Papua’s time bomb

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Land politics, clan rivalry and fear in a troubled region.

As I entered the villager’s house in coastal Papua and removed my shoes, I was told to bring them in inside – otherwise the Orang Wamena (mountain clan) would steal them.

Noticing the ruins of a house nearby, I asked what the story was; Orang Wamena was the reply.

During my 10 months of fieldwork in the small village inside Jayapura district in Indonesia’s Papua region, I heard Orang Wamena, Orang Wamena, time and time again. These words were often uttered whenever anything went wrong or something bad happened.

So feared are they, that I was warned not to mess or deal with the group.

Alongside the existing decades of cleavage between migrants and indigenous people in the region, sits the longstanding cleavage between Indonesia Papua’s coastal and the mountain clan.

So bad is the current situation, that when Papua independence activist Filep Karma was released from 11 years in jail (for waving a flag) by Indonesia authorities last month, one of the first things he noted was the acute tensions between the two groups. He described them as a “time bomb.”

“If Papua succeeded and the Indonesians went home, there would already be a time bomb that may go off any time. I don’t want that to happen,” he said.

In Indonesia’s Papua region there is a common stereotype about the mountain clan that is often projected when interacting with coastal villagers. The latter often express discomfort living and interacting with the mountain clan.

The reason is primarily based on the view that the mountain clan often solve problems with violence. This stereotype is not uncommon and it is generally held by coastal clan.

For example, ‘Ibu X’, a villager from a coastal clan who works as a health promoter told me that the mountain clan would do anything for money, including fighting. Surprisingly for me, this lady was too scared to interact with Orang Wamena.

I once asked her once if she was willing to accompany me to visit some of the mountain clan. She shook her head and advised me not to meet them.

Another villager told me that Orang Wamena are easily provoked and are not capable of considering the risks and consequences of their violent actions. Furthermore, he explained that they are troublemakers who, culturally, love war.

Those who felt least comfortable with the presence of Wamena even stated that it was the time for local government to ban their arrival in the village. They stated that Orang Wamena do not have the right to be a recipient of any village development program. They feared that if they were given access to such programs, more mountain clan members would come to the village.

In the village where I was based, the Orang Wamena live separately and isolated from the coastal clan housings. Based on my interviews with their leader in the village, the Orang Wamena came from various regions in the central mountainous  regions — not only Wamena (the capital of Jayawijaya), but also from Lanny Jaya, Intan Jaya and Puncak Jaya.

The mountain first settled in the village between 1982 and 1983 to study religion at the local College of Theology. A large majority of them work as students at the college.

Some of the students’ extended family or clan members, who are supporting their education, have joined them. After completing their education, most groups stay the village and only a few return to their hometown, especially if they are accepted to work as civil servants.

A lack of development – economic, health, education and infrastructure – in the highland regions, where most of the poor native Papuans live, is one of the reasons they decide to stay in the coastal area.

In the village where I lived, the mountain clan mainly work in agriculture, a role that uses the skill sets they have mastered living in the mountain regions. They plant various types of vegetables, fruits and cash crops.

They work hard, particularly the women, usually walking through the hills in the morning and then selling their produce at market in the late afternoon.

Besides farming, some small groups of Orang Wamena, usually male, also raise pigs and ducks, and work as construction labourers.

The leader of the mountain clan also feels unease that the Orang Wamena are always blamed for any violence that occurs in the village. According to him, the coastal leaders also contribute to this violence.

So what is actually happening?

The conflict between the mountain and coastal clans can be traced in part to land politics. In the past, when a member of the mountain clan arrived in the coastal area and requested land, this was usually granted with the provision that they would support the coastal land owner during elections or any potential conflict situations.

The traditional leaders who have rented their land usually used an informal oral agreement. Coastal land owners feel that the mountain clan are physically strong and aggressive, and thus they are feared by the coastal group.

They felt safe because they now had the protection in the form of the mountain clan ‘army’ if there was any conflict. On one occasion, when a land owner nominated for village chief, the support he received from the mountain clan contributed to his victory.

But not all coastal leaders rented out their land under the provision of political mobilisation and conflict resolution. One leader I spoke with proposed specific requirements to lease his land. The first requirement was not to conduct assaults or violence.  The second condition, was to not grow long-term crops. This particular leader even gave a statement to portray how some of the mountain clan were just victims, being used as a tool by some coastal clan leaders.

When Filep Karma voiced his concerns that the racism that occurred between Papuans will be a time bomb he was right. Clan unity is essential for Papuans, if they are to successfully fight for their human rights.  While acknowledging that the conflict between Papuans and Indonesia’s central government needs to be resolved, there also should be an effort to promote more dialogue to resolve conflict between Papuans.

Yulia (Indri) Sari is a PhD candidate at the Crawford School of Public Policy, the Australian National University.