Indonesia’s ‘new’ security approach in Papua is fraught with risks
The Indonesian military has offered a “softer” and more “humanistic” approach to dealing with the turbulent security situation in Papua. But that could be misguided and premature.
Indonesia’s new military leader, General Andika Perkasa, is pursuing a new approach to managing the deteriorating security situation in Papua. During his fitness and aptitude test in the Indonesian parliament in early November 2021, General Perkasa promised that he would abandon a heavy combat approach and replace it with a softer one,’humanistic approach‘ in place. This decision was publicly supported by Vice President, Ma’ruf Aminwhich oversees the policies of Papua, and the army chief of staffGeneral Dudung Abdurrachman.
The new approach will see soldiers in Papua doing more civic missions to win the hearts and minds of Papuans. Apart from carrying out combat missions, the soldiers will also serve as teachers, healthcare workers or infrastructure builders. It is hoped that by being closer to the ground, troops will be able to persuade tribal leaders not to support rebel groups.
To operationalize the new approach, existing “non-organic combat troops” in Papua, currently under the command of military units outside Papua, will be reassigned to the Papua Regional Territorial Units of the Army.
A problem with this approach is that it is well known that the military commands in Papua do not have enough personnel and territorial units to deal with the security unrest. There would still be a need for non-organic troops from outside Papua. Between 2019 and 2021, according to Hipolitus Wangge, a graduate student at the Australian National University who compiled the military deployment data, on average about 9,000 additional troops were deployed per year to Papua.
The existing territorial organization of the army in Papua, particularly at district (Kodim) level and below, is woefully inadequate. There are only 22 Kodims in the region. (It is estimated that a Kodim in Papua consists of around 700-900 soldiers.) Ideally, there should be 60 Kodim in the two Military Regional Commands (Kodams) in Papua. General Perkasa plans adding eight new Kodim in the near future.
To alleviate personnel shortages and reduce reliance on combat forces outside Papua, so-called “Special Self-Reliance NCOs” (non-commissioned officers, Bintara Otsus) has been created. The army and the police plan to recruit 3,000 young indigenous Papuans serve in the police and the army. This recruitment program has been ongoing since early 2020, when General Andika was still the Army Chief of Staff. These Special Autonomy NCOs are educated and trained in Java. They were “grafted” to Kodims across Java to learn about the TNI’s “territorial approach” – which is unique to Indonesia and emphasizes the “dual function” of the military (dwifungsi) doctrine to engage in military and civic missions.
Significantly, funding for the formation of this Papuan unit comes from the Special Self-Reliance Fund rather than the state budget. This suggests that this decision is motivated by the intention to use more indigenous Papuans to confront Papuan separatism. But therein lies some potential dangers. The creation of the Special Autonomy NCOs has the potential to sow divisions among the indigenous Papuans and perpetuate conflict rather than extinguish it.
Activists and civil society organizations reacted to the change in security approach with caution and some skepticism. Several organizations, including the National Human Rights Commissionwelcomed the plan – partly because there had initially been a misunderstanding in equating the new humanist approach with the withdrawal of troops from Papua.
Operations aimed at winning the hearts and minds of the population are generally aimed at sustaining military gains made after combat operations. The sharp increase in the number of attacks between 2020 and 2021 suggests that combat operations are far from over.
Others have been more cynical. Rev. Socrates Yoman, President of the Fellowship of Baptist Churches in West Papua (PGBWP) said the decision was ‘just a change of clothes’ for non-organic troops. Similarly, West Papua National Liberation Army spokesman Sebby Sambom not to beleive the TNI’s promise to withdraw non-organic troops from Papua and dismissed the humanist approach as “absurd”.
Cynicism aside, any real move to downplay combat missions and prioritize civic missions may be a bit risky and premature, as the security situation in Papua has continued to deteriorate. Based on data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), National Liberation Army/Free Papua Organization (TPN/OPM) attacks on the TNI have increased sharply over the past three years.
Number of TPN/OPN attacks against TNI/Polri, 2015 – 2021
|Year||Number of attacks|
|2016||N / A|
Usually, the “territorial approach” is carried out only after successful combat operations. Operations aimed at winning the hearts and minds of the population are generally aimed at sustaining military gains made after combat operations. The sharp increase in the number of attacks between 2020 and 2021 suggests that combat operations are far from over.
It is still too early to measure the success and sustainability of General Perkasa’s change in approach to Papua security. Moreover, he only has ten months to fully implement his plans, as he is due to retire at the end of this year. But based on the current realities on the ground, it looks like achieving success may take a long time.