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Indonesian Papua on the Edge?

12 Nov 2021
By Robert Lowry
Village on the edge of sentani lake at dusk. Source: 	Maurits Tolip

Indonesian Papua has seen increasing levels of violence. The Indonesian government is pursuing a soft power response with mixed success.

On 31 October, the Catholic priests of the Timika Diocese called for a ceasefire in Intan Jaya Regency and talks to resolve the issues underlying the upsurge in Organisasi Papua Merdeka (Free Papua Movement, OPM) activity in the central highlands. Since January this year, 17 soldiers and police officers have been killed, and 26 have been wounded in clashes with the OPM, of whom 22 were killed and several wounded, while others were detained.

In the process, schools, government offices, two aircraft, and construction machinery have been destroyed. Several airfields have been closed periodically. 23 civilians have been killed, and another 13 were injured mainly by the OPM, while others were caught in crossfire. In addition, thousands have sought refuge in neighbouring villages or local churches and military and police posts.

The upsurge in violence over the last three years is a consequence of several factors. These primarily include  the distrust between Papuan officials and the central government, the building of the trans-Papuan highway, and the growing presence of Indonesian territorial and other military forces, the reduction of government funding leaking to the OPM, and ineffective government.

The OPM is estimated to have about 70 firearms and about 150-200 active members, and their objective is an independence referendum.. Their strategy is to create enough instability to force Indonesia to bow to their demands or become exasperated and intensify military operations that would attract international attention and condemnation. In pursuit of that strategy, the OPM has attacked non-Papuan workers, including teachers and medical staff, in the highlands with the aim of forcing them to flee, which many have done. Papuans suspected of spying or being reluctant to support them have also been targeted. Such actions have also prompted thousands of Papuan civilians afraid of being caught in crossfire to flee, drawing domestic and international attention.

Indonesia’s objective is to incorporate the two provinces of Indonesian Papua (Papua and West Papua) into the nation. Its strategy is to facilitate development of the Papuan economy and the potential of its human capital. All Indonesian governments have given some attention to Papua, but none more so than the current government under President Joko Widodo. Jokowi has visited the province about 20 times since he came to office in 2014. Special autonomy funding was extended for another two decades this year, infrastructure development has been increased during his presidency, and a major national sporting event, PON, previously only held in Java and Sumatra and involving thousands of athletes and officials, was held in Papua in early October.

A law and order, or “soft”, approach supported by the military has been adopted to deal with and deter OPM violence. However, this is difficult, especially in the rugged central highlands where support is often hindered by inclement weather. Roads in the region are few and vulnerable to damage, blockage, and ambush. Moreover, this soft approach means that the military is not permitted to deploy air power, artillery, or mortars against the OPM.

This approach was tested in April when an army brigadier heading the Papuan office of the National Intelligence Agency was killed in an OPM ambush. The chair of the combined houses of parliament (MPR), called for the OPM to be dealt with without regard for human rights restraints. Jokowi did not bow to this pressure, but ordered the military and police chiefs to pursue and detain all the separatists. This choice was viewed as necessary due to the forthcoming PON that would be held in venues in Merauke, Jayapura, and Nabire. Additionally, for the first time, national counterterrorism legislation was applied to five organisations comprising about 200 members mostly located in the central highlands.

As a result, operations were intensified. With the help of about 11,000 troops and police officers, the PON was conducted without incident. After the closing ceremonies on 15 October, the military and police chief thanked their forces for their work in securing the games but warned that they must not let their guard down and be prepared for further OPM operations. A little-reported incident that began during the PON indicates how seriously the threat to the games was taken, how frustrated the security chiefs are about the situation in the central highlands, and how flimsy support for the “soft” approach might be.

On at least three occasions between 10 and 23 October, military helicopters fired rockets  and dropped mortar bombs on several villages in the Kiwirok sub-district of the central highlands, not far from the PNG border. While no casualties were reported, hundreds of villagers fled, prompting calls from civil society groups for the government to cease such actions. It demonstrated that the Indonesian National Military (TNI) was ready for all contingencies, however it also demonstrated an incapacity to deal with actions in such remote and difficult terrain.

Despites its frustrations, the government has no need to fear international intervention – it is not another East Timor. It has the time and the resources to manage and eventually overcome the challenges it faces, provided it recognises the complex challenges Papuans are confronting in making their transition to the modern world. This is an intergenerational challenge that will not be resolved by money or force alone.

Bob Lowry is author of The Armed Forces of Indonesia (Allen & Unwin, 1996) and former president of the ACT Branch of the AIIA. 

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.