Ronna Nirmala and Tria Dianti, Jakarta – Indonesia's military and national police chiefs visited the rebellious Papua region Friday, in a rare joint trip to discuss security there with field commanders after insurgents dealt government forces setbacks, including assassinating an army general last month.
Air Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto, head of the armed forces (TNI), and Gen. Listyo Sigit Prabowo, the chief of police, arrived together on Thursday night as a firefight with the separatist rebels flared up in Papua's Ilaga district. Ilaga is in Puncak, a regency where insurgents have mounted deadly attacks lately.
On Friday, the chiefs met in nearby Mimika regency with leaders and members of a joint military-police counter-insurgency task force, before the two were scheduled to return to Jakarta in the late afternoon, officials said.
Rebels opened fire at government security forces in Ilaga on Thursday night, setting off a gunfight that lasted two hours, said Senior Commissioner M. Iqbal Alqudusy, spokesman for Operation Nemangkawi, as the task force is known. Hundreds of residents fled their homes to safety, he said.
"They fired shots to lure police and frighten the people in Ilaga, but soldiers and police were on standby there," Iqbal told BenarNews. "It was sporadic gunfire."
"There were no casualties or fatalities and today people are going about their activities as usual," he said.
Meanwhile, Papuans reported that internet service had been cut for the past week and telephone service was patchy in the remote and largely underdeveloped region in far-eastern Indonesia.
The two chiefs landed in Papua 10 days after President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo ordered a crackdown on the rebels after they gunned down Brig. Gen. I Gusti Putu Danny Nugraha Karya during a roadside ambush in Puncak on April 25. He headed the Papua operation of the State Intelligence Agency.
"The commander and the police chief gathered with task-force members to strengthen the synergy between the two forces and provide encouragement for the personnel here," Iqbal said.
Hadi told a parliamentary hearing on Thursday that he and Listyo were going to Papua to communicate directly with personnel in the field.
"We do get reports all the time regarding the latest situation, but of course we really need direct communication and discussions with the commanders on the ground," Hadi told lawmakers.
Last month, the Indonesian government designated the Free Papua Movement separatist group and its armed wing, the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB), as terrorists.
That happened after the TPNPB claimed responsibility for killing Putu Danny as well as two teachers, a motorcycle taxi driver and a 16-year-old in separate incidents in April. The rebels said the civilians worked as spies for the government.
They also killed a police officer during a gunfight on April 27.
Although Jokowi had ordered government forces to intensify operations against the rebels, no additional troops were being deployed to Papua, according to military spokesman Col. Djawara Whimbo.
"We will not dispatch more personnel. If we send new personnel, it will be to replace those who left," he told BenarNews.
A plan to send to Papua 400 personnel from Infantry Battalion 315 – an army unit dubbed "Satan's Forces" – was part of a normal rotation of troops in and out of the region, he said. The unit got its nickname from having seen action decades ago in former conflict zones, including East Timor and Aceh.
"They are not special forces," Whimbo told BenarNews. "The unit has been in Papua for a long time, so it's just a rotation." At present, there are around 7,000 military personnel deployed in Papua, he said.
'Striking fear into West Papuans'
Britain-based Papuan separatist leader Benny Wenda said the government is mounting some of the largest military operations in the region in years.
"The new military operations are already striking fear into West Papuans across the country. This is state terrorism," he said in a statement posted this week on his group's website.
In late 2020, Wenda announced the creation of a "West Papua interim government" and appointed himself president.
He urged the international community to take action.
"We are about to witness another massacre in West Papua. You have the power to intervene and help us find a peaceful solution to the crisis," he said.
In Papua, a community leader, Samuel Tabuni, urged the government to protect the people.
"We should never allow civilians to become victims. I fear that unarmed people will die senselessly," he told BenarNews by phone from the region.
He said the conflict had displaced many Papuans and robbed them of their livelihoods.
"They can't work, they can't go to the fields," he said. "When they are sick, they can't go to hospitals. They can't go to school because they are afraid."
Melyana Ratana Pugu, a lecturer in international relations at Cenderawasih University in Jayapura, the capital of Papua province, said internet service had been down for a week.
"There is no signal here at all. I can only make calls and they were often cut off," she told BenarNews.
"I'm wondering whether we are still Indonesian citizens when the internet is restricted," she said.
On Sunday, the state-owned Telekomunikasi Indonesia (Telkom), said internet connections in Papua were disrupted because of damage to an underwater fiber-optic cable network on April 30.
The company said telephone and short-message services had been restored but internet connections were being gradually fixed.
"We will continue to work so that quality services can return to normal," Telkom spokesman Pujo Pramono said in a statement.
Indonesia blocked internet services in Papua during deadly rioting and widespread anti-government protests in 2019 – when the TNI and national police chiefs last paid a joint visit to the region.
More than 40 people were killed during the 2019 unrest, which was sparked by the perceived harsh and racist treatment of Papuan students by security forces in Java, the seat of the central government in Jakarta.
In 1963, Indonesian forces invaded the Papua region – which makes up the western half of New Guinea Island – and annexed it.
Papua was incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 after a U.N.-administered ballot known as the Act of Free Choice. Many Papuans and rights groups said the vote was a sham because it involved only about 1,000 people.