Tom Allard, Jakarta – Detachment 88 has a legitimate role in countering separatism and will remain in Papua, where a long-simmering independence campaign has been running, the unit's commander, Tito Karnavian, has confirmed.
In an interview with the Herald, Brigadier General Karnavian said Papua was different to Maluku, another Indonesian province where members of the counter-terrorism unit have been accused of abuses and from where they will soon leave.
General Karnavian pointed to shootings last year near the US-owned Freeport mine, in which an Australian worker, Drew Grant, and others died, as evidence that separatists in Papua were using "tactics of terror". Advertisement: Story continues below
"Any group using violence against civilians must be seen as a terrorist group. It's not just Islamic groups," he said.
"You can't confine Detachment 88 only for Islamic groups. That would be used by Islamic groups to say that we are just an extension of the Western powers against Islam."
Independence supporters dispute that their armed wing, Organisasi Papua Merdeka, was involved in the Freeport shootings, blaming Indonesian military and police who lost the lucrative job of guarding the gargantuan gold and copper mine.
One analyst, who asked not to be named, doubted whether Detachment 88 should play a significant role in suppressing separatism and said it could prove counter-productive.
"It's a huge mistake to brand separatist activity as terrorism – activities designed to create fear – when you are trying to find a political solution in places like Papua," the analyst said.
Australia and the US fund and train Detachment 88, Indonesia's elite counter-terrorism unit, and value its skill in preventing terrorist attacks, uncovering networks and arresting offenders.
But the nations have been concerned by repeated allegations of abuses in Maluku and are wary of being linked to its counter-separatist activities.
In response to the Herald's revelations yesterday about abuses in Maluku, l an Australian Foreign Affairs spokesman said: "Det-88 has not sought assistance from Australia in any investigations or operations to counter internal separatist movements."
Brigadier General Karnavian said an imminent restructuring of Detachment 88 would see its forces outside Jakarta, including those in Papua, focus on "intelligence gathering rather than investigations".
Under the new arrangements, forces would report directly to Jakarta. At present, General Karnavian said he had no control over Detachment 88 police outside the capital, including those in Maluku. "They were instructed directly by the head of police or head of detectives in the province," he said.
An Indonesia analyst from the Australian National University, Greg Fealy, welcomed the restructure. "There are some well trained, highly professional Densus [Detachment 88] officers at the national level, but regional units often reflect local police culture and preoccupations, including a greater tendency to use violence."