Jakarta. England could hardly be any further from the Indonesian province of West Papua but for the exiled leader of the Free West Papua movement, Benny Wenda, the people in his homeland absorb almost all of his energy and thoughts — now more than ever.
“I want to send a message to the people of West Papua wherever they may be. This is time to choose your own future, own destiny,” Wenda told the Jakarta Globe ahead of the presidential election. “We are going to boycott the vote, we must boycott the vote.”
For the former political prisoner, and many other Papuans like him, the struggle for equality in their restive and poverty-stricken province has cumulated in disdain for the Indonesian political system. Instead of succumbing to yet more “empty promises,” several factions within the Papuan community including Wenda’s Free West Papua movement and the National Committee for West Papua (KNPB) are using this election as a platform to make their demands for independence known.
“We are considered subhuman, second-class citizens so we never feel confident in the government … for the last 50 years we have voted and in return all we have had is the military and killing.”
In an attempt to quell the anti-state sentiment brewing in the region, Indonesian security forces are making their presence in the province known. Thousands of police officers have provided security in the lead-up to the election in designated areas; Jayapura (the provincial capital), throughout the highlands and along the border with Papua New Guinea.
Yet the “security” status of the military personnel deployed throughout the province is becoming increasingly questionable as instances of killings, imprisonment and beatings are being reported.
According to an article published on Berita Satu.com, police in the Mimika district arrested 30 protestors on Friday who were distributing flyers to encourage the election boycott. Lt. Raffles Manurung, of the Indonesian Military (TNI), told the news portal that the protestors face a maximum penalty of 10 years behind bars for their actions.
“Mimika is now secure,” the commander confirmed, adding “we must be vigilant over security concerns especially since the presidential election is such a big moment.”
Moreover, in the lead-up to the vote, numerous cases of reported beatings and killings throughout the West Papuan region are being published by pro-independence blogs such as Suara Duka Dari Papua as well as the Free West Papua Facebook page. While these cases are difficult to independently verify, according to Oktovianus Pogau, the editor in chief of the Jayapura-based news site Suara Papua, targeted attacks on supporters of the boycott movement are happening on a daily basis and he reports that many Papuans have been threatened to vote.
“It’s difficult to estimate how many attacks have occurred,” Oktovianus told the Jakarta Globe, “but they are frequent.”
For Wenda, who receives messages around the clock alerting him of abuses inflicted on his people, his message is clear. “If there was any democratic space for us in West Papua we would be able to freely express our political opinions," he said, adding that the military has threatened "destroy" Papuans who refused to vote.
This lack of faith in Indonesian democracy is often expressed by many Papuans, especially the youth, who question what they feel is a contradiction.
“I do not feel any democracy even though Indonesia is said to be a democratic country,” says Ruth Otegay, a 27-year-old Papuan student and rights activist living in Jakarta.
“People who declare expressions and certain beliefs are still arrested, tortured, killed or jailed. So even though Indonesia is declared to be democratically free, it is not valid,” she said.
While he can understand why many of his people feel disheartened, Karel Phil Erari, deputy chairman of the Alliance of Churches in Indonesia — who last month delivered an address to a human rights panel in Geneva urging the international community to acknowledge the persecution happening in West Papua — says it’s important for the Papuan community to remain engaged in Indonesian politics despite how jaded they may feel.
“I encourage all Papuans to use their right to vote,” the outspoken Joko Widodo supporter said, who recently met with the presidential candidate, better known as Jokowi, to discuss his commitments to Papua.
“We are tired of fighting so we must find ways to have a peaceful dialogue with Jakarta, and Jokowi has promised this,” Karel said, adding: “Jokowi is a new hope for the Papuan people.”
Andreas Harsono, of Human Rights Watch in Indonesia, agreed that it is important for the Papuan people to use the political process as a tool to better their lives but he says he is not entirely convinced by Joko’s capability.
“I can totally understand if Papuans will vote for Jokowi mainly because of human rights abuses. But I am afraid Jokowi cannot deliver as much as the Papuans want in Papua,” Andreas said, adding that long-held allegations of vote buying and rigging have further discredited democratic ideals in the region.
Additional Reporting by Raisha Vierginia