Jakarta calls for renewed offensive, crackdown against Papuan rebels

Indonesian President Joko Widodo. Photo: Kremlin

The killing of an Indonesian intelligence chief by Papuan rebels has prompted calls from the president and other leaders to stamp out insurgents who support the region’s long-running independence movement.


Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo ordered security forces to scale up their campaign against armed rebel groups in Papua after an intelligence chief was shot and killed in an ambush on April 26.

General I Gusti Putu Danny Karya Nugraha, head of Papua’s regional intelligence agency, was shot by armed attackers from the West Papua Liberation Army, the military arm of the Free Papua Movement.

Fighting between armed rebels and state forces broke out on April 8, after the West Papuan Liberation Army killed two teachers and at least two other civilians who the group says were working as government informants.

General Putu Danny was reportedly visiting the area where the violence took place—Beoga village in Puncak district—when his convoy was attacked.

“He was in the area as part of the operation to restore security and to boost the morale of locals in the region following a series of attacks by separatist and terrorist groups,” Wawan Purwanto, spokesperson for the National Intelligence Agency, told AFP. He added that the setback would not hurt the spirit of government forces focused on “eradicating all national threats”.

The Papuan independence movement is more than 70 years old, though fighting between rebels and state forces has grown more frequent since 2018.

In response to the killing of the intelligence chief, Jokowi ordered a renewed crackdown on Papuan rebel groups.

“I want to emphasise again that there is no place for armed groups in Papua,” Widodo said, and ordered state security forces “to chase and arrest” all armed militants in the province of Papua.

Bambang Soesatyo, the speaker for Indonesia’s legislature, said state forces should “deploy their full strength” to “crush” the rebels. “Destroy them first. We will discuss human rights matters later,” he said, according to Indonesia media and Benar News.

Amnesty International Indonesia Executive Director Usman Hamid spoke out against the speaker’s statement, saying it could lead to an escalation of violence. “This method only perpetuates the cycle of violence that can sacrifice citizens and state officials,” he said. Usman emphasized that Papua’s armed rebels could be captured and given fair trials that avoid the use of the death penalty.

Sidney Jones, director of Jakarta’s Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), said that scaling up the military presence in Papua could easily backfire as many residents object to the government’s engagement with the Free Papua Movement.

“Obviously they have become more aggressive but more importantly, the government’s strategy to fight back didn’t work at all because it only sent troops without understanding why they are stronger now than four years earlier, and every year they are stronger,” she told Benar News.

The West Papuan independence movement is well-established. Photo: Nichollas Harrison / CC BY-SA

Violence around Papuan independence movement grows

Papua declared itself independent in 1961 but was invaded and annexed by Indonesia two years later. The region’s current movement for independence began in 1969, after a UN-backed referendum determined that the region would remain part of Indonesia. Many Papuans and observers say the vote was illegitimate and controlled by the Indonesian military—just over 1,000 Papuans out of a population of over 800,000 were allowed to vote and local residents allege that the military threatened those who did vote with violence.

The Papua region, on the western portion of the island of New Guinea, now consists of the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua.

In 2019, Indonesia saw the largest popular protests for Papuan independence in 20 years after 43 Papuan students were arrested in East Java on accusations that they disrespected the Indonesia flag.

Mining, deforestation drive disputes in Papua

Many of the ongoing controversies in Papua center around natural resources, as management of the region’s rich mineral deposits, forests and other resources is controlled by the national government in Jakarta.

Papua’s numerous mines include the Grasberg project, one of the world’s biggest copper and gold mines. Operated by state-owned companies, the mine is estimated to be worth US$100 billion. In the inlet of Bintuni Bay, energy conglomerate BP is developing a US$10 billion gas field.

These and other projects generate significant income for the national government, while local communities see few benefits. In 2019, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Papua’s GDP contracted by 7.4% while the national GDP grew by more than 5%.

A new report published by Greenpeace in April also shows how palm oil plantations and other deforestation in Papua regularly violates forest management laws. The report documents how provincial and national governments have regularly allowed development that should be illegal under a 2011 “forest moratorium”, which bans new permits for development of primary forest and peatland, as well as a limited oil palm moratorium signed by Widodo in September 2018.

Greenpeace found that, since 2000, the government has opened up almost one million hectares of forest land to plantations. The report also found that the remaining forest areas on land already slated for plantations in Papua province are storing carbon stocks equal to half the annual emissions of international aviation.

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