After new Indonesian president Joko Widodo appointed his self-consciously titled 'working cabinet' late last year, activist Andreas Harsono from Human Rights Watch took calls from no fewer than nine of Jokowi's ministers or their staff. All of them had listened to Jokowi's promises during the election campaign to pay more attention to Papua and West Papua, and wanted to learn more.
Harsono was just one of what he says was a number of sources for these ministers, yet the level of ignorance they displayed in these conversations was acute.
Only weeks later, they proved it in spades. In late October, the Minister for Development of Disadvantaged Regions Marwan Jafar blundered into one of the most sensitive issues in Papua — the influx of non-Papuans — by announcing there was 'still a lot of land in Papua' and that he wanted to encourage many more Javanese people to migrate there as happy 'homesteaders'.
Home Affairs Minister Tjahjo Kumolo followed the next day, saying his 'priority' was to split the half-island into even smaller administrative units. Tjahjo is a loyalist of Jokowi's patron, Megawati Sukarnoputri, and it was her decision as president in 2003 to split the province into three (later revised to two, Papua and West Papua). Her military intelligence gurus had told her it would weaken the independence movement and make it more difficult for foreign invaders to occupy.
Tjahjo said his proposed split would also be for security reasons, to guard this 'huge area' against 'foreign intervention'.
The influence of Megawati's dead hand was also quickly evident in Jokowi's appointment of former general Ryamizard Ryacudu, Megawati's ally, as defence minister. Ryamizard in 2001 had praised the killing of a key ethnic Papuan politician Theys Eluay, saying the Indonesian soldiers who murdered him were 'heroes because the person they killed was a rebel leader'.
In December, Jokowi himself also stumbled when he failed to comment, or to order an independent inquiry, into the killing of four young highland protesters by soldiers. It took three weeks, and a threat by churches to boycott his Christmas trip to the province, before he spoke up.
To the extent that Indonesians think of Papua at all, they think of a huge, rich, empty land mass that's vulnerable to exploitation and interference from foreign powers. The blame, they believe, rests with 'ABDA': Americans, British, Dutch and Australians. Australia, thanks to perceptions of its role in East Timor's independence, and the noisy pro-Papua activist movement it hosts, is especially suspicious.
How do Indonesians regard Papuans? They are broadly thought of as greedy, corrupt drunkards who need a good dose of Javanese sophistication. Racism is rife. Many sincerely believe that Papuans remain cannibals. Jakarta-based newspapers, even the English language ones, use the words 'stone-age' and 'backward' when referring to them. At soccer matches, according to jailed independence activist Filep Karma, Indonesian crowds make noises like monkeys in the direction of the Papuan team and throw bananas onto the field.
Australian lawyer and Aboriginal activist Noel Pearson said 'Only those who have known discrimination truly know its evil'. At all levels, discrimination is what Papuans face.
Two questions confront Indonesia when it comes to its easternmost provinces: economic rights and political rights.
Successive Indonesian presidents including Jokowi have emphasised economic empowerment, but the brief Abdurrahman Wahid-era experiment at more political empowerment (the so-called 'Papuan Spring') was quickly squashed by Megawati and her advisers. Papua now has 'special autonomy' status in Indonesia under which its local political elite (Papuans, to a man) are funded richly by Jakarta to govern it as part of the Indonesian system. The money is routinely rorted. But the other symbols and attributes of an independent state — the right to tax, to display flags or to sing anthems of independence — are denied.
Papua also has Indonesia's largest and most uneasy Indonesian military and police presence, edgy young men living far from home in a place they fear. Institutionally, the police and military are desperate to maintain their outsized presence because their control of the fuel- and timber-smuggling trades, as well as the trade in drugs and prostitutes, is so lucrative.
In his conversations with Jokowi's ministers, Harsono had three suggestions to make to improve the situation in Papua. Firstly, open it up to international monitors, including the Western media; secondly, release the political prisoners; and thirdly, throw some kind of bone to the military — perhaps a grace period to wind up their financial affairs and improve their performance.
In May, 2015, Jokowi, visiting the province for the second time in six months, made a start. He announced the release of five prisoners and said Western journalists would be allowed free transit to and within Papua. Both measures, however, were immediately watered down. The fate of dozens of other political prisoners, including the iconic Filep Karma, who has grown old in prison after serving 10 years of a 15-year sentence for raising the banned Morning Star flag, was left unclear. Karma has refused to be released unless he is fully exonerated and declared innocent. And the head of the Indonesian armed forces, General Moeldoko, also began immediately placing conditions on journalists' access. Officials have since confirmed that the old media registration and permission process will remain, more or less intact.
I told Andreas Harsono what journalist Victor Mambor had told me: that whatever Jokowi's heart said about developing Papua, he would fail because the old guard that surrounds him would not allow him to succeed.
'I'm afraid I agree,' Harsono said. 'He's got the right intentions, but he's just surrounded by hardliners.'
Photo by Michael Bachelard, November 2014.