Indonesia’s Papuan lies continue

Indonesia has opened its Sorong Special Economic Zone (SEZ) on a 524-hectare site in the troubled province of West Papua. 

Speaking at the inaugural ceremony, Indonesia’s economic minister Darmin Nasution said the SEZ would stimulate the West Papuan economy in addition to filling Jakarta’s coffers. 

The minister said the Sorong SEZ was part of government efforts to encourage investment outside Java.

He added that Indonesian President Joko Widodo was keen to see investment in Indonesia’s easternmost provinces of West Papua and Papua.

The Sorong SEZ is projected to provide 15,000 jobs in nickel, palm oil, sago and logistical warehouses. The authorities did not, however, say how many of the jobs would go to indigenous Papuans, who are increasingly outnumbered by new “Indonesian” arrivals from elsewhere in the diverse archipelago. 

Widodo announced the Sorong SEZ project in June 2016, pledging to pay more attention to Papuan development by building roads, bridges, airports, ports and industrial zones. 

Unfortunately, the impoverished Papuan population sees Jakarta’s investment as a neo-colonial policy to strip the resource-rich provinces of their natural assets by ripping through the dense, mountainous jungle with giant roads to export raw materials while allowing troops to head in the other direction to put down any unrest. 

But Jakarta does not just look to boots on the ground as a means to crush any Papuan insurgency and has been keen to also win the battle in cyberspace. 

The investigative website Bellingcat has reported that a well-funded internet campaign is promoting propaganda about Papau across the west in an apparent attempt to combat pleas for a referendum on independence. 

The website said a network of Facebook pages were running propaganda adverts across Europe and the US with funding of about US$300,000. 

Facebook said it had closed the accounts because they were “involved in domestic-focused coordinated inauthentic behaviour in Indonesia [which] created networks of accounts to mislead others about who they were and what they were doing”.

Indonesia works hard to limit international exposure to its colonial-style exploitation of the two Papuan provinces. The international media, NGOs and diplomats have been restricted from entering the region and long-standing requests to visit by UN human rights investigators are ignored.

In August the government shut down internet access amid the worst Papuan violence in years. It tried to justify the clampdown by saying the violence was sparked by exiles like Oxford-based Benny Wenda who has tirelessly campaigned for Papuan rights. 

In reality, the riots were a response to videos of humiliation and racial abuse suffered by Papuan students in the Javan city of Surabaya at the hands of the Javan police. 

Jakarta’s territorial claims to Papua are deeply tenuous but the authorities still try to justify the ongoing occupation in reference to its 1969 “referendum”. 

The former Dutch colony was incorporated into Indonesia after a highly controversial poll of tribal representatives. 

Guardian journalist George Monbiot said 1,026 men were seized by the Indonesian authorities in 1969, some of their families were taken hostage and they were told to vote in favour of occupation or their tongues would be ripped out. One man who refused was apparently shot dead. The rest unanimously voted in favour of joining Indonesia. 

“That is the sole basis on which Indonesia claims proprietary over West Papua,” Monbiot, the author of Poisoned Arrows about the province, told the BBC

While recognised sources from the international media and UN probes are forbidden access to the impoverished region, the opportunities rise for state-sponsored misinformation online. 

It is almost impressive that Jakarta makes such an effort to manipulate the narrative about Papua, which is so heavily weighted in favour of the independence movement. 

However, regardless of negative media coverage and Papuan demands for independence, Indonesia will probably face little international pressure to loosen its grip on the two provinces or allow a meaningful independence referendum. 

Donald Trump will not be pioneering the Papuan cause. And huge business interests, like Phoenix-based Freeport McMoRan, which runs the vast Grasberg copper and gold mine, will always lobby vigorously for Papuan human rights to be disregarded. Amid its bitter trade war with China, Washington is unlikely to jeopardise its lucrative relationship with Jakarta over the plight of Papua’s scattered communities. 

And Indonesia remains determined to ensure confused messages reach the west. 

Bellingcat said: “From our investigation, we know that someone was willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and invest many months of work into this effort to influence international perceptions about the situation in West Papua in favour of the Indonesian government. The scale of the operation is an indication of how determined they were to win the battle over the international narrative, as a component of the broader conflict.” 

Its investigation identified a Jakarta-based media company, InsightID, was behind one misinformation campaign about Papua.

Designers, advertising analysts, English-speaking marketers and IT specialists reportedly produced high-quality content in English and Indonesian Bahasa promoting a pro-Indonesian narrative, including stressing the government’s efforts to improve infrastructure and support growth, while condemning pro-independence activists as criminals and terrorists.

Fake social media accounts on Twitter, Facebook and elsewhere distributed content. Bellingcat said this included “hijacking search terms and hashtags, attempting to game the Google search algorithm and flooding social media platforms with their content”.

There was also a parallel campaign which harassed journalists, Papuan leaders and pro-independence activists through automated bot Twitter accounts. 

While few observers will be surprised that large sums are being spent trying to spread misinformation about Papua, no one should imagine that Indonesia’s brutal occupation of the two provinces will change soon. 

Picture credit: YouTube