The Problem with Asmat

Irawan Ronodipuro

IO – In a recent event at the University of Indonesia celebrating its sixty-eighth anniversary, Zaadit Taqwa, who heads the Student Executive Board, stood up in silent protest after a short speech by President Jokowi. Taqwa, holding above his head a yellow card much like a soccer referee would to caution a player, was then ushered out of the hall by the president’s security guards.

The president’s spokesman, Johan Budi, tried to brush off the incident, saying it was actually a yellow chorus book being held by Taqwa; but Taqwa quickly quashed the president’s spin doctor’s interpretation by explaining it was in fact a symbol of protest, mainly against the government’s failure to properly address widespread cases of malnutrition and disease in Papua’s Asmat regency.

Humanitarian organizations share Taqwa’s critique.  They believe the national and local governments have been negligent in their late response to the health crisis, which erupted last September, and they are looking for signs the Papuan authorities and Jakarta will implement new policies to prevent future crises, which are quite common in the Asmat regency and other parts of Papua, as well.

Instead of addressing the underlying causes of the problem, so far we have failed to see any constructive steps being taken.  One example is a late-January meeting between President Jokowi, Home Affairs Minister Tjahjo Kumolo, Papua Governor Lukas Enembe and Regent of Asmat Elisa Kambu.  In that meeting, Jokowi suggested relocating the Asmat, numbering around 100,000 people over an area of nearly 24,000 square kilometers, to neighboring regencies in Papua. Wisely, Asmat regent Elisa flatly rejected Jokowi’s offering of ‘help’, saying “(even though) relocation was intended by the President to make improvements, it is impossible.”

In early February the government announced the emergency situation had finally abated in Asmat.  Jokowi said the media, usually struggling to overcome restrictions on travel to Papua, were free to visit the area.  But it seems that message failed to reach the ears of officials on the ground in Papua.  When Rebecca Henschke, an editor for the BBC, filed reports from the Asmat regency showing malnourished children barely surviving off aid packages consisting of instant noodles, soft drinks and biscuits, she was swiftly detained by local military officials and expelled in spite of her possession of a travel permit.

Back in Jakarta, decision-makers inside the Jokowi administration have been busy evading responsibility for the crisis.  In an interview with Tempo magazine, Director General of Public Health Anung Sugihantono said the central government was not to blame for the late response to the Asmat epidemic, saying “we have provided the systems and  given sufficient funding.  Our role is more in budget policy and program management.”

Of course, the problems facing the Asmat peoples and others in the resource-rich yet poverty-stricken province of Papua are not solely a consequence of neglect and misguided policies by the incumbent president and his cabinet.  Previous administrations have also fallen short to address properly the lack of access to health facilities and nutritious food.

The crux of the problem is, simply put, a long-standing problem of corruption and inept management.   Since 2001, when a new special autonomy law was issued authorizing Papua to receive twenty years of funding from the national budget in the form of a block grant, there have been scant signs of Papuans enjoying better lives.

The health statistics for the residents of Asmat are particularly daunting when it comes to answering the question of what benefits the Papuans have received from special autonomy.  More than half of the Asmat suffer from malnourishment or stunted growth, and there is a serious shortage of hospitals and qualified doctors to treat patients.   The general health statistics are particularly worrisome: out of all of Indonesia’s provinces, Papua has the lowest life expectancy and highest infant, child and maternal maternity rates.

So where are the funds allocated for healthcare in Papua being spent?  In 2016 more than 830 billion rupiah was budgeted, but critics point out the main beneficiaries have been hospital owners, hospital equipment providers and doctors.   Some of the funds are wasted on workshops and administrative-related expenses.

Finance Minister Sri Mulyani has promised a review of the block grant program.   This is a first and necessary first step in resolving the challenge of recurrent heath and malnourishment crises in Papua.  Now it remains to be seen whether or not this government will take firm action to ensure future funds are spent properly and result in a better quality of living for Papuans.  If not, then Jokowi and his cabinet will certainly deserve more yellow cards.