Richard Chauvel – The killing of 16 workers on Indonesian President Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo's trans-Papua road project shortly after demonstrations and mass detentions that marked the 1 December anniversary of Papua's 'independence day' reminds us that Indonesia's last regional conflict remains intractable.
The killings in the remote district of Nduga were the most significant armed action by the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPN) in recent years. However, the attack was not unprecedented. Between 2010 and 2014, armed resistance groups were responsible for some 122 deaths, and most of the casualties were members of the security forces. In earlier clashes with the security forces, as in Wasior in 2001 and Puncak Jaya in 2004, non-Papuan employees of timber and transport companies were killed.
Armed resistance against Indonesian rule has persisted since the beginning of Indonesian administration in 1963, although, since 2000, the mainstream of the independence movement has advocated a peaceful struggle. For the most part, the resistance effort has been localised, loosely organised, sporadic and poorly armed. It has never threatened Indonesian control in Papua, but has not been eliminated, despite the deployment of overwhelming numbers of police and personnel from the Indonesian National Armed Forces (TNI). In the context of the current crisis, the former head of the National Intelligence Body (BIN), Sutiyoso, estimated that there were 25 resistance groups in the highlands, collectively numbering 685 combatants with 232 weapons.
Jokowi has visited Papua more often than any of his predecessors. Early in his presidency, he made commitments to resolve human rights abuses, remove restrictions on the access of foreign journalists and release political prisoners. While political prisoners have been released, little progress has been made on resolving human rights cases, and the pattern of abuses by the security forces is little changed. Foreign journalists still must negotiate Papua-specific regulations. Jokowi's approach to Papua has increasingly been focused on economic development, particularly infrastructure, seemingly in the belief that, if material welfare can be improved, the difficult political, human rights and historical issues will somehow fade away.
The Trans-Papua Highway is the centrepiece of Jokowi's infrastructure ambitions. He has identified the district of Nduga, with its extreme poverty, lack of services and isolation, as the source of his motivation to develop Papua. Nduga is the poorest district in the poorest province. It is also the base of one of the armed resistance groups. Nduga represents the complexity of the problems the Jokowi government faces in Papua.
From the perspective of the armed resistance, the TPN, the targeting of construction workers on the trans-Papua road was not coincidental. When TPN spokesman Sebby Sambom claimed responsibility for the attack, he explained it in terms of the TPN's political objectives. 'We don't need development. What we need is the opportunity to determine our future through a referendum.' He said that the TPN was willing to negotiate with the Indonesian government on the right of self-determination, provided the UN was involved as a third party. He regarded the trans-Papua road project as the work of the military. The construction team had been monitored for a couple of months and the workers were identified as military, he said. 'As long as the TNI is involved we will attack. We are not going to wage war on unarmed civilians.'
Vice President Jusuf Kalla's rejection of negotiations reflected Jakarta's attitude: 'Everything has already been given to the region (Papua), except independence. The budget allocation is much greater than before.'
Marking the 1 December anniversary has become part of the Papuan political calendar and a barometer of the restrictions on freedom of expression and organisation that constrain Papuans but not other Indonesians. Papuans were permitted to celebrate the anniversary in 1999 and 2000. Since then, Papuans observing the anniversary have risked long prison sentences. Most notably, pro-independence activist and government official Filep Karma served 10 years of a 15-year sentence for raising the Morning Star flag on the anniversary in 2004.
The demonstrations and detentions this year in Papua, Surabaya and elsewhere suggests a shift in government tactics away from heavy sentences for the leaders of peaceful flag-raising ceremonies to mass arrests of protesters. This year around the anniversary over 500 protesters were detained by police, nearly half of them Papuan students in Surabaya. The mass arrests confirm a pattern developed during the first two years of Jokowi's administration; 1,083 people were detained in 2015 and 5,361 in 2016.
The arrests of students in Surabaya and elsewhere highlights another aspect of how the pro-independence movement is evolving. Scholars from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences argue that a younger generation of activists has emerged who support independence through a referendum and are less inclined than their elders to cooperate with the government. There have been several incidents, linked to issues of Papuan independence and human rights, involving Papuan students in Yogyakarta and other university towns over several years. These students are the potential elite of their generation. The activism of Papuan students raises the question of whether the experience of studying at Indonesian universities serves to facilitate identification with fellow Indonesians or consolidates a sense of Papuan difference.
Australia's foreign minister, Marise Payne, expressed her condolences to her Indonesian counterpart, Retno Marsudi, over the attack in Papua. Perhaps this was all the Australian government could say.
Given the strategic importance and fragility of Papua New Guinea, Australia has an interest in the resolution of the conflict in Indonesian Papua. However, the long shadow of its role in East Timor's separation from Indonesia means that any public expressions of concern are viewed with suspicion and Australia's frequent statements recognising Indonesia's sovereignty in Papua are doubted.
[Richard Chauvel is an honorary fellow at the Asia Institute at the University of Melbourne. Image courtesy of AK Rockefeller on Flickr.]