Papuan representatives have called for an Indonesian election boycott and a referendum on independence instead.
It is hardly a surprise as successive Indonesian elections have failed to provide Papuans with any improvements.
On the campaign trail, Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo and his ex-military challenger Prabowo Subianto have failed to mention the rising separatist violence in the ethnically distinct provinces of West Papua and Papua.
The Papuan Liberation Army said it killed up to 31 workers on the Trans-Papua Road project last December.
“Jokowi” says the highway penetrating the resource-rich interior of the Indonesian half of the giant island of New Guinea is a key infrastructural project for his presidency. The 4,300km road is designed to allow the exploitation of vast gold and copper resources, while Papuans say they see no benefit from the mountainous region’s exploitation.
Separatist violence is an inevitable consequence of five decades of political repression and economic exploitation.
Poverty remains highest, in relative terms, in the provinces of Papua, West Papua and Maluku, all located in the far east of Indonesia, according to Jakarta’s Statistics Agency.
Papua has the lowest life expectancy in Indonesia and the highest infant, child and maternal mortality rates.
Clinics often lack staff and medicines throughout Papua, Human Rights Watch said.
But the two Papuan provinces generate massive tax revenue for Indonesia, with the
US-owned Freeport-McMoRan’s Grasberg copper and gold mine (pictured) delivering US$600 million in taxes per year.
The prized Grasberg mine has been mentioned as one factor in the refusal of the US to acknowledge the brutal murder of millions of supposed communists after the 1965 coup attempt in Jakarta.
Huge troop deployments since December to Nduga region to crush the separatists have displaced as many as 32,000 Papuan villagers, according to human rights group Frontline Defenders.
Indonesia’s army has dismissed claims that whole villages have been destroyed.
The international media and NGOs are denied access to Indonesian Papua, which has an indigenous, Melanesian population of around 4 million.
Amnesty International estimates that between 2010 and 2018, 95 Papuans disappeared in extrajudicial killings committed by the security forces. A video was recently leaked showing an Indonesia police officer torturing a suspected thief with a live snake.
“West Papua is a militarised zone. People’s everyday life is coloured by harassment and intimidation at the hands of security forces,” said Benny Wenda, who lives in exile in Oxford.
“Everywhere you go there are armed soldiers and police. This is normal. West Papua is seen as a colony of second-class citizens where Indonesia’s army can do whatever it likes,” the Papuan independence campaigner added.
This year Wenda presented a petition signed by 1.8 million Papuans to UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet, requesting UN pressure to allow Papua a referendum on independence.
“This petition was bravely smuggled from West Papua across the border into Papua New Guinea, then to Europe,” Wenda said.
Papua was incorporated into the country after a 1969 “referendum” of tribal representatives at the end of Dutch colonial rule.
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.
But Indonesia is still using the bogus “referendum” to justify its continued exploitation of Papua.
“The United Nations membership decided, almost 50 years ago, the final status of Papua as part of Indonesia,” said Indonesia’s UN representative Aloysius Selwas Taborat, clearly keen to avoid a repeat of East Timor’s independence in 1999.
“The status of Papua and West Papua as a part of Indonesia is final, irreversible and permanent,” the envoy added.
When Jokowi won the presidency in 2014, he received around 70 per cent of Papuan votes amid promises of economic growth and increased freedom. But Papuans have been disappointed by Jokowi’s first term in office.
Papua specialist Richard Chauvel of Melbourne University said Jokowi had largely failed to live up to promises to lift standards of living.
“When Joko promised to improve rights for Papuans in 2015, key military figures within his own regime came out and undermined him,” Chauvel said.
“The interest of security forces is to maintain the status quo, that’s them governing Papua. Any movement by Joko to resist that is undermined.”
And his challenger is likely to receive even fewer Papuan votes.
In the late 1990s, Prabowo was a commander of the Kopassus special forces unit that
Human Rights Watch has accused of arbitrary arrests and beatings in Papua.
Wenda called on fellow Papuans to boycott the April 17 election.
“We are not part of Indonesia and their election has nothing to do with us,” Wenda said.
“That is their democracy. We need to respect them, but we’ve voted in the past and the killing has continued.”
One thing is certain, if the Papuans are going to make progress towards independence, it will not happen in the run-up to an Indonesian presidential election.
The Grasberg mine’s profits are channelled directly out of Papua. Picture credit: YouTube