Plural Society in Peril: Migration, Economic Change, and the Papua Conflict


Rodd McGibbon

Policy Studies, No. 13


Washington, D.C.: East-West Center

Publication Date: 2004
ISBN: 1-932728-24-4
Binding: paper
Pages: x, 86
Free Download: PDF


This study examines the ways in which large-scale migration and rapid economic change have resulted in separatist and ethnic conflict in Papua. Through a wide-ranging historical overview, this study outlines Papua's experience of socioeconomic change. In the first part of the discussion, Papua's history of contact with the colonial and postcolonial state and the demographic shifts that resulted in an evolving plural society are examined. The second part of the study draws on statistical data to describe the basic features of contemporary society. It identifies the main fault lines of class, ethnicity, tribalism, and religion along which conflict has surfaced in recent years.

The main argument advanced here is that rapid modernization and demographic change have resulted in the displacement and dislocation of Papua's indigenous population, fueling Papuan resentment and persistent demands for independence. Better-educated settlers have dominated the growing market economy and, in the process, sidelined Papuans from the resulting economic benefits. Large-scale flows of migration into the province have also sharpened Papuans' sense of shared identity. Together these processes of marginalization and mass migration have given rise to a collective sense among Papuans that they are facing a serious threat to their demographic and cultural survival.

This study supplements other research on Papua that has focused on the territory's troubled decolonization process in the 1960s and the emergence of a Papuan political identity. In addition to the importance of these processes, socioeconomic change—especially mass migration—represents a key element in explaining the contemporary conflict in Papua. If the earlier experiences of decolonization were constitutive of a distinct political identity, the alienating impact of Indonesian rule has galvanized Papuan opposition to the state while sharpening ethnic boundaries between Papuans and outsiders.

The study analyzes recent census data to show how hundreds of thousands of migrants from other parts of Indonesia have resettled in the territory since 1970 either through official transmigration programs or as unsponsored economic migrants. The rapid social change resulting from these processes has been experienced by Papua's indigenous people in terms of economic dislocation, growing pressure on resources, environmental degradation, and above all, a sense of being overwhelmed by the influx of migrants.

The state's promotion of rapid socioeconomic change in Papua has been based on a dual strategy of exploiting the rich resources of the outer islands while promoting mobility from labor-surplus regions. This strategy has resulted in a major movement of labor into the outer islands. It has also encouraged the development of large resource projects as well as the entry of smaller commercial interests into the extractive industry in Papua. This resource mobilization strategy has had interlocking economic and security objectives. Not only is it meant to boost national development, but such policies have sought to stimulate economic interactions across ethnic and regional lines and thereby promote a sense of belonging to a single nation. Movements of labor—both official transmigration and unsponsored migration—are intended to mix people together and dilute primordial ethnic affiliations seen as a threat to the unity of a state.



Far from enhancing national integration, however, the government's policy of modernization has spurred local resistance. The resource mobilization strategy was translated on the ground into what many Papuans saw as a resource grab by outsiders. The security forces' role in protecting resource companies against local demands for traditional rights has become a deep source of resentment. Belying the assimilationist aspirations of the Indonesian government, modernization has sharpened ethnic divisions in Papua and undermined the territory's integration into the state. In fact the growth in Papuan resentment has given rise, not only to a sense of ethnic discrimination by the state, but to a specific set of grievances related to indigenous rights and the encroachment of external forces on traditional lands and resources. Papuan leaders argue that the government has pursued a deliberate policy of populating the province with migrants in order to dilute Papua's indigenous culture and overwhelm its people. These criticisms have been at the core of Papuan agitation for independence internationally as well as the mobilization of pro-independence support domestically.

But rapid social change has not only fueled Papuan nationalist mobilization. It has given rise to ethnic and tribal tensions in the province as well. Large-scale migration and rapid economic growth have been accompanied by increasing competition for land and resources between settlers and local communities, heightening ethnic divisions in Papua. Not only has Papuan/settler conflict surfaced, but divisions within the Papuan community itself have been sharpened as internal migration and local competition over economic opportunity have exacerbated traditional tribal rivalries.

Recent state policies have deepened such ethnic and tribal tensions. In fact, key elements within the state have exploited communal and tribal sentiments by adopting a divide-and-rule strategy to weaken Papuan resistance to resource exploitation and central government rule. The most controversial element of this strategy has been the attempt to create new provinces—a measure that has set off a scramble for resources and competition over new government positions with tribal overtones. In fact, both the Suharto regime and post-Suharto governments have pursued highly divisive policies in Papua that have themselves been a major source of conflict. Such divisive forces have contributed to persistent social conflict in Papua.

Now there is a threat that social conflict could trigger a widespread outbreak of communal and ethnic conflict as in other regions of Eastern Indonesia. So far Papua has proved relatively resistant to efforts to widen the conflict. It remains unclear, however, whether further inflows of settlers will overwhelm the mechanisms for social management of ethnic relations that have so far kept conflict from spiraling out of control.

This study concludes with a set of recommendations. The most pressing task before the government is to improve basic welfare and public services for the vast majority of Papuans who live in isolated communities. Without an improvement in basic education in remote areas, Papuans will continue to be marginalized from the economy, exacerbating local resentment and alienation. Furthermore, the government should abandon plans to resume a large-scale transmigration program to Papua and commit to consulting with the provincial government and local leaders in developing a comprehensive population policy for Papua. This policy should take into account the deleterious effect that mass migration has had on the indigenous people.