Thursday, November 2, 2023

Indonesia’s Failure to Resolve West Papua Conflict


Phillip Merthens, a New Zealand-born pilot, was abducted by an armed group on February 7, 2023, in Indonesia’s Nduga, West Papua. The group responsible is the West Papua Liberation Army, also known as TPNPB, which is an armed wing of the Papua Liberation Movement (OPM). The TPNPB stormed the Susi Air small plane after it landed, set it on fire, and took the pilot hostage. They then brought him to their stronghold area where they would use him as “political leverage.” The military and police have been unable to locate the pilot due to terrain difficulties.

Following the kidnapping, a deadly riot erupted, and armed confrontations between the group and security forces have killed both civilians and soldiers in Yahukimo and Puncak regencies. It’s clear from all of this that there is no end in sight for the intensified hostilities that have plagued West Papua over the past six years. Yet the reality is that none of this is surprising.

To understand this increasing escalation, it’s vital to look at the failures of successive Indonesian governments in responding to the crisis. The central government focuses more on addressing the effects than the causes of the conflict. Its counterinsurgency policies are aimed at reducing Indigenous discontent and violent attacks from the TPNPB to controllable levels. There has not been a sincere political process between the central government, Indigenous Papuans, and nationalist groups in West Papua.

That’s why these policies have met with distrust among Indigenous Papuans, even as the TPNPB armed group has developed more deadly capacity to attack civilians and security forces. The roots of the conflict aren’t new and have been building up since the 1960s.

Since becoming part of Indonesia through a widely criticized referendum called the Act of Free Choice in 1969, the western half of the island of New Guinea and Indonesia’s easternmost region, commonly referred to as West Papua, has barely enjoyed stability. This disputed referendum set a precedent for how the Indonesian state disregards Papuans’ interests.

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 the transmigration program, aiming to forcibly change the region’s demography and control the region, even as the government also embarked on military operations. The result: A decline in the number of Indigenous Papuans on their own land, numerous deaths, and massive displacement.

Because of these measures, Papuan identity emerged not from cultural, religious and physical differences but rather from racial discrimination by the state, combined with Indigenous Papuans’ past and contemporary grievances. The conflict has led to both a non-violent movement and an armed struggle to defend Papuans’ identity and rights.

When Joko Widodo became Indonesia’s president in 2014, there was hope for a resolution to the crisis. He released a handful of Papuan political prisoners and vowed to address the 2014 Paniai human rights abuse case. A promise to open West Papua to foreign journalists was seen by many as another sign of Widodo’s goodwill.

However, the commitment to address the conflict fell apart in the waning days of his first administration. Under Widodo’s second administration since 2019, Papuan grievances have intensified. Instead of addressing the root causes of the conflict, the state has focused chiefly on development and infrastructure programs. The main beneficiaries of these initiatives are mostly nonindigenous Papuans residing in coastal and urban areas. Indigenous Papuans barely reap the benefits of development projects. Instead, they live in constant fear and trauma due to escalated violence.

In 2019, racial slurs directed at Papuan students triggered peaceful demonstrations that then turned violent across Papua. Rather than acknowledging and resolving such deep-seated racism and discrimination towards Papuans, Indonesia in 2021 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 set of policies reflects a desperate strategy aimed at containing the conflict rather than resolving it and exposes the failures of the central government.

Meanwhile, TPNPB has consistently rejected state policies, including economic activities, in highland Papua. The group has warned against the continuing operations of commercial flights and has even shot a handful of planes flying across highland areas. It has demanded that non-Papuan civilians leave conflict zones. The recent kidnapping of the pilot suggests that 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, reinforced by the availability of relatively sophisticated weapons accessed by TPNPB from illegal trade with the military and police as well as illicit supplies from Papua New Guinea, Thailand, and the Philippines has facilitated armed campaigns since 2018 in Nduga, the poorest regency in Indonesia.

Indeed, TPNPB has recruited its members mostly by capitalizing on the deep grievances of Papuan youth. The Indonesian government has systematically failed to recognize and address transgenerational trauma among armed conflict-affected victims in Papua, particularly children.

At the same time, TPNPB has modified its fighting capacity to intensify armed attacks against the state and civilians. Financial support from its sympathizers has also increased. Its organizational structure has been modernized, with Papuan youth occupying key positions. Lastly, its use of social media to counter government narratives by exposing state power abuses has grown more sophisticated.

In short, Indonesia’s relationship with Papuans appears set to only get worse. A lesson from armed conflicts in southern Thailand and Mindanao in southern Philippines is that credible and trusted individuals or groups are crucial to initiate peace talks. That’s an element missing in the Papua conflict. The capture of the pilot is only symptomatic of this trust gap. It’s a deficit that is only deepening, and the Indonesian government has no one but itself to blame.

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