Jarryd de Haan – Armed rebels in the Indonesian province of Papua were involved in a gunfight on 28 January with the Indonesian Military (TNI) at an airstrip at Mapenduma in the Nduga Regency.
A Chief Private of the TNI was killed and two soldiers were injured. In response to the incident, Chief of Presidential Staff and former Commander of the TNI, Moeldoko, told media that the government will reassess the current approach to Papua, possibly hinting at greater involvement of the TNI.
The incident follows a recent flare-up in tensions with the arrest of hundreds of Papuans and reports of 19 to 31 victims, most believed to be construction workers, killed by a group of armed separatists, as covered in a previous Strategic Weekly Analysis.
Indonesian police and military also recently took over West Papua National Committee headquarters in Timika, Mimika Baru district, Papua, removing insignia and banning its use for all Papuans.
Following the recent gunfight, Moeldoko told media (in Bahasa Indonesia) that the government needs to re-assess how it categorises separatists in Papua. According to Moeldoko, the government categorises the recent assailants as armed criminal groups (kelompok kriminal bersenjata – KKB) putting them primarily under the jurisdiction of the Indonesian National Police (POLRI) and making it difficult for the TNI to get involved. Moeldoko instead suggests that the government categorise the perpetrators as separatists, arguing that the TNI would then need to be involved more strongly to 'crush the groups'.
There is a strong history of violence that stems from independence movements within Papua and West Papua and the Indonesian government's efforts to suppress those movements have often been associated with human rights abuses. Currently, both Papua and West Papua have been granted special autonomy status, which gives increased powers to local governments, but there are still elements that seeking complete independence. On 25 January 2019, a petition signed by 1.8 million West Papuans was delivered to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights seeking a referendum on independence.
Increasing the involvement of the TNI in the Papuan and West Papuan provinces will draw strong opposition from world leaders fearing escalating tensions and possible human rights abuses in the region. Currently, the TNI is allegedly limited to hunting down armed groups in Papua that have already carried out acts of hostility, while the police are freer to carry out security operations. Looking deeper, however, the TNI maintains a strong background role in security operations and, with twice as many personnel and vast intelligence networks, perhaps has more influence than POLRI through those operations. Granting further jurisdiction to the TNI, therefore, may not bring any drastic changes to current security operations within Papua other than allowing the TNI to be the face of the operations. What it may change, however, is a more open military presence that could be used to intimidate and threaten separatist groups. That course of action, however, will likely only antagonise those groups and perhaps deepen discontent among the public.That raises questions as to why Moeldoko argued that the TNI should play a stronger role, and whether or not the Indonesian government will genuinely look into it as a possible option. It is worthwhile noting that similar comments (in Bahasa Indonesia) were made by the Indonesian Minister of Defence, Ryamizard Ryacudu, on 4 December 2018. That suggests that there could be ongoing discussions on the TNI's role within the military circles of the current government. The recent comments, therefore, likely have their roots in the TNI's ongoing struggle to regain the influence it lost as Indonesia transitioned into the democratic era.
Granting further powers to the TNI is not out of character for the current government headed by Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, who allegedly maintains a close relationship with TNI Commander Hadi Tjahjanto. On 13 May 2018, Jokowi revived Koopsusgab, an anti-terror unit led by the TNI while there was already a well-established anti-terror unit headed by POLRI. The pressure to raise the military presence in Papua will likely continue to grow, especially if the frequency of attacks on TNI and POLRI personnel increases.
 Antonius Made Tony Supriatma, 'TNI/Polri in West Papua: How Security Reforms Work in the Conflict Regions', Indonesia, no. 95 (April 2013), pp. 93-124.
[Jarryd de Haan is a research analyst with the Indian Ocean Research Programme.]