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Indonesia spies on its own in Papua

New Matilda - November 20, 2013

Marni Cordell – Amid the fallout from the presidential phone-tapping scandal, an Indonesian human rights defender has spoken out about the Indonesian state's oppressive surveillance regime against its own citizens in the province of West Papua.

Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher for Human Rights Watch, told New Matilda, "We have unlawful intelligence gathering by the Indonesian military against their own citizens in Papua".

Harsono said the Indonesian government targets ordinary Papuans in a comprehensive surveillance program that includes recruited informants and phone-tapping because it believes Papuan civil society poses a growing threat to its power over the province.

"They recognise that the real threat [to Indonesian power] in Papua is not from the armed wing of the Papuan independence movement, but from student leaders, church leaders, civil society leaders and NGOs," he said.

Internal military documents leaked in 2011 revealed the extent of the surveillance. According to Human Rights Watch, the approximately 500 pages of documents, dated from 2006 to 2009, include detailed reports of spying on civilians and provide military perspectives on social and political issues in West Papua.

The documents also reveal the military's deep concerns about international attention on the province. A quarterly report from Indonesia's special forces (Kopassus) from August 2007 states, "Current political activity in Papua is very dangerous compared to the activities of Papuan armed groups because their access already reaches abroad".

"[There is a] deep military paranoia in Papua that conflates peaceful political expression with criminal activity," Harsono said. "It's outrageous in a modern country like Indonesia that activists, clergy, students and politicians are the targets of military surveillance."

West Papuan journalist Victor Mambor, who works for the independent online outlet Jubi, told New Matilda he is convinced that his phone is being tapped by the authorities.

"Many West Papuans have a problem with this. I don't know if it's the police or the military – they have technology to spy on us on our mobile phones," he said. "I always change my number every three months or so."

Mambor said he also regularly receives text messages from anonymous numbers.

"They send text messages saying 'we will kill you' and 'Papuan people are stupid – you want freedom, go to hell', things like that," he said. "In the beginning I was scared, but now I think they are only terrorising us to distract us. I'm sure they are just trying to disturb the focus of our work."

But Andreas Harsono is concerned that the military intelligence gathered in West Papua is being used for more sinister means. "[The Indonesian government] uses this intelligence gathering to produce their policy on the ground, and this is what Human Rights Watch is worried about, because it is very likely to be used to repress the rights of Papuans," he said.

Unlike President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, whose phone-tapping by Australia has caused an international crisis, ordinary West Papuans have no recourse against surveillance by the Indonesian state.