ANALYSIS: Overall, Indonesia has made great strides in democracy and human rights since Suharto’s day. Sweeping reforms have freed up the media, wiped repressive laws off the books and led to the direct election of leaders in the predominantly Muslim nation, making it a potential model for Egypt and other Arab Spring countries. But abuses still copntinue in West Papua, reports Michael Holtz from Jayapura.
Indonesia, hosting President Barack Obama and other world leaders this week, has earned praise for democratic reforms achieved since longtime dictator Suharto was ousted a decade ago. A man serving 15 years in prison for raising a flag wants the dignitaries in Bali to know how far the nation still has to go.
In remote corners of the archipelago, dozens of demonstrators have been killed in recent months, and anti-government activists continue to be thrown in jail for peacefully expressing their views. There are least 100 political prisoners, most in Papua and the Molucca islands, many of whom complain of being tortured.
“Indonesia says, ‘We’re brothers, we’re equal,’ But you see? It’s meaningless,” said Filep Karma, a prominent political prisoner with nine years left on his sentence for raising a pro-independence flag. He said he has endured severe beatings by guards who mock him for his Christian faith and spit out insults like “dog.”
The 52-year-old spoke to The Associated Press on October 23 from a location that he insisted remain secret, after he was granted a brief reprieve from prison to get medical attention.
Outside, convoys of troops rumbled down the road and soldiers stood on street corners with rifles dangling from their shoulders. Inside, others in the room nervously checked doors and windows.
Overall, Indonesia has made great strides in democracy and human rights since Suharto’s day. Sweeping reforms have freed up the media, wiped repressive laws off the books and led to the direct election of leaders in the predominantly Muslim nation, making it a potential model for Egypt and other Arab Spring countries.
Obama arrived in Indonesia for the East Asia Summit today. To the US, the nation of 240 million where Obama spent part of his childhood is a potentially powerful counterweight to China’s growing military and economic influence in the Asia-Pacific region.
The US has launched an aggressive wooing campaign, ending a ban last year on working with an Indonesian special forces unit accused of some of the worst atrocities during East Timor’s 1990s-era independence struggle. The ban, hugely embarrassing to Jakarta, was the final obstacle to normalising military ties.
Abuses continue, however, in areas including West Papua, where the government has struggled to put down a low-level insurgency that has claimed tens of thousands of lives, most at the hands of the military, according to human rights workers.
“It’s Indonesia’s dirty little secret that they still put people like Filep Karma behind bars,” said Elaine Pearson of the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
The international community shares some of the blame, she said, because of its eagerness to present the nation as a democratic success story.
Since late July, 34 people have been killed in Papua and five have been arrested and charged with treason, which carries a maximum sentence of life, according to police and rights workers.
Days before Karma’s interview, security forces broke up a pro-independence gathering in the nearby town of Abepura, opening fire on the crowd and beating participants with batons and rattan canes. Three people were killed and dozens injured.
Bambang Sulistyo, a spokesman for Indonesia’s legal and security affairs ministry, said Papuans enjoy the same rights as everyone else to stage rallies, protest or hold a congress. But the government will not tolerate any movement to separate from Indonesia or provocative acts like raising a flag known as a symbol of separatist group.
For that reason, he said, the gathering in Abepura was illegal.
“It was deliberately provocative,” Sulistyo said, adding that police fired several warning shots to control the crowd. Authorities are still investigating the circumstances around the deaths of the three civilians.
Karma and others who have been imprisoned complain of severe abuse.
“They treat us like animals,” said Yusak Pakage, a Papuan activist who was arrested in 2004 for killing a government official during a protest, a crime he says he didn’t commit.
Pakage was blinded in his right eye after being brutally beaten by jail guards, and was released from prison after accepting a conditional pardon last year.
Liberti Sitinjak, current chief at Abepura prison, denies that inmates are beaten or otherwise abused.
On Monday, 50 members of the US House of Representatives sent Obama a letter urging him to raise the issue of abuses in Papua with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono during his visit. But during his own Indonesia trip last month, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that the US would keep a watchful eye on rights abuses, but largely supports the government’s strong stance against the pro-independence movement.
Papua is the most remote region in Indonesia and the last to be relinquished by its Dutch colonial masters a half century ago. It was incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 after a UN-sponsored ballot of tribal leaders that has been widely dismissed as a sham.
Activists are regularly given 10 years or more in jail for anti-government rallies, unfurling banners or raising pro-independence flags, while soldiers who commit abuses have received much less time, if any. Even those captured on video burning genitals of one suspected separatist in Papua last year and running a sharp knife across the neck of another were sentenced to just a few months for “disobeying orders.”
The seeds of dissent were sown into Karma – who comes from an upper-class family of civil servants – in 1965 when Indonesian soldiers arrived at his home just after midnight and kicked in the door. He was 6 at the time.
“They were shouting, ‘Wake up! Wake up!’ as they overturned furniture, smashed everyone in sight,” said Karma.
“It hurt, deep in my heart,” he said. “This is where it began for me. I started to believe if Papua didn’t get away from Indonesia, we’d all spend the rest of our lives suffering.”
Even so, he remained largely removed from the independence movement until 1998, when he got involved in nationwide protests that eventually helped sweep Suharto from power. It was only after taking part in flag-raising ceremony in his hometown of Biak in July that year that it dawned on him that Papua might not benefit from the dramatic changes yet to come.
He was injured in both legs when Indonesian troops opened fire at a rally, and was thrown in jail for a year on charges of sedition.
His second arrest, the one he’s now serving time for, came in 2004. His Christian faith was openly ridiculed in court, and his 15-year sentence was three times what prosecutors had demanded.
Karma’s daughter, Audryne Karma, said the blood-drenched head of a dog was dropped off on the doorstep of his lawyers, with a note attached: “We will kill Karma.”
“We thought that the Indonesian authorities, wary of martyring my father, would grant him an early release,” she wrote in a letter that appeared last month in The Wall Street Journal. “Instead, they transformed a humble civil servant into an icon of political persecution.”
Some longtime observers remain hopeful, however, that momentum is shifting and that Karma could be freed early.
“There’s a sort of critical mass of key players who are coming together behind the issue,” Eben Kirksey, author of an upcoming book about the Papuan independence movement, said of Karma.
Karma has rejected several offers to be set free, saying he will accept nothing short of unconditional release.
“I also want an apology to the people of Papua,” he said, “because many civilians have been killed by Indonesian soldiers.”