio Australia, December 9, 1999.

Table Of ContentsNext Page