Rebuilding after communal violence: lessons from Tolikara, Papua

Human rights Conflict management Indonesia


The first anniversary of an outbreak of communal violence in Tolikara, Papua is approaching, with a fragile reconciliation in place and many issues left unresolved. The “Tolikara Incident” on 17 July 2015 has been variously portrayed as an issue of religious intolerance (Christians toward Muslims), the product of indigenous-migrant tensions, and miscommunication. But to reduce it to one or two causes is to miss the point of the complexity of violence in Papua. It is all of the above and much more: poor governance, poor policing, corruption, isolation, and the residue of previous conflicts that have accumulated under the surface into a toxic mix. A campaign is now beginning to heat up for the election of district head in 2017 that could ignite old grievances. Among Tolikara’s many urgent needs is for the best police chief the country can offer but the likelihood of turning a remote post in Papua into a prize for the best and brightest is slim.

Tolikara erupted after local leaders of the Evangelical Church of Indonesia (Gereja Injili di Indonesia, GIDI) issued a letter on 11 July 2015 forbidding Muslims to celebrate Idul Fitri at the end of Ramadan because of an international revival meeting that was taking place near - by. On 17 July, Muslims went ahead with Idul Fitri prayers, and GIDI youth threw rocks at the worshippers. Police at the mosque fired warning shots, but then the exact sequence of events becomes less clear. Other shots were fired from a different location, killing one youth and wounding eleven others. Several GIDI men set fire to kiosks that doubled as homes for the owners, destroying close to 60; most were owned by non-Papuan Muslim migrants from other parts of Indonesia, although a few belonged to indigenous Papuans. As the shops went up in flames, the local mosque caught fire and burned to the ground. More than 100 people were displaced. The Jokowi government moved at once to stop the “burned mosque” narrative from inflaming Muslim emotions elsewhere: one senior official after another arrived from Jakarta, bearing aid to assist the newly homeless and rebuild the mosque and kiosks. Two GIDI men were arrested for provocation, but the investigations raised more questions than they answered, and when the guilty verdict finally came down in February 2016, both men were sentenced to time served and released. Neither the arsonists nor the shooters were ever identified.

The two sides saw the government’s response very differently. The Christians, all indigenous Papuans, saw Jakarta bending over backwards to help non-Papuan migrants rebuild their shops and mosque and prosecute the provocateurs of the violence while showing less zeal for identifying and prosecuting the shooters. The Muslims who lost their homes and shops saw all the aid as a poor substitute for the only thing that would make them feel secure: acceptance by the local community. Muslims in other parts of Indonesia blamed the government for failing to take preventive measures that would have prevented violence in the first place and favouring the Papuans by failing to prosecute the arsonists. In the meantime, the accepted spin on events is that everyone has apologised to everyone else, and everything now is fine. In fact, much distrust remains, and some of the measures taken to respond to the violence may have inadvertently created new problems:

  • Shophouses were rebuilt on contested land, and now a giant new Lippo hospital is being constructed on similarly disputed land.
  • The prosecution of the two men has left lasting resentment, especially because neither was responsible for arson, but no one else was ever arrested.
  • The failure to quickly establish the facts in a satisfactory manner has left open room for conspiracy theories that are likely to exacerbate intra-Papuan relations.
  • The new mosque, said to be temporary but more likely to be permanent, is on the grounds of the subdistrict military command, giving the unfortunate impression of a Muslim-military link.
  • One well-known radical Muslim, Ja’far Umar Thalib, is still talking of plans to build a school in Papua so that his students will be ready to come to the aid of any Muslims under attack. His plans have been roundly rejected by all local Muslim organisations and government officials.
  • Discontent with some of the solutions is already being exploited by candidates in the upcoming 2017 district election in a way guaranteed to rekindle rivalries that led to major intra-Papuan violence in the 2012 campaign.

It is tempting to see Tolikara as the inevitable result of indigenous Papuan resentment over the influx of migrants who have the networks, the capital and the education to take advantage of economic opportunities thrown up by unprecedented levels of government funding. But it is too facile an explanation: it does not explain why Tolikara erupted when it did or why many of the migrants had lived in Karubaga, the capital, for years without incident. It also lets too many others off the hook.

This report is a first attempt to put the violence in context, but it will be important to continue to monitor political and social dynamics as the 2017 election approaches. It is based on two visits to Tolikara by IPAC consultants and additional interviews with some of the key players in Jayapura and Jakarta. IPAC also had access to several primary sources, including provincial and kabupaten government documents and the trial dossier in the case of one of the two men arrested.

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