Fears of Conflict Escalate in Indonesia’s Papua


By: Ainur Rohmah

The Indonesian government is labeling armed civilians fighting for independence in Papua as terrorists, a move feared to further escalate conflict in a region that has long been struggling with the issue of separatism. The Free Papua Movement immediately retaliated by threatening to “exterminate” security forces and civilian migrants in Papua if the government continues that policy.

Violence has been long been a fixture in the territory, which was annexed by Indonesia in 1963. A firefight a week ago between the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) – the armed wing of the Free Papua Organization (OPM), and Indonesian security forces killed the head of the government’s Papua Intelligence Agency, Brig. Gen. I Gusti Putu Danny Karya Nugraha.

“If Indonesia continues its program of terror and genocide against the civilian population of West Papua (as it has for nearly 60 years) and the international community does not intervene,” said OPM Diplomatic Council Amatus Akouboo Douw, “independence fighters will announce a campaign to annihilate not only the Indonesian military occupying [Papua] illegally, but also illegal Javanese and other Indonesian settlers who continue to steal the holy land and resources of the West Papuan people.”

Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Mahfud Md. recently announced that armed separatist groups in Papua as well as members and supporters – which the government calls armed criminal groups – are terrorists. The government, he said, has asked related officials such as the State Intelligence Agency (BIN), army and police “to take immediate, decisive and measured action”. The anti-terror Datasemen-88 is also planned to be involved in dealing with the armed groups.

In fact, acts of violence in Papua are also allegedly committed by security forces. According to Amnesty International Indonesia’s records, from February 2018 to March 2021 at least 49 cases of alleged extrajudicial killings were carried out by security forces with a total of 83 victims, mostly civilians. Several cases of gross human rights violations have not been resolved, such as a 2014 tragedy which killed five people, and the Wamena Incident of 2003 in which nine died.

Papua, a former Dutch colony, was declared part of Indonesia through a referendum in 1969. More than 1,000 representatives –handpicked by the Indonesian military and officials– were allowed to vote in a referendum that declared the area rich in natural resources as part of Indonesia. Although the vote was recognized by the international community, many Papuans rejected it because it was considered fraudulent. Separatist struggles in this province have been burning since then.

Indigenous Papuans are racially different from the majority of the population in Indonesia and closer to Melanesians such as residents of neighboring Papua New Guinea, as well as the Pacific island nations such as Fiji and Vanuatu. Papuans are often racially discriminated against, and development has been slow –especially during the dictatorial era of Suharto – while exploitation of natural resources including one of the world’s biggest gold mines at Grasberg managed by the US-based mining giant Freeport McMoRan continues.

Subsequent government efforts to develop Papua, including through the pouring of hundreds of trillions of rupiah into special autonomy funds, have failed to dampen the desire for independence. President Joko Widodo has tried to win over the Papuan people through a series of visits to the province, in contrast to previous presidents. He also freed five political prisoners during his first term to little avail. 

The large number of migrants from other islands, particularly Java, has raised additional problems and concerns that indigenous Papuans will become a minority in their own land. Anti-migrant sentiment expressed by pro-independence groups has often sparked violence as seen in the events of Wamena in 2003, in which Indonesian military forces swept the area and forcibly relocated indigenous people, and Tolikara in 2015 in which security force fired on a demonstration by Christian Papuans, killing one and injuring 11 others.

Research from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) concludes that there are at least four root causes of the continuing conflicts in West Papua, namely marginalization of society, failure of development, issues of political status, and human rights violations against Papuans.

Mahfud claimed that the latest government policy is strongly supported by the army and national police, the House of Representatives and Papuan community and custom leaders themselves. Even House Speaker Bambang Soesatyo encouraged the government and security forces to immediately crush the insurgents. Human rights affairs, he said, “can be discussed later,”

However, Papua Governor Lukas Enembe called on the government and the House of Representatives to carefully review their decision labeling the insurgents as terrorists, arguing it might bring more harm to Papuans in general, stirring up prejudice against Papuans residing outside of Indonesia’s easternmost province and who have no association with the separatists.

The government will later use Law Number 5 of 2018 concerning the Eradication of Criminal Acts of Terrorism, which establishes the authority to detain law violators for up to 21 days without charge, a rule widely criticized by human right activists because the possibilities for torture and the loss of the right to communicate with family or lawyers.

Human rights activists are worried that terrorist labeling is loaded with a security approach that will perpetuate violence in Papua, instead of solutions that prioritize aspects of humanism. It is also feared that a broad-scale military approach will terrorize civilians sandwiched between armed groups and the Indonesian army, as has been the case so far.

“The government has repeatedly changed the label on armed groups in Papua but the problems there are still not resolved,” said Amiruddin Al-Rahab, deputy head of external affairs of the National Commission for Human Rights (Komnas HAM). He added that transparent law enforcement should be prioritized rather than the labeling. He said he fears escalated violence in the field after the designation.

The head of the research organization SETARA Institute Hendardi said he believes the Indonesian government is in a desperate point of being able to resolve the long-running problem of separatism in Papua.

Instead of building a Jakarta-Papua dialogue and reducing the security approach, the government has emphasized the choice of violence for handling Papua, he said. “The labeling of terrorists and their follow-up operations is Jokowi’s worst policy towards Papua.”

Hendardi forecast that the terrorist label will result in closing the Jakarta-Papua dialogue recommended by many as a way to build peace. Second, he said, as has happened so far, the escalation of violence will have a direct impact on the Papuan people, forcing them to flee to seek safety, loss of economic income, school truancy, disturbed health and environmental sanitation, etc.

Third, the labeling of terrorists opens a greater opportunity for the institutionalization of racism and continuing discrimination against Papuans in general, given the unclear definition of who is declared a terrorist, he said.

“The realistic choice for Papua is a peaceful settlement starting with an agreement to end hostilities, establish dialogue and formulate an agreed development scheme.”

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