Katharina Reny Lestari – An alarming rise in deadly attacks by separatist rebels has triggered a climate of fear, impacting free movement and activities of civilians in Indonesia's Christian-majority Papua region, Church leaders say.
"People can no longer do activities freely. They are really afraid," Father Bernard Baru, chairman of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Augustinian Order in Papua, told UCA News.
The priest was speaking shortly after Papua police chief Mathius D. Fakhiri said that armed separatist attacks have sharply increased over the past two years in the restive region.
Rebel groups carried out 44 attacks against security forces and civilians including shooting, burning, and plundering of weapons from armed forces in the first six months of 2022, Fakhiri said during a press briefing on June 30. Overall rebel attacks increased by 33 percent compared to 33 attacks during the same period last year.
The violence left 24 people dead – seven soldiers, one policeman, 12 civilians and four separatist rebels, he said.
Many civilians died because they had to make a living in conflict-torn areas despite warnings their lives might be at risk, he added.
The latest rebel attack on June 29 in Pegunungan Bintang district left a soldier dead. In March, two marines were killed in an attack on a military post in Nduga district.
Father Baru said that amid the escalation in violence, Church leaders urged the government to issue an appeal for peace to the separatists to stop attacks on civilians.
"But it seems that they let the attacks happen. And civilians became like 'a fortress' for the two conflicting parties," the priest said.
"What Church leaders have been doing so far is to continue to call for a dialogue for peace between government officials and armed separatist rebels for the sake of civilians' security."
Reverend Ronald Tapilatu from the Communion of Churches in Indonesia said that dialogue for peace is "an urgent need" in the province.
"Peace will not prevail if there is no dialogue," he said, reminding that ongoing violence will produce "a generation of hatred."
"People will kill each other for the sake of their ancestral land which is claimed to be part of the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia."
Yones Douw, a local rights activist, claimed that security personnel contributed to such a fearful situation in the region.
He said the government has termed the West Papua National Liberation Army and the Free Papua Movement (TPNPB-OPM) as terrorist groups but fails to recognize that their main struggle stems from ownership of land and autonomy.
"The [current] situation shows that the state fails to deal with the root causes. Threats will always be there," Douw said.
Papua has experienced an armed insurgency for independence since Indonesia's annexation of the territory in 1969 through a referendum that many Papuans consider a sham. Thousands of soldiers, rebels and civilians have been killed in the ensuing violence.