Evi Mariani, Brussels/Belgium – Indonesian and European human rights activists attending a recent conference in Belgium expressed concern at the Indonesian Military (TNI)'s plan to deploy at least 35,000 soldiers along the border between West Papua and Papua New Guinea.
Currently, there are between 6,000 and 7,000 soldiers stationed in Papua, spread among static posts, patrolling the 800-kilometer border and in barracks.
While Papua has a relatively low soldier-to-population ratio of 1:150, there have been several reports of conflicts between military and civilians in the resource rich area. Most native Papuans live in poverty and there is a popular independence movement.
"There is a plan to send 12,000 to 15,000 soldiers to border areas in Papua by 2014," said Andi Widjajanto, a military analyst and member of the TNI's Defense White Paper team, speaking at the conference, a meeting of Indonesian and European non-governmental organizations arranged by the International NGO Forum on Indonesian Development (INFID) office in Brussels, Belgium.
The plan, set out in the 2003 Defense White Paper, is part of military reforms set in motion in 2000, when the People's Consultative Assembly issued a decree separating the police force from the military.
"Civil society then wanted TNI to stop regarding citizens as threats. Consequently, TNI needed to define new threats. One of them is threat from outside the country, hence the militarization of land border areas, in Papua as well as in Kalimantan and Timor," Andi added.
Andi's statement provoked an impassioned debate at the conference on the motivation behind the plan, as neither PNG, nor Malaysia or Timor Leste, which all share land borders with Indonesia, pose any real threat to the country.
"Once the Indonesian military deploys troops along the border, PNG might see it as a threat; they would probably call in military assistance from other countries, most likely Australia. In short, the deployment could incite undue military conflict," a European NGO representative said.
Others raised concerns about military involvement in illegal logging and also the increase in alleged human rights abuses directed a Papuans accused of being separatist rebels.
Andi said that while there was no real threat from the neighboring countries, the border militarization was a consequence of the military's reform, as TNI was now looking outside of the country.
"I call on European NGOs for suggestions for feasible alternatives for the Indonesian military," he said. "So far (TNI) still thinks that border militarization is the most feasible and most financially wise because TNI can not afford to by state-of-the-art border security equipment."
Andi said that the European Union's "border regime" program was a suitable arrangement for Papua, as it did not require many armed soldiers to be station on the border and could thus minimize the potential for conflict with neighboring countries or locals. "However, 30,000 soldiers (stationed) in Papua is inevitable. The question is whether to put them on the border or in the barracks. I personally think it would be better to put them in the barracks. It still poses the potential for conflicts, but this would be less, considering that the soldiers would not be roaming around carrying arms," he said.
Papuan Catholic priest, Neles Tebay and Uwe Hummel from the Germany-based West Papua Network, urged the government to hold a dialogue with the Papuans as soon as possible.
"The government stopped the official transmigration wave to Papua and promised there would be no more," Tebay said. "But actually, there was to be a second wave of transmigration, but this time it would not be Javanese farmers carrying hoes, but soldiers toting guns."