Tomorrow’s Indonesian election will be especially tense in West Papua, where activist groups are calling for a boycott of the poll, and some have been arrested by the Indonesian military.

The call for a boycott is led by the West Papua National Committee (KNPB), and a video released called “Boikot Pilpres 2014” (boycott election 2014) features five leaders of different activist groups, united in calling for a peaceful boycott. It features Benny Wenda, exiled founder of International Parliamentarians for West Papua, and political prisoners Victor Yeimo, Filep Karma and Forkorus Yaboisembut speaking from jail. There are also reports that activists have been treated with violence and that approximately 23 activists have been arrested.

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Dr Jim Elmslie, an expert on West Papua from the University of Sydney, says that locals are terrified of the military and “the boycott is not being promoted down the street, it’s a quiet campaign”.

“What is interesting this time is the Indonesian police and military have been increasingly strident to people about the boycotts. They’ve made threats that they’ll shoot on sight people promoting the boycott. There’s a very high level of tension in West Papua at the moment,” he told Crikey.

The boycott is the latest way in which West Papuans are drawing attention to their cause, because as Dr Eben Kirksey from UNSW says, “it’s really because they don’t have a choice”. According to Kirksey, West Papuans want to vote on self-determination, not to legitimise the status quo. The unity of the different groups shown in the video is important, according to Kirksey.

The video emphasises the importance of peace and avoiding intimidation, with President of the National Federal Republic of West Papua Forkorus Yaboisembut’s comments translated as “for the citizens of West Papua who don’t participate in the election as well as for those who do participate in the election, do not intimidate others or create conflict”.

The result of the election between Prabowo Subianto and Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is still too close for observers to predict with any confidence, though Jokowi has a slight lead in the latest polls.

While experts and activists agree that a win for Prabowo would not be positive for West Papuans, opinions are mixed on Jokowi, because while he has engaged with West Papuans, there is doubt that he could change the status quo .

Kirksey says if Prabowo wins tomorrow, it would be “apocalypse” for West Papuans. Ronny Kareni, Melbourne-based West Papua independence advocate, said: “We all know Prabowo’s history; there won’t be any brighter days ahead for Papuans.” As a general in 1996, Prabowo led a controversial military mission in West Papua in which a Red Cross helicopter was used and several locals were killed. He has also been accused of war crimes in other conflicts.

“Prabowo has made his views known on his style of government, the reversion back to the hardline approach,” Elmslie said.

Jokowi is seen as a more liberal candidate. He has visited Papua twice in recent times. Kareni says that Jokowi’s comments that international media should be let into West Papua have gone down well with locals; “that’s a strong sign to win the hearts and the votes.” Elmslie also says that Jokowi is well-liked from engaging with Papuans at the street level.

But the experts agree that even if Jokowi were to win the election, it still wouldn’t be great news for Papuans. “If Jokowi wins the fear is that it will be a bright and shiny plan but the marginalisation will continue and the demographic shift will continue,” said Kirksey. “We’ve seen development programs on paper, but my fear is that if Jokowi gets in then those development plans will continue and those problems won’t be addressed.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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