Indonesia’s parliament on Thursday approved a law to create three new provinces in its underdeveloped region of Papua, a move critics fear could undermine the position of the area’s indigenous population and threaten special powers of autonomy.
The easternmost region of the Southeast Asian nation, currently divided between Papua and West Papua, will now be divided into five provinces, with the addition of South Papua, Central Papua and Highland Papua.
The government says the decision will help boost development, improve public service delivery and create more opportunities for Papuans to become civil servants in the resource-rich area that remains one of the country’s poorest regions.
Tito Karnavian, Indonesia’s interior minister, said after the vote that the main goal of the legislation was “to accelerate development in Papua to increase the well-being of the Papuan people, especially the indigenous Papuans.”
But the plan has sparked protests in Papua, which has seen a low-level independence conflict since a disputed UN-supervised vote in 1969 brought Papua under Indonesian control.
Critics fear it could take more power from an area that is home to some of the world’s largest gold and copper deposits.
“By dividing Papua into smaller administrative units, Jakarta hopes to divide and conquer Papuan identity and resistance,” said Veronica Koman, an Indonesian human rights lawyer at Amnesty International Australia, who sees an increased risk of militarization and violent clashes.
In an interview with Reuters in April, Papuan People’s Assembly (MRP) chief Timotius Murib said the legislation would lead to an influx of non-indigenous Papuans into new government posts and was introduced without sufficient consultation, an allegation that the government has denied.
Changes to Papua’s special autonomy law last year allowed the central government to create the new provinces, prompting the MRP to claim the change undermined autonomy and file a judicial review in the constitutional court.
Indonesia’s Interior Ministry said the government would comply with the court’s ruling.