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Political risk of neglecting inequality in Papua

Jakarta | Thu, March 16, 2017 | 08:31 am
Political risk of neglecting inequality in Papua Under investigation: Investigators from the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) get prepared to search the Papua governor office in Jakarta on Feb.2 in its investigation into a graft case related to the Kemiri-Depapre road construction project. (Antara/Indrayadi TH)

In early 2017, two much-discussed issues about Papua have been the investigation of corruption in fictitious road projects involving high-level officials in its Public Works Agency office and the Freeport case, which is a battle between the government and the United States-based mining company PT Freeport McMoran in Mimika regency over a contractual issue. In the first case, the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) alleges graft in the Jayapura road construction project worth Rp 89 billion (US$6.6 million), implicating a high-level bureaucrat, Michael Kambuaya.

The second case concerns a prolonged contractual issue. The government wants to change the contract of work into a special mining license through which the government wants the company to divest 51 percent of its shares, to which Freeport objects.

The cases share one obvious, but often neglected issue — inequality for the indigenous Papuans. Corruption has been highly pervasive in Indonesia, particularly in Papua.

For years, local aspirations are too easily branded as political ideas about the independence movement. Neglect of the two current cases would bring two consequences.

First, the relative neglect of the grassroots voice will result in more deep grievances toward the local and national governments, as well as multinational companies in Papua.

Corruption involving officials and politicians generates popular belief among Papuans that those elites are oblivious of the grassroots’ misery.

Since 2012, some regents and local politicians in Papua have been involved in abuse of public expenditures. In 2013, the regent of Sarmi was involved in a corruption case related to the use of the local budget to renovate his house. Reports in 2014 highlighted alleged misuse of Rp 22 billion of the local budget for personal interest by 44 West Papua provincial legislative council members.

Furthermore, although Freeport contributes to local communities through taxes and surrounding infrastructure, its operation has displaced many locals, particularly the Amungme (highlanders) and the Kamoro (lowlanders) tribes, apart from harming the environment.

Mining disputes should not only focus on the company’s increased contribution to Jakarta and to the growing nationalistic sentiment among Indonesians. It should seriously consider views from the indigenous Papuans.

As a result of being relatively neglected, the corruption and corporate practices have turned into the main narrative among Papuans, leading them to express their grievances politically. As scholars note, such grievances have become part of their identity since Papua became part of Indonesia in 1967.

As the Indonesianist Edward Aspinall notes, abuse of public authority also leads to a discourse of deprivation, a singular narrative of Papuans being neglected in all spheres. This discourse is further used by political actors, local activists, cultural leaders and society figures to pursue various agendas in Papua.

Based on my fieldwork, the stories of being sidelined by the local and national elites are the main topics shared in indigenous Papuans’ daily conversations, such as in daily jokes (mops Papua).

Second, the absence of indigenous Papuans’ perceptions on pivotal issues, such as corruption and the mining company’s operations, cast the conflicts into political terms: the grassroots against the local elites, national elites and the mining company.

Historically, three collective actions have been used, namely public protest, international campaigning and military campaigning. These collective frames have gained different levels of public support as the main driving force for mobilizing indigenous Papuans.

Since the downfall of Soeharto in 1998, public protest has been the prominent instrument for expressing local aspirations in Papua’s coastal and highland areas.

Intensive international campaigning on Papuan independence is another instrument for political entrepreneurs to channel local discontent about the relative lack of inclusion by the government. Military campaigning by the Free Papua Movement (OPM), which was the prominent means of collective action during Soeharto’s authoritarian regime, is a less likely option for expressing Papuans’ discontent today.

Apparently the continuous neglect of the local perception regarding inequality will remain in coming years — given the lack of an effective mechanism to oversee abuse of authority for personal interest while corruption in the local government cannot be tackled instantly.

The dispute between the central government and Freeport may not be resolved soon, while other disputes may emerge.

As usual, indigenous Papuans are likely to continue to be spectators in such cases.

Without serious efforts to bridge the grassroots perception as part of national concerns, the discourse of deprivation will be the main narrative for the indigenous Papuans, to be used by political actors in the form of collective action frames. The narrative will be used to continually mobilize local sentiment against local and national governments and against multinational companies as well.


The writer, a researcher at the Marthinus Academy Jakarta, conducted fieldwork in Papua in 2016.


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