Fri, 22 Aug 2003

Take care when reading President Megawati's lips

Kornelius Purba, Staff Writer, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta,

People in Papua and Aceh need to learn from Americans about the proper way of "reading" their leaders' lips.

As a campaign gimmick to convince voters that he would not raise taxes when he was elected, U.S. president, George Bush Sr. became famous for his trademark phrase "Read my lips" in 1988. Later he also used a popular song with the theme Don't worry, be happy. Bush Sr. however, failed to fulfill his tax promise.

If we compare President Megawati Soekarnoputri's statements delivered to the people in the rebellious provinces of Papua and Aceh, we can quickly conclude that we too should be much more careful when reading her lips. But unlike Americans who may be more skeptical and take campaign slogans with a grain of salt, Papuans are among those who remember the promises, especially if it is made by the highest authority in the land, the President, and so they will keep waiting for that promise to be fulfilled -- and likely get very upset and continue making demands when they realize they have been cheated.

In her Christmas message to the Papuan people in 2001, just one month after she endorsed Law No. 21 on Special Autonomy for Papua, Megawati commented: "I believe that when the special autonomy is seriously and wholeheartedly implemented, the dream of the Indonesian nation, especially the Papuan people, can be realized."

Shortly after her Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI Perjuangan) won the general elections, on July 29, 1999 The Jakarta Post reported that Megawati broke down in tears when she said she would do her best to stop violence in Aceh.

"When I lead the country, I will not let a single drop of blood touch Aceh's soil," Megawati said.

"I will give all my love and your Arun (gas field) back so that Acehnese can enjoy their beautiful land," she said, referring to one of the largest and most profitable natural gas fields in the world, in which most of the profits end up in Jakarta or overseas.

How much should a citizen of those two troubled lands rely on such sweet promises?

Perhaps the President has forgotten her commitments to them without realizing the risk of making such a huge promise.

The Papuan autonomy law has now virtually become a meaningless piece of paper, because the government made a u-turn and now apparently thinks the law provides fertile ground for the growth of separatism in the province and thus a threat to the unitary state of Indonesia. This Sunday, Central Irian Jaya province will be born and a later two more will emerge, effectively breaking what is now Papua province into three provinces. In her instruction No. 1 this year, the President ordered the division of the province into three which will also comprise West Irian Jaya and East Irian Jaya. The President has even ignored the name of Papua -- which the Papuan people prefer -- and returned to the old name Irian Jaya.

The President probably believes that the creation of more provinces in the territory will boost efforts to improve prosperity and progress. Maybe she thinks that such a change will also end the Papuans' demands for justice over alleged human rights abuses that have been continuing for decades.

And although the President has clearly betrayed Law No. 21 on Special Autonomy for Papua, there has not been a peep out of our normally vociferous legislators. Describing the law as a final offer for the rebellious province when the House of Representatives passed the bill in 2001, now the House pretends not to know what the government, specifically, Minister of Home Affairs Hari Sabarno, is doing in Papua.

On paper, the government looks very generous in providing autonomy for the country's easternmost province, like its gesture to Aceh legalized by Law No. 8/2001 on the latter's special autonomy. The benefits that the people of Papua were supposed to enjoy was that they would get to have an indigenous Papuan as their governor and the appointments of provincial police chief and head prosecutor must get prior approval from the governor, thus hopefully ensuring that the Papuans get leaders that they approve of and respect.

In reality, however, both the Papuans and the Acehnese were only promised these benefits, but most of them have never been delivered.

The East Timorese were actually the first unhappy citizens who were promised special autonomy. But they are clearly luckier than the people in the above two provinces, because the United Nations had never recognized Indonesia's claim on the tiny territory, while Aceh was recognized as part of Indonesia since its independence in 1945, and Papua/Irian Jaya generally has been recognized since the 1960s.

Upset that his offer to grant special autonomy did not receive an enthusiastic response from the East Timorese as he expected, then president B.J. Habibie hastily agreed to what amounted to an independence referendum in the territory. At that time Habibie and all the president's men firmly believed that the East Timorese loved Indonesia so much that they would vote for his special autonomy offer, not independence -- hence many were shocked with the referendum result (about 80 percent voted for independence) leading to a free East Timor.

As for the Papuans, while they now show strong signs of acceptance of the promise of autonomy, the government has conveniently forgotten the existence of the autonomy law.

The special autonomy laws for Aceh and Papua are the product of the current legislature, with the full involvement of President Megawati in their deliberation. Former president Soeharto cannot be blamed for these laws along with all other things that he is blamed for -- he was not the one offering the candy, even though most of the alleged human rights abuses occurred on his watch.

People in the two provinces may now be at a loss as to whom their complaints should be addressed to and who is still concerned about their plight. Perhaps they could just write: To whom it may concern.