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West Papua rebel groups join forces in bid for independence from Indonesia

ABC News - July 3, 2019

Jordan Fennell and Tracey Shelton – Three armed separatist groups in the Indonesian region of West Papua have announced they have united to form the West Papuan Army, as activists lobbying for independence declare they are now ready to "take over our country".

The rebel groups have long acted unilaterally in their push for independence for the region, which will this month mark 50 years since it became part of Indonesia.

Experts said the development was a significant turning point for the movement, but warned it was likely to stir up tensions with Indonesia.

More than 1.8 million people called for an independence referendum in Indonesia's West Papua province by delivering a petition to the UN Human Rights chief.

The new army will come under the command of umbrella group United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP), led by exiled leader Benny Wenda, which uses political and diplomatic means in a push for independence.

"Politically and militarily we are united now. The international community can now see without a doubt that we are ready to take over our country," Mr Wenda announced via the ULMWP website.

"Indonesia cannot stigmatise us as separatists or criminals anymore, we are a legitimate unified military and political state-in-waiting."

Fear of increased tensions

West Papua, which shares an island with Papua New Guinea, is in the grip of a long-running independence conflict.

Camellia Webb-Gannon, the coordinator of the West Papua Project at the University of Wollongong, said the move marks a significant union between political and military activists.

"For the first time the armed wing has now said we are going to answer to the political movement, the ULMWP," Dr Webb-Gannon told the ABC.

"It's really important because they are showing... if we were independent, we're not just going to be a military dictatorship. The military is going to answer to the political leaders."

But she also warned the latest development could stir up tensions with Indonesia's military, which has a strong presence in the Papua and West Papua provinces.

As soon as members of the armed independence movement "increase activity" or are "seen to have more of a presence" in West Papua, "the Indonesian military will then make its presence known", she said.

"[The new union] also puts pressure on the international community to either counter the West Papuan narrative that yes, they can take care of themselves, and yes they do have the right and ability to self-determine and self-govern", Dr Webb-Gannon said.

"Or to hold Indonesia to account and to say to Indonesia, 'what are you doing, why are you holding West Papuans down'."

'Ready today to get independence'

Jacob Rumbiak, a spokesman for the ULMWP, said the decision would unite political, intelligence and military wings into one diplomatic group that would push the campaign forward.

"[This union] will show to Indonesia, and also the world, that we as West Papua are ready today to get independence," he told the ABC.

"Our military will automatically be under full control of one commander... We already have a very clear agenda to become the best freedom fighters."

The three armed groups include the Tentara Pembebasan Nasiona Papua Barat (TPNPB), which attacked a construction site in December killing 31 and sparking a brutal military crackdown in the region.

The Indonesian embassy in Canberra did not responded to requests for comment by the time of publication.

Source: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-07-03/three-armed-separatist-groups-unite-in-west-papua/11273382