Economic marginalization of the indigenous population in Indonesia's easternmost Papua region is fuelling conflict, experts and activists warn.
Papua, home to ethnic Melanesians, has experienced a low-level separatist conflict for decades, while a recent political standoff with the central government over political representation has sparked growing calls for a referendum on the region's status.
"If you go to small towns in highland Papua, every single store will be owned by a non-Papuan. This is the only part of Indonesia [where] every store is owned by a non-Papuan," said Brigham Golden, a Papua scholar from Columbia University in the United States.
There have been several incidents this year when migrants were attacked and killed in Papua. In May, a migrant store owner was killed and another injured when gunmen attacked them in Puncak Jaya Highland District, police said.
Golden said violence interpreted as political resistance was in fact cultural.
"Western Indonesians are perceived as a kind of incursion of a tribe. It's not really separatism per se but it's a kind of cultural resistance to cultural incursions," he told a discussion organized by the Jakarta Foreign Correspondents Club on 12 August.
Frederika Korain, an activist with a Papua-based NGO, the Office of Justice and Peace, said the influx of migrants from other parts of Indonesia was causing a population imbalance and warned of "disastrous" consequences.
In some towns migrants were already the majority, she said. "They benefit from economic opportunities. So many new buildings, supermarkets, [but] who are the owners? Where does the money go? Does it go to Papuans?"
Earlier this year, government plans to develop a food estate in Papua came under fire for potentially marginalizing small farmers and threatening the environment.
Korain said in remote areas, indigenous Papuans had no access to health services, education or economic opportunities.
Photo: Jefri Aries/IRIN
|A traditional food market in Papua|
The International Crisis Group (ICG) warned that a political impasse – after the government's recent rejection of an initiative that all candidates in district elections be indigenous Papuans - could fuel radicalization.
The initiative, proposed by the Papuan People's Council, stemmed from fears that Melanesian Papuans were being rapidly swamped by non-Papuan Indonesians, the ICG said.
But the government in Jakarta argues such a requirement would violate national laws and be discriminatory.
"The gulf between the two might be reduced by dialogue, but any prospect of serious talks is hampered by an unwillingness of Jakarta to treat the problem as essentially a political, rather than an economic one," the ICG said.
The group urged President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to talk to credible Papuan leaders about how political autonomy could be expanded, affirmative action policies strengthened in all sectors and fears about immigration addressed.
"Unless these three issues are tackled head-on in face-to-face meetings, the impasse is unlikely to be broken and increased radicalization is likely," it said.
Johannes Djonga, a Papuan Catholic priest, said increasing tension between migrants and indigenous Papuans was causing concern.
"So far there have not been major ethnic frictions but everywhere I go, people express similar complaints: that they are helpless because whatever they do is futile because they have to compete with migrants with capital and skills," he told IRIN.
He said local small traders were forced to sell their goods on the streets because they could not afford to rent space in the markets.
According to human rights groups, despite its huge natural resources, the region remains one of the poorest and least developed in Indonesia.
In 2001, Papua, Indonesia's largest province, was granted special autonomy status in an attempt to reduce renewed calls for independence. After its original short-lived independence, the region was temporarily administered by the UN before being officially annexed by Indonesia in 1969.
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