Why Indonesia is not tackling the conflict in West Papua


It has been more than a month since an armed group kidnapped Phillip Merthens, a New Zealand-born pilot, in Nduga, West Papua, Indonesia on February 7, 2023. The group is the Liberation Army of West Papua. Known by its acronym TPNPB, it is an armed wing of the Papua Liberation Movement (OPM).

As local media reported, TPNPB, led by Egianus Kogoya, a local commander, stormed Susi Air’s small plane after it landed, set it on fire and took the pilot hostage. TPNPB then took him to his stronghold, where it would use him as its “political lever”. The military and police still have no idea where TPNPB is hiding the pilot, mainly due to terrain issues.

However, the army has raided villages to get information about the whereabouts of the armed group. Intimidated, some Papuans have fled their villages in the Nduga and Lanny Jaya regencies. A deadly riot broke out after the kidnapping, and most recently armed clashes between the group and security forces have killed both civilians and soldiers in the Yahukimo and Puncak regencies.

All this clearly shows that there is no end in sight to the intensified hostilities that have plagued West Papua over the past six years. But the reality is that none of this is surprising.

To understand this mounting escalation, it is essential to look at the failure of successive Indonesian governments in responding to the crisis.

The central government is focusing more on tackling the consequences than the causes of the conflict. Its anti-insurgency policies – whether through development programs, a special autonomy for the region or outright military operations – are aimed at reducing the TPNPB’s indigenous discontent and violent attacks to manageable levels. There has been no sincere political process between the central government, indigenous Papuans and nationalist groups in West Papua.

Therefore, this policy has met with distrust among indigenous Papuans, even as the TPNPB armed group has developed more deadly capabilities to attack civilians and security forces.

It is worth remembering that the roots of the conflict are not new and have been building up since the 1960s.

Since the western half of the island of New Guinea and the easternmost region of Indonesia, commonly referred to as West Papua, became part of Indonesia in 1969 through a widely criticized referendum called the Act of Free Choice, there has been little of stability. This controversial referendum – in which the military under threat of violence selected less than one percent of West Papuans to vote for integration with Indonesia – set a precedent for how the Indonesian state ignores the interests of the Papuans.

From the 1970s to the 1990s, the Indonesian government settled hundreds of thousands of people from other parts of the country in West Papua through its transmigration program, aiming to forcibly change the demographics of the region and take control of the region, even though the government also started military actions. activities. The result: a decrease in the number of indigenous Papuans on their own land, countless deaths and mass displacement.

Because of these measures, Papuan identity – unlike Indonesia – did not arise from cultural, religious and physical differences, but rather from racial discrimination by the state, combined with the past and present grievances of the indigenous Papuans.

The conflict has led to both a non-violent movement and an armed struggle to defend the identity and rights of the Papuans.

When Joko Widodo became president of Indonesia in 2014, there was hope for a solution to the crisis. He released a handful of Papuan political prisoners and vowed to tackle the 2014 Paniai human rights abuses, which related to an incident in which the Indonesian military fired on hundreds of Papuan protesters, killing four teenagers and wounding more than a dozen others in the highland of Papua. A pledge to open West Papua to foreign journalists was seen by many as another sign of Widodo’s good will.

However, the commitment to dealing with the conflict fell apart in the waning days of his first administration.

Under Widodo’s second government since 2019, Papuan grievances have intensified. Rather than addressing the root causes of the conflict, the state has focused on development and infrastructure programs, including the Trans Papua highway under construction in some West Papua regencies, a food estate, a special economic zone, strategic tourism areas and palm oil plantations.

The main beneficiaries of these initiatives are mostly non-indigenous Papuans living in coastal and urban areas. Indigenous Papuans, especially those in highland areas, hardly reap the benefits of development projects. Instead, they live in constant fear and trauma due to escalating violence. Every time an armed confrontation breaks out between security forces and TPNPB, hundreds to thousands of civilians are caught in the crossfire and suffer displacement and other human rights violations.

In 2019, racist remarks against Papuan students led to peaceful demonstrations that then turned violent across Papua. In 2021, instead of acknowledging and resolving such entrenched racism and discrimination against Papuans, Indonesia revised the special autonomy for the region first introduced in 2001 for another 20 years. It has also divided the region into six provinces. This top-down policy – ​​implemented without broad consultation with the Papuans and their representatives – reflects a desperate strategy aimed at containing the conflict rather than resolving it, and exposes the failure of the central government.

Meanwhile, TPNPB has consistently rejected state policies, including economic activities, in highland Papua. The group has warned against the continuation of commercial flights and has even shot down a handful of planes flying over highland areas. It has demanded that non-Papuan citizens leave conflict zones. The pilot’s recent kidnapping suggests that the TPNPB believes its previous warnings have fallen on deaf ears.

But the conflict and its escalation also highlight the unresolved transgenerational trauma that Papuans continue to endure. This, amplified by the availability of relatively sophisticated weapons – accessible to TPNPB through illicit trade with the military and police, as well as illicit stockpiles from Papua New Guinea, Thailand and the Philippines – has fueled armed campaigns in Nduga, the poorest regency, since 2018 , made possible. in Indonesia.

Indeed, TPNPB has recruited its members primarily by capitalizing on the deep grievances of the Papuan youth. I know, because as a local volunteer in 2019, I spoke to a handful of displaced children from Nduga who were interested in joining the armed group due to deep-rooted trauma and hardship living in precarious conditions. They barely received a good education in their district and were excited about meeting teachers and studying at an emergency school built by local humanitarian volunteers. Yet the Indonesian government has systematically failed to recognize and address transgenerational trauma among victims of armed conflict in Papua, especially children. This is in stark contrast to the massive deradicalisation programs elsewhere in the country.

At the same time, TPNPB has adapted its combat capability to intensify armed attacks against the state and civilians. The financial support of her sympathizers has also increased. The organizational structure has been modernised, with Papuan youth occupying key positions. Finally, the use of social media to counter government narratives by exposing the state’s abuse of power has become increasingly sophisticated.

In short, Indonesia’s relationship with the Papuans only seems to be getting worse.

It doesn’t have to be that way. A lesson from armed conflicts in the deep south of Thailand and in Mindanao in the southern Philippines is that the presence of credible and trusted individuals or groups is crucial to trigger peace talks. That is an element that is missing in the Papuan conflict.

The pilot’s arrest is only symptomatic of this trust gap. It’s a deficit that’s only getting bigger, and the Indonesian government has no one to blame but itself.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial view of Al Jazeera.

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