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Indonesia's crackdown in West Papua brings fresh scrutiny to Australian-trained counterterrorism squad

ABC News - May 20, 2021

Prianka Srinivasan and Hellena Souisa – Two Indonesian military officers have been killed by independence fighters in Papua as violence continues to flare in Indonesia's easternmost provinces.

An additional 400 troops had been deployed to the contested region after President Joko Widodo called for a crackdown, with Indonesian authorities arresting Papuan independence leader Victor Yeimo over accusations of masterminding civil unrest.

More than 30 civil society groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have called for Mr Yeimo's release, while the West Papua Liberation Army has said some of their members were killed and villages attacked by the Indonesian military in recent days.

It comes just weeks after Indonesian authorities officially branded Papuan independence fighters and members of the Free Papua Movement (OPM) as terrorists, a label that critics said could aggravate violence and rights abuses by security forces in the contested region.

Indonesia's chief security minister, Mahfud MD, said the new label was aimed at those pushing for separation in the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua, collectively known as West Papua by independence activists.

"The government see any Papuan organisations or people committing massive violence can be categorised as terrorists," the minister said.

"Terrorism is any action that uses violence or threats of violence to create an atmosphere of terror or widespread fear that can cause mass casualties or cause damage or destruction," he added.

Indonesia's counter-terrorism laws give authorities enhanced powers, including holding suspects for several weeks without formal charges.

The Indonesian government and military did not respond to the ABC's request for information about the total number of troops in West Papua.

The designation of members of the Free West Papua Movements as terrorists – after they were earlier branded as Armed Criminal Groups or KKB by Indonesia – has allowed for the increased deployment of an elite counter-terrorism squad trained by Australia into the contested region.

Senior Police Commissioner Ahmad Ramadhan said the unit, called Detachment 88, "will certainly be involved" in handling terrorism cases against Papuans.

Detachment 88 receives some training from the Australian Federal Police (AFP) through a joint Australian-Indonesian law enforcement facility based in Jakarta. The facility also provides training to Indonesia's National Police (INP) forces.

"The AFP provides capacity building assistance in support of the INP, including Detachment 88," an AFP spokesperson told the ABC. "The AFP delivers training programs in a manner that reflects and supports Australia's strong support of human rights."

The unit has come under fire in the past by Papuans, who claim it is a "death squad" that has been involved in torture and extra-judicial killings in the region.

Jason MacLeod, the founder of the Make West Papua Safe campaign, said he was "not against the training" of Indonesian forces by AFP, but said Australia needed to do more to ensure Detachment 88 members were not committing crimes in the contested region.

"We just need to be completely clear that our funding is not contributing to making the human rights situation worse, that Australian public officials, like AFP officers, are not training people involved in human rights violations," Mr MacLeod said.

The AFP told the ABC it would not comment on the deployment of Detachment 88 since it "is a matter for the Indonesian authorities".

Richard Chauvel, a research fellow at the University of Melbourne and expert in Australia-Indonesia relations, said the issue of Australia training Indonesian troops that may be deployed to Papua "is sensitive on both sides".

"Both pro-independence Papuan leaders and their support groups in Australia and elsewhere, have tried to campaign on this issue," Dr Chauvel said.

"Because of the publicity that's generated by that, that's an issue of potential embarrassment to the Australian Government."

'The number of troops is out of control'

Rights groups fear the terrorist designation, and ramping up of military action, would squash any chance of negotiations to end hostilities in the former Dutch colony, which declared independence in 1961.

Neighbouring Indonesia took control of the mineral-rich region two years later with the promise of holding an independence referendum.

Supporters for West Papuan independence often claim they were robbed by a subsequent vote in favour of staying with Indonesia, since few more than a thousand hand-picked Papuans were allowed to cast their ballot.

Yuliana Langowuyo, a lawyer and director of the Franciscan Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation (JPIC) in Papua, feared the label would lead to more violence.

"There have been many personnel here in Papua ... And now after this terrorist label, there will be a new troop coming, the Special Detachment 88," Ms Langowuyo said.

"The number of troops is out of control. If they are in the remote villages, if there is violence against civilians or others, it is completely out of control and knowledge of human rights institutions, including church institutions like us."

Dr Chauvel however did not believe the label on its own "will change the nature of the violence", which has been steadily increasing since 2018, but he said it did serve to further entrench military activity in Papua and West Papua provinces.

"I'd see it much more in terms of legitimising Indonesian military operations," Dr Chauvel said. "Calling them terrorists is extending and really hardening of the language from calling them KKB, or armed criminal groups."

Indonesian security forces have for years been dogged by allegations of widespread rights abuses against Papua's ethnic Melanesian population, including extrajudicial killings of activists and peaceful protesters in their efforts to crush armed independence groups.

In recent weeks, security forces ramped up military operations in a remote district where armed groups killed soldiers and teachers, and torched several schools.

– ABC with AFP/Reuters

Source: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-05-20/west-papua-detachment-88-victor-yeimo-free-papua-opm-indonesia/10014615