West Papua is on the brink of another bloody crackdown
“Destroy them first. We will discuss human rights issues later. here are the reported words by Bambang Soesatyo, president of the People’s Consultative Assembly to the Indonesian Army (TNI), last month.
He was talking about the indigenous peoples of the disputed territory of West Papua, who are seeking independence from Indonesia. This has raised fears that West Papua is once again on the verge of a brutal crackdown – or worse – carried out by Indonesia’s elite security forces, including the infamous Kopassus.
The world didn’t say anything about these events when they happened – they were carried out out of public view. If violence is committed again, the world cannot in all conscience turn away.
Months of growing tension
The immediate catalyst for this latest military intervention was the fatal shot Brigadier General Gusti Putu Danny Karya Nugraha, Indonesian intelligence chief in Papua, April 25. claims by members of the West Papua National Liberation Army, the TPN-PB.
Danny had traveled to the Highlands area to investigate the murder of two teachers and a youngster, who were accused by the TPN-PB for being Indonesian spies.
After the murder, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo ordered state security forces “to hunt and arrest” all armed militants and Bambang threatened to “crush” the rebels.
Read more: Riots in West Papua: Why Indonesia must answer for its broken promises
We know from recent accounts what such revenge can look like.
In February, an Indonesian soldier was shot and killed by separatist fighters in the central highlands of Papua, and security forces set out to find his killer. During their interrogation of the inhabitants of a village, they shot a young man, Janius Bagau, in the arm, shattering his bone.
His brothers accompanied him to a health clinic for medical treatment. While they were there, the three men were would have been tortured and killed, according to Janius’ wife, who was interviewed by Reuters.
The military claimed the men were members of the TPN-PB – the armed wing of the larger separatist group called the Papua Free Movement (OPM) – and attempted to take up the soldiers’ guns and escape. However, a spokesperson for the group said none of the men were members.
The murder of Danny, Indonesia’s chief intelligence officer in Papua, is sure to result in similar reprisals. In the aftermath of the shooting, the government officially declared the Papuan separatists “terrorists”, as human rights groups warned could lead to more abuse.
The army also deployed 400 elite soldiers known as “The forces of SatanTo the region, which had previously participated in operations in Timor-Leste and Aceh.
And a leading figure in independence, Victor Yeimo, was stopped for alleged treason, sparking widespread protests in the troubled region. At least two cities have been without internet service for weeks.
Displacement under the guise of development
In 1971, Papuans made up over 96% of the population in the two provinces of Papua and West Papua, to the west of the island which they share with Papua New Guinea. Now Papuans in urban centers and coastal regions represent less than half population due to the inland migration of non-Papuan settlers in recent years.
Many Papuans believe they are facing a slow motion genocide because they are gradually marginalized and their lands are forcibly expropriated for military-supported logging, palm oil and mining operations.
One of the main reasons for the escalation of the conflict in recent years has been the policies pursued by Jokowi. He believes that economic development will trump Papuan nationalism and pushed for accelerated development as a remedy for the conflict.
Read more: Papua: How Indonesian President Jokowi tries – and fails – to win hearts and minds
The main one of these projects is the construction of a highway through the highlands region to the coast which will “open” the interior of Papua. These are the very regions where Papuans remain in the majority and retain some control over their lives.
Where Jokowi sees economic development coming from the road, Papuans see more soldiers, logging and mining companies, and more Indonesian settlers. Three years ago, TPN-PB force kill at least 24 Indonesian road workers who they claimed to be Indonesian army spies in an attempt to stop construction of the road.
Since then, the area has been heavily occupied by the military, resulting in the expulsion of some 45,000 people from their homes.
Papuan fighters see the conflict as a legitimate war of national liberation against foreign invaders. The TPN-PB reportedly signaled that it could start targeting non-Papuan settlers if Papuan civilians are killed or injured in the military crackdown, which seems very likely.
This opens up the horrific possibility of an inter-ethnic conflict between the settlers and Papuans, which to date has been largely avoided.
Read more: Fight for freedom: new research to map violence in the forgotten conflict in West Papua
Indonesia successfully resolved, albeit with great difficulty, the other two armed conflicts that had troubled the nation for decades: Aceh (still part of Indonesia) and Timor-Leste (which became independent). Through dialogue and foreign participation, however, peace was finally achieved.
There has been no substantial dialogue between the Jakarta rulers and independence supporters in West Papua to date. The United Nations has been ineffective in resolving the conflict, and the world, except some Pacific nations, has turned a blind eye.
As global attention has been riveted on Palestine, Myanmar and the plight of the Uyghurs in China in recent months, it is time to speak out against the atrocities unfolding on Australia’s doorstep.
Ronny Kareni, expert advisor to the West Papua Project at the University of Wollongong, contributed to this report.