Victor Mambor and Arie Firdaus, Jayapura, Indonesia and Jakarta – The military is investigating the death of a boy in Indonesia's rebellious Papua region after he allegedly was tortured by soldiers who had accused him and his friends of stealing a firearm, an army spokesman in the area said Tuesday.
Human rights advocates, meanwhile, are clamoring for an independent probe into the death of 12-year-old Makilon Tabuni. He died on Feb. 22 after being arrested two days earlier along with six other children for allegedly stealing a gun belonging to an Indonesian soldier in Sinak, a district of Puncak regency in Papua province, a resident said.
"The investigation team is already in Sinak district, Puncak regency. The investigative team has inspected the location of the incident at the Sinak Airport Command Post, where the firearm disappeared, and the location of the alleged abuse," Col. Aqsha Erlangga, the spokesman for the provincial military garrison, told BenarNews.
"The investigation team has also investigated a number of ... soldiers who are suspected of having knowledge of and being directly related to the incident of the missing weapon. ... I hope the public can be patient because the investigation team continues to search to obtain the correct data," he said.
The alleged incident has cast a fresh spotlight on longtime grievances among locals about Indonesian government forces using excessive force and engaging in racist actions against indigenous people in mainly Melanesian Papua. The militarized region in Indonesia's far-east is home to a separatist insurgency that has simmered for decades.
The body of Makilon, who was the son of a village chief, was cremated on Feb. 24, according to local customs, said a resident who requested to be identified only by the initials "Y.K." for security reasons. No autopsy had been conducted.
Y.K., a teacher, said a soldier tasked with guarding a military post in Sinak lost his gun on Feb. 20 and immediately suspected that children who were watching television at the post earlier in the day had taken it.
"A joint military and police team arrested seven elementary school-aged children," Y.K. told BenarNews.
A Papuan human rights activist, Okto Tabuni, said Makilon was dead on arrival when he was rushed to a community clinic in Sinak on the night of Feb. 22.
Okto also said that he did not know details about Makilon's injuries. But he said that under a local custom, cremation is usually performed for people who die of unnatural causes.
"Culturally, it is a form of protest to the authorities," he told BenarNews.
After Makilon's death, the other six children were transferred from a police detention center to a hospital to be treated for their injuries, the source Y.K. said.
When asked about Makilon's death, Papua police spokesman Sr. Comr. Ahmad Musthofa Kamal replied: "I need to emphasize that the police are not involved." He declined to comment further.
Calls from rights groups mount
Usman Hamid, executive director of Amnesty International in Indonesia, said the alleged assault that led to the boy's death could not be justified, as he called for an independent investigation.
"We would like to remind [authorities] that civilians, especially children, must not be made victims of abuse, let alone be killed in an armed conflict," Usman told BenarNews.
Usman said allegations of torture by security forces must be investigated thoroughly and independently to ensure that such cases do not happen again.
"For the sake of justice, those responsible for this tragedy must be made to account," Usman said.
Fatia Maulidiyanti, coordinator for the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras), also called for an impartial investigation.
"It must be uncovered with an investigation involving other parties such as the National Commission on Human Rights and the Indonesian Child Protection Commission," Fatia said.
Okto echoed Fatia's calls.
"This is not the first case of children dying because of the military in Papua. So, other parties must be involved in the investigation, so that it does not set a bad precedent in the future," Okto said.
Two children were shot, one of them fatally, during a gun battle between security forces and rebels in Intan Jaya Regency in October 2021.
In Jakarta, a deputy of the Presidential Chief of Staff, Jaleswari Pramodhawardani, could not be reached immediately for comment.
On Monday, United Nations human rights experts expressed serious concern about what they called the "deteriorating human rights situation" in the Papua and West Papua, provinces, citing "shocking abuses" against indigenous Papuans.
These abuses, they said, included child killings, disappearances, torture and mass displacement of people.
"Between April and November 2021, we have received allegations indicating several instances of extrajudicial killings, including of young children, enforced disappearance, torture and inhuman treatment and the forced displacement of at least 5,000 indigenous Papuans by security forces," the experts said, according to a statement issued by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
They said estimates put the overall number of displaced, since the escalation of violence in December 2018, at between 60,000 to 100,000 people.
Violence and tensions in the Papua region, which is made up of the provinces of Papua and West Papua, have become more intense in recent years after separatist rebels killed 19 workers who were building a bridge in Nduga regency in late 2018, accusing them of being government spies.
In 2019, more than 40 people were killed in violent unrest across the Papuan region after police raided a dorm in Surabaya and arrested dozens of Papuan students amid allegations they had disrespected the Indonesian flag. Video was circulated of the armed police using racial slurs against the students.
Meanwhile, provincial military garrison spokesman Col. Aqsha said authorities had arrested a teacher, who authorities identified only as D.M., for leaking photos of Makilon's cremation that later were posted on social media accompanied with text deemed to be "fake news."
Aqsha did not elaborate on why the text was considered to be false.
"The suspect, D.M., admitted that he was the one who sent the photo of Makilon Tabuni's cremation to the the WhatsApp group of Puncak Students' Association," Aqsha said.
Aqsha added that D.M. admitted that he sent the photos to the WhatsApp group but denied posting them on social media or writing the text.
Under the law, distributing fake news online is punishable by six years.
Last year, the government designated separatist rebels as terrorists after insurgents ambushed and assassinated an army general who headed the regional branch of the National Intelligence Agency. The killing prompted President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo to order a crackdown.
In 1963, Indonesian forces invaded Papua – like Indonesia, a former Dutch colony – and annexed the region that makes up the western half of New Guinea Island.
Papua was incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 after a U.N.-sponsored vote, which locals and activists said was a sham because it involved only about 1,000 people. However, the United Nations accepted the result, which essentially endorsed Jakarta's rule.
The Free Papua Movement (OPM) has fought for independence for the mainly Christian region since the 1960s.