A spate of shootings in Papua over the past month is fuelling charges that trigger-happy Indonesian soldiers are only exacerbating unrest and pro-independence sentiment in the resource-rich region.
Indonesia has maintained a strong military presence since it annexed the former Dutch colony in 1969, despite granting it more autonomy in 2001. Some estimates suggest that more than 14,000 troops patrol the restive province.
“Special autonomy isn’t working because Jakarta has failed to win the hearts of Papuans,” said Socratez Sofyan Yoman, a Baptist minister and pro-independence activist.
“Their military and police treat us like animals. So we’re seeking better dialogue and an end to the intimidation,” he said.
Part of the movement to escape Indonesia’s grasp is to claim more benefits from a wealth of natural resources in Papua, which has attracted foreign giants such as BP and US miner Freeport McMoRan.
Violence occurs regularly at Freeport’s massive gold and copper mine, a symbol of the Papuan struggle, with many claiming a spiritual attachment to nature and resenting outsiders who they say strip the land bare of resources.
Since a German tourist was shot and wounded on a Papuan beach on May 29 by suspected separatists, seven civilians and a soldier have died in shootings and other violence, according to the human rights group Kontras.
Police have tended to blame the pro-independence Free Papua Movement, which celebrated its 47th anniversary on Sunday. It urged Papuans to raise its banned Morning Star flag for the occasion.
But police now suspect that the National Committee for West Papua (KNPB), a separatist youth group, is behind some of the violence.
KNPB representatives, however, say the group is unarmed and accuse police of trying to orchestrate violence to blacken the independence movement and of covering up investigations into fatal shootings committed by its officers.
They point to the shooting and killing of KNPB vice chair Mako Tabuni last month, an incident that led infuriated pro-independence activists to demand a full explanation from the national parliament.
“We came to Jakarta ask the president for a new approach,” Septer Manufandu of the Papuan NGOs Cooperation Forum said.
“They say they want dialogue with us, but they continue their intimidation through their soldiers and police,” he said.
Police claimed Tabuni was armed and resisted arrest before they shot him, but activist groups quoted witnesses as saying he was shot by men in plainclothes from a passing car.
Activists also claimed that soldiers acted with impunity on June 6 when they opened fire on the town of Wamena, shooting 17 people, killing one and torching 87 homes in response to the murder of a soldier by someone in the community.
Police said the soldier had been stabbed after he knocked down a child while riding a motorcycle. But information is hard to verify because foreign journalists are de facto barred from the region.
The Reverend Benny Giay, a prominent activist, said that Jakarta needed to ask why there was such strong pro-independence sentiment in Papua, Indonesia’s easternmost province which occupies half of the island of New Guinea.
“It’s because we are treated like animals, like nothing, on our own land. Our sentiments didn’t just fall from the sky,” he said.
However, Jakarta refuses to revisit the 1969 UN-backed “Act of Free Choice” referendum that validated its claim to Papua. The referendum was widely seen a sham, with Jakarta hand-picking 1,026 people to vote on behalf of all Papuans.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said Friday that there would be “no discussion or dialogue about the separation of Papua” and that Indonesia’s sovereignty over Papua was “legal and final”.
The government has tried to engage local leaders in dialogue to carry out policies that suit both sides, but Papuans are growing weary of the process, analyst Muridan Widjojo from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences told AFP.
“It’s a little contradictory – Jakarta wants to take a dialogue approach at the same time it takes a militaristic approach, so it has lost the trust of the people,” he said.