The New York Times, By Joe Cochrane
JAKARTA, Indonesia — Yanto Awerkion knew quite well that he would infuriate the local Indonesian authorities for organizing a meeting to discuss a petition for an independence referendum in the strife-torn Papua region — but he did it anyway.
“I was exercising my right to free speech,” said Mr. Awerkion, a senior official of the West Papua National Committee, a pro-independence organization, who said his ensuing arrest on accusations of treason was the third time he had faced charges for his political beliefs.
The local police, however, did not see the case as a free-speech issue. He was arrested after the gathering in his hometown Timika, where he is vice chairman of the local branch of the independence committee, in May last year on charges of trying to overthrow the state. He was jailed for 10 months.
At his trial this March, Mr. Awerkion, 28, was convicted of treason under an archaic Dutch colonial law, but released on Easter Sunday for time served.
“During the trial, there was no proof I was involved in treason,” he said in a telephone interview after his release. “And I wasn’t. As a member of the young generation, I have to fight against injustices.”
Comparatively speaking, Mr. Awerkion got off lightly. At least three Papuans considered as political prisoners by human rights groups are serving lengthy prison sentences for promoting independence from Indonesia or raising the separatist flag of the armed Free Papua Movement in public. Dozens of others supporting the cause have been incarcerated in recent years.
Indonesia, despite its largely successful transition to democracy in 1999 after decades of authoritarian rule, continues to be criticized for the plight of its easternmost region of Papua — split into the provinces of Papua and West Papua. Despite being some of Southeast Asia’s richest regions in terms of natural resources, the two provinces remain among the country’s poorest.
Human rights groups have reported a long list of official abuses there, in the name of fighting a small, armed separatist movement. They include arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial killings, official corruption, rigged local elections, and police and military personnel who use abusive tactics.A street market in Timika in Papua Province. The Papua and West Papua provinces are troubled by high rates of poverty, illiteracy and infant and maternal mortality.CreditBay Ismoyo/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
“They are using colonial laws to arrest people in modern, democratic Indonesia,” said Calum Hyslop, an Australian who is a longtime political observer of the Papua region. “They fail to understand the difference between freedom of speech and real acts of armed separatism.”
Indonesia’s Papua region lies on the western side of New Guinea Island, the eastern side being the nation of Papua New Guinea.
Indonesia annexed the former Dutch-controlled region in 1963, and took sovereignty after the 1969 Act of Free Choice, a vote on whether to remain part of Indonesia. Opponents say the voting was rigged, as only handpicked representatives were allowed to vote, rather than the entire population. There has been a small-scale armed rebellion ever since, most notably by the Free Papua Movement.
Mr. Awerkion’s organization, the West Papua National Committee, is not armed and is a nongovernmental organization supporting a referendum on Papua’s future.
Over the decades, the Indonesian government’s human rights record in the Papua region, formally known as Irian Jaya, has drawn widespread criticism. Pro-independence activists have been tortured, murdered or have gone missing, with no arrests or prosecutions. The recently released United States State Department report on Indonesia said of Papua: “The lack of transparent investigations continued to hamper accountability in a number of past cases involving security forces.”
Development in the region is further cause for concern. Papua Province is home to one of the world’s largest gold and copper mining operations, run by the Indonesian unit of the American mining giant Freeport-McMoRan, and a large natural gas plant in West Papua Province, run by a local unit of BP.
But some of the region’s demographics are comparable to sub-Saharan Africa, according to analysts, with an alarming gap between Papuans who live in coastal areas and those who live in the remote highlands, mostly only accessible by airplane.
Most Papuans live in rural areas, and poverty rates there are the highest in Indonesia, at around 41 percent, compared with only 5 percent in urban areas. Papuans have the highest rates of illiteracy in Indonesia, with around 25 percent of children not in school, and the region has the highest infant, child, and maternal mortality rates in Indonesia, while having the lowest basic child vaccination rates.