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Social Control

West Papua


Indonesian migrants find themselves pawns
in a war for control of West Papua,
reports Andrew Kilvert.

'W HEN I've got enough gold I'm going back to Surabaya,' says Usman. As he speaks he pans for gold in the silted river running through the central market and slum area of the West Papuan capital, Jayapura. He continues: 'I went out there because I was given land... The Government told us that we would be looked after if we moved there; they bought us plane tickets and told us we would have a good house, but out there it is very bad. Panning for gold in Jayapura is much better, I can make 100,000 rupiah in a single day (US$7).'

Irian Jaya - or West Papua, as it is called by those resisting the Indonesian occupation - has been the recipient of one of the most remarkable migration programs in recent history - the Indonesian Government's Transmigrasi Project. Since the 1960s, three-quarters of a million people have been moved there, mostly from the more densely populated central Indonesian islands of Bali and Java.

On my way back through the market, I come across an old man whose red-stained stumps of teeth bear testimony to a lifetime of chewing betel nut, the narcotic drug of choice. As I stand and chew with him, he leans over and gestures at the passing traffic. 'The Javanese migrants are no good. We want them to go home. Already too many of them have come over here. They think they are better than us but they are wrong. Life was much better when the Dutch were here.'

West Papua transferred from Dutch to Indonesian control in 1962 as a Cold War appeasement to President Sukarno, because the US feared that he was going to support the Eastern bloc. This occupation was ratified in 1969 by the United Nations in a vote called the 'Act of Free Choice'. Rather than being a majority vote by the people, it was carried out by a group of 1,025 who were selected by the Indonesian military (ABRI), and intimidated into 'choosing' Indonesian control.

Since then, proponents of the transmigrasi policy argue that the migrants are needed to develop the 'undeveloped' lands in the outer provinces. The Indonesian Government considers all forested lands to be 'undeveloped' even if they are being used for traditional purposes by indigenous peoples. At the current rate of migration, the West Papuans will have become a minority in their own country by the year 2010. Merely using the term 'West Papua', signifying the land is not Indonesian, puts their lives in danger.

[image, unknown]
Gold rush - Usman and others
left the migration camps for Jayapura

As one of the Amungme people, who live in mountains of southern West Papua near Timika, Tom Beanal witnessed the arrival of the first transmigrasi projects to the south of their lands in 1982. 'Life became very difficult for us after the transmigrasi camps began,' he says. 'Many, many military came with the transmigratees. We already had the copper mine squeezing us on one side and now we were being pushed out of our land on the other... The local people became very angry because the Government provided food, electricity and housing for the transmigratees but we received nothing, not even compensation for our lands.'

When asked about the role of the military in establishing the transmigrasi projects, Tom recalls: 'They killed many, many of our people. They moved us from our mountain down to the swamps in the south where many more of our people died from malaria because we are not used to it like the people on the coast.'

During my first visit to Arso, a camp near the border with Papua New Guinea, three migrants were killed in one day by what was reported in the local papers as being the Free West Papua rebels fighting for independence. However Jayapura-based human-rights activist John Rimbiak believes it is more complicated than this: 'The army have formed special units which carry out kidnappings and murders against the local transmigratees which they then blame on the indigenous peoples. It is a tactic that they have used very effectively in other provinces such as East Timor as it gives them an excuse to then carry out reprisals against local peoples. It also provides a justification for their continuing occupation in such large numbers.'

In the Timika district, it is not only the Amungme, but also the Dani, Moni, Ekari, Damal, Nduga and Kamoro tribes who have lost some of their land. Tom explains: 'So many transmigratees came that the local peoples were pushed further and further away, with less land to hunt and garden on. Because of this, many groups were forced to fight each other over the remaining land... The army did nothing to stop these fights. The land is our tradition; when we are forced from it, that tradition breaks down.'

But it is not only the indigenous peoples who have suffered. On the fringes of Jayapura city I am led down a side road to a group of rough shanties clustered under a mango tree. I am introduced to Dodi and Ekam, who spent two years in the transmigrasi camps at Bongo, near Arso. They tell me their story: 'The Government promised us land and housing and told us that we would be looked after until we could get our food crops going, but when we arrived there was no road to get our goods to and from a market. We left behind two of our children in Java so that we could have time to get ourselves established and then bring them over, but now we have nothing. After the first year in the camp the Government stopped providing us with food. At that time it was very dry and we hadn't been able to grow enough to support ourselves. In the next year 12 people died of malaria in our camp. That's why we've left, we can't live there anymore. Many people are leaving the camps to go to Jayapura to look for gold.'

What are they going to do now? They both give shrugs of helpless exasperation; 'We've been in Jayapura for a month now and still haven't been able to find work. We want to return to our family in Java but there is no way we can afford the 800,000 rupiah ($US53) for the boat. Even if we both got work it would take us years to save that amount.'

But not everyone is disappointed with their lives in the transmigrasi camps. Towns closer to markets like Doyo seem more successful. One old man whom I met in the camps there was very happy with his farm. 'I have lived here for eight years now and I like it very much,' he says. 'The Government gave me a hectare of land and a house. This year my rice crop is going very well.' On the day of my visit around the camps at Doyo there were people hard at work tending crops and building houses. At one place they were preparing for a wedding between a Catholic West Papuan woman and a Muslim man from the migrant settlement. In the centre of the camp a concrete statue shows a soldier and migrant side by side. At the base of the statue is a slogan about Indonesian unity - an ironic statement given that transmigrasi projects have catalyzed conflict and social decay.

Despite seeing an active genocide carried out against his people over the last 30 years, John Rimbiak does not bear any resentment against the migrants: 'We don't want the migrants to leave,' he says. 'You can't tell the South Africans to go back to Holland or the Australians to go back to England; we recognize this. Instead we must work out ways of living together. We want our traditional land ownership recognized. We want control of our resources - and most importantly we want to live free from human-rights abuses.'

When I ask if it was safe for John to be talking to foreigners about what has been happening, Tom Beanal, who is sitting nearby interrupts: 'Now is the time to speak about our freedom. If we don't then we lose everything.'

Andrew Kilvert is an Australian-based freelance journalist with an interest in Indonesia.

The earth moves - environmental migrants

THERE ARE 25 MILLION environmental migrants in the world today - one for every 225 people. Rampant economic development consumes natural resources, leaving wasteland in its wake. People then shift to the fringes - to try and make a living from the land corporations or governments have spared. If this continues at its present rate, the number of environmental migrants will double by the year 2010.

  • There are 135 million people whose land is under threat of becoming desert.
  • Around 900 million of the poorest people in the world, existing on less than a dollar a day, live in areas vulnerable to soil erosion, droughts, desertification and floods. 1
  • An estimated 200 million people will have to move due to rising sea levels by 2010. 2
  • Climate change is predicted to trigger the migration of 50 million people from famine-affected areas by the year 2050. 2
  • Around 550 million people already suffer chronic water shortage. Three billion are expected to live in countries without enough water by the year 2025. 2

1 International Organization for Migration Website http://www.iom.ch/

2 Norman Myers & Jennifer Kent, Environmental Exodus (Climate Institute 1995).


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New Internationalist issue 305 magazine cover This article is from the September 1998 issue of New Internationalist.
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