Jakarta – Activists are calling on President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo to withdraw troops from the conflict-prone Nduga, Papua, and take a humanitarian approach instead.
The Indonesian Military (TNI) has maintained a strong presence in the regency since December 2018, following the killing of more than 30 workers of state-owned company Istaka Karya in the regency by an armed group linked to the Free Papua Movement (OPM).
The construction workers were assigned to build a 275-kilometer section of road to connect Wamena and Mamugu as part of President Jokowi's flagship trans-Papua road project.
The killings led to a protracted security crisis in Nduga, forcing civilians to hide in forests or to seek refuge in the neighboring regency of Wamena.
As many as 139 refugees had died from starvation and illness caused by poor living conditions in the shelters, as reported by the Nduga Solidarity Civil Society Coalition in July last year. The government vehemently rejected the figure and claimed that only 53 displaced people had died.
The executive director of Amnesty International, Usman Hamid, recently said that the death toll has risen to 263.
"We're not saying that the security threat was absent, but we demand a proportional approach," Usman said at a press conference in Jakarta marking the first anniversary of the Nduga conflict on Jan. 21.
"The TNI can't just be deployed as it is. Also, a softer approach is needed to take care of the refugees who need humanitarian help."
"Remember that during the Abdurrahman ['Gus Dur'] Wahid presidency, the approach toward Papua was softer. The people were given welfare through proportional economic development. Without deploying any troops, peace was there and Papuan society respected Gus Dur a lot because he listened to them," he added.
The Papua Justice and Welfare Foundation chairman, Theo Hesegem, particularly directed his attention to the deployment of nonlocal soldiers who came from outside Papua.
"These nonlocal troops didn't know anything about Nduga's mountainous terrain; as a result their operations are ineffective. It's better for them to retreat since their ineffectiveness only worsened the conflict," he said.
The Indonesian Communion of Churches (PGI) also criticized Jokowi's militaristic approach to Nduga.
"The current militaristic and security approach in Papua is not working well. Jokowi's cultural approach campaign is nowhere to be seen in Papua," PGI head Gomar Gultom said at the press conference.
He encouraged the government to partner with the local administration, communities and civilians to bring stability to the regency.
"The government needs to involve church and local leaders using the cultural approach. Like it or not, the church has a special place in society in Papua," he added.
In August 2019, then-House of Representatives speaker Bambang Soesatyo also voiced his concern over the military presence in the region.
"The tension over security measures in Nduga must be lowered so the residents don't feel scared anymore," he said, as quoted on the House's official website.
The situation in Nduga remained unstable until Dec. 20, 2019 when Hendrik Lokbere, the close aide of Nduga deputy regent Wentius Nimiangge, was shot dead by an unidentified perpetrator on a road in Kenyam district.
Days after Hendrik's death, Wentius publicly declared his resignation in front of locals at the regency's Kenyam Airport.
"I don't have a position anymore. I am done. My duty is finished, along with Hendrik's life," he said in his speech, a video of which was obtained by The Jakarta Post.
Wentius also said he had asked the central government a year ago to withdraw military and police personnel from Nduga so people could return to their villages and resume their normal lives. However, he claimed he had received no response.
"We are an extension [of the central government] in the region, but we have no dignity; we are not respected," he said, "The central government has never responded to our request."
TNI spokesperson Maj. Gen. Sisriadi defended the military presence in Nduga, saying that the soldiers had been professionally trained to protect civilians in the conflict situation.
"Our Army won't hurt civilians. The demand to retreat the Army from Nduga will further endanger the residents' safety. There is no functional government running and the OPM is still there," he told the Post, while declining to reveal the number of soldiers deployed in the region. (trn)