Living Without A State

Nov 30, 2012
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People in rural Papua are more interested in basic services than grand political struggles.

1285 The path from Lolat to Bonohaik. Every day children in Bonohaik walk back and forth to a functioning parallel school on this path. It takes them 1.5 hours, barefoot. PHOTO: Bobby AndersonIndonesian Papua is not a uniform entity. When outsiders think of Papua, they imagine provincial and national-level political conflicts and protests against Indonesian rule. But this is only the reality for a minority of Papuans in the major towns of Jayapura, Wamena, and Timika, and their suburbs. Outside of select groups within these areas, most people do not engage in political issues related to referendum protests, dialogue with Jakarta, or Merdeka (independence).

Instead, local fissures count more in day-to-day politics. In the province, most people’s primary loyalties are not to an idea of ‘Papua’, nor are contending loyalties to ‘Indonesia’. Instead, most people are above all loyal to their clan, with even broader tribal loyalties being secondary. Loyalties to Papua or Indonesia come a distant third, at best. Whilst Jayapura and Wamena host numerous and often competing groups who agitate for independence, and while a few areas such as Puncak Jaya host active insurrectionists, most of rural Papua is an underdeveloped and detached space where political conflicts are entirely local.

In most places outside of the towns, the key issue is not that Papuans reject the Indonesian state: it is simply that the state plays little or no role in their lives, for better or for worse.

A society without a state

The subdistrict of Lolat, in the newly-created central highlands district of Yahukimo, is illustrative of conditions in the isolated areas where most indigenous Papuans live. What is important to Lolat’s people, and what they lack, is much more immediate and profound than the questions of autonomy or independence that are generally assumed by outsiders to dominate the political thinking of most Papuans. The area lacks any semblance of government, and there is no access to services such as health and education.

Just as Papua ranks 33rd out of 33 Indonesian provinces with regard to Human Development Indicator measurements, so Yahukimo ranks as one of the worst of Papua’s districts. Yahukimo is also one of the most remote areas of Indonesia; it is assessable only by plane. The district has no roads (except for those found within the new district capital, Dekai), and travel within Yahukimo is only possible by foot or airplane; in the lowlands, small boats are used. Yahukimo was created in 2002 when politicians separated it from Jayawijaya district. They said doing so would improve service delivery in isolated areas, bring government closer to its constituents and make it more accountable and transparent in the process. The anticipated benefits of this process did not occur. Rather, the opposite happened, and government, for all intents and purposes, disappeared.

Lolat subdistrict can be reached only by air, from Wamena or Dekai, or by foot. The subdistrict is three days’ walk from Wamena, and two days’ walk from Dekai. The subdistrict centre, Kampung Lolat (elevation 1,959 metres, population 1,110) hosts an airstrip made of pulverised rock, empty government offices, a locked community health centre (puskesmas), and empty schools. Only a few of Lolat’s inhabitants speak Indonesian. There are no shops: a barter economy exists in place of cash, and wealth is found in livestock, namely pigs. The area is populated by the Yali tribe.

Lolat was only ‘contacted’ by outsiders in late September 1968, when an Australian missionary, Stanley Albert Dale, hiked into Lolat’s Seng valley from Ninia. He was killed by the Yali and eaten. Months later, the Indonesian military hiked into Lolat, killed a few men, burned a few homes, and left. No security actor has since returned.

Lolat’s older men remember the killing of Dale and the state’s retaliation. They have no other memory of the coercive elements of the state and they have zero experience with those groups who agitate against it. The area has no mobile phone coverage: news travels via shortwave radio only. Children in the area are visibly malnourished, with bloated stomachs and stunted growth. At the time of the author’s visit, men were noticeably absent from the area, with most working in Wamena or Dekai. The men who were present were usually armed with bows, arrows, and machetes. A local NGO, Yasumat, runs five parallel schools, 19 health clinics, and four health posts. While paid teachers and health care workers are absent, a cadre of local volunteers strives to provide needed services.

From church–led development to state collapse

In Yahukimo, as in other parts of the Papuan highlands, local churches and missionaries provided health and education services prior to the end of the New Order era in 1998. Back then, schools and health centres were staffed and functional, and midwifery services, immunisation programs, and mother and child health programs were easily accessible. The system was paternalistic, but it was relatively effective.

Civil servant absenteeism, now a veritable epidemic in the highlands, was less of an issue, as civil servants were required to be at the posts to which they were assigned; dismissal due to frequent absence was, in that era, possible. Churches and NGOs worked in place of the state to provide health and education services. But they worked with the state’s blessing and in cooperation with it to pay government salaries to the teachers and health care workers on-site. These workers thus did not have to leave their posts and travel to towns to collect their wages, by flight or several days’ walking, as they do now. As these systems were run by local churches, management of workers was direct.

After the end of the New Order, local governments took over health and education services. But this happened without a clear rationale and in the absence of sufficient understanding in provincial and district centres as to the role that churches played in remote areas. Some government officials saw the takeover as a means to move into the provision of services which they had always viewed as being the proper responsibility of government. Others believed that church influence should be lessened. No doubt some simply wanted to gain access to the funds that these services provided.