Carving up Papua: more districts, more trouble

9 Oct 2013

This report argues that the rapid proliferation of new districts in Papua is strengthening the political influence of highlanders at the expense of the traditionally dominant coast, but it is also producing new conflicts and complicating the search for peace.


The carving up of Papua into smaller and smaller units, each with its own election, is strengthening the coastal-highland divide and breeding new conflicts at the clan and sub-clan level, some of them deadly. At the same time, the issue of wholly unreliable voter rolls – a nationwide problem as Indonesia approaches general elections in 2014 – is so acute in Papua’s central highlands that population statistics have become a matter of negotiation, not fact. The proliferation of local governments and the conflicts created as a result have serious implications for Papua’s ability to formulate a new approach to relations with Jakarta. The solution is not to throw out direct local elections in Papua, as some top officials have suggested. Instead, the effort should be to reduce financial incentives that make administrative division so attractive and eliminate electoral practices peculiar to Papua that invite massive fraud.

Papua and Papua Barat together have undergone more administrative expansion (pemekaran) than any other area of Indonesia. What in 1999 was once a single province with ten sub-provincial districts or municipalities (kabupaten/kota) has become two provinces, with 42 kabupaten/kota. A further 33 proposals for new provinces and kabupaten are now before the national parliament. This growth has taken place without any clear strategy or development logic, other than the by now tired rhetoric of “bringing government closer to the people”.

The central government is no longer the main engine of fragmentation. In the early 2000s, in the immediate aftermath of East Timor’s independence, government security advisers in Jakarta were the major advocates of dividing Papua as an antidote to separatism. Today it is overwhelmingly local elites, motivated by a search for status and spoils that are driving the process. Ambitious local officials have an interest in creating more villages (kampung) to gain access to block grants for a village development program and more distrik (called kecamatan elsewhere in Indonesia) to reach the requisite number for a new kabupaten, where political and fiscal power is concentrated. More kabupaten raise the possibility of more provinces, and today at least three are under serious consideration.

Along the way, there is a strong incentive to inflate population statistics: more people can mean more central government subsidies, higher allocations of civil servants, and more seats in local legislatures. Unreliable population data leads to the drawing up of poor voter lists for direct elections. When these lists are combined with reliance on a supposedly traditional practice of voting by community consensus, the result can be unverifiable results and violent conflict. In the central highlands, where the proliferation of new distrik and kabupaten has been most pronounced, local candidates have even drawn relatives from the armed Free Papua Movement (Organisasi Papua Merdeka, OPM) into electoral disputes.

All this has meant that pemekaran in Papua, once seen as a useful divide-and-rule tactic, is now a gigantic headache for Jakarta. The Ministry of Home Affairs has been urging a moratorium on any further division of Papua, even as Commission II of the national parliament, responsible for overseeing regional autonomy, approves dozens of new units that almost certainly do not meet stated criteria for economic viability. The ministry would like to go backwards, rejoining some of the non-performing kabupaten with their “parent” units and ending direct local elections in favour of the old system in which kabupaten legislatures choose the executive. Instead of piecemeal dissection, it would like to see a “grand design” – not just for Papua but for the whole of Indonesia – reflected in amendments, now under discussion, to the 2004 local government law.

But pemekaran in Papua is going to be hard to stop, let alone reverse. In the meantime, it is going to affect any efforts to redirect policy on Papua, whether this in terms of expanded autonomy (called otsus plus), accelerated development or dialogue with Jakarta. Pemekaran is shifting the locus of political strength from the coast to the central highlands. It is producing a growing number of elected officials – now over 1,000 across Papua and Papua Barat, including local legislators – who want more power and are becoming more effective at lobbying in Jakarta, where many of them spend far too much of their time. But it is also producing heightened clan identities and competition among local elites that may hinder any effort to join forces in search of resolution to Papua’s enormous political, social and economic problems.

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