John McBeth, Jakarta – Coming in the middle of a heated exchange between the Indonesian government and United Nations rapporteurs over alleged military human rights abuses, the March 3 rebel massacre of eight telecommunication technicians has again underscored the growing complexity of the security situation in the eastern province of Papua.
What was once a bow-and-arrow insurgency has now morphed into a genuine shooting conflict where security forces are dealing with roaming gangs of tribal gunmen often using the decades-long independence struggle as a cover for the pillaging of mountain villages.
Data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project also shows attacks on military and police units and outposts by emboldened rebels packing automatic weapons have increased from 34 in 2019 to 73 in 2020 and 137 last year with no sign of a let-up this year.
Most of the arms and ammunition have been seized in raids on remote military outposts where young, poorly-trained defenders are easily overrun, but the rebels are also reportedly cashed up as a result of leakages from the Special Autonomy Fund and from the riches of illegal gold mining.
Analysts say a move by new armed forces (TNI) commander General Andika Perkasa to prioritize civic missions, which are normally planned after combat operations have been successfully concluded, will be difficult when the security situation continues to deteriorate.
The murder of the eight phone workers took place near Beoga, the same village in Papua's remote Puncak regency where a band of gunmen last year ambushed and killed the only army general to die from hostile fire in any internal conflict since Indonesia became a republic.
It was the worst mass killing of civilians since December 2019 when assailants linked to the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB), the armed wing of the Free Papua Movement (OPM), massacred 19 bridge workers on the Trans-Papua Highway in Yahukimo regency, southeast of Puncak.
Two months earlier, in what was uniformly reported as a riot sparked by a case of discrimination in far-off Surabaya, a small OPM unit penetrated the highland capital of Wamena, 100 kilometers to the east, setting government buildings ablaze and killing at least 33 non-Papuan settlers.
All this explains the strong government reaction to a March 1 UN statement condemning the police and military for "shocking" human rights abuses over the past three years, including alleged child killings, disappearances, torture and the mass displacement of villagers.
In an unusually harsh response, Indonesia's Permanent Mission to the UN in Geneva accused the UN of taking a biased, "one-sided megaphone approach" to Papua, continuing what it said was a pattern of "unconstructive and baseless attacks" against the government.
Former attorney-general Marzuki Darusman and other neutral observers say the reality of the situation on the ground does not lend itself to sweeping generalizations, pointing to widely-varying instances of excessive violence across the Central Highlands that can't be attributed solely to one side.
Jakarta-based diplomats were surprised at the tone and timing of the UN report, which painted a picture of security over-reach mindful of an earlier era when the military – and particularly its special forces – had a well-earned reputation for brutality.
Fixated on the Covid-19 pandemic and economic recovery, President Joko Widodo and senior officials have said almost nothing about the latest violence, which they have blamed in the past on criminality rather than decades-old grievances that have still to be addressed.
In fact, it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between self-styled freedom fighters and what the government habitually refers to as "Armed Criminal Groups" (KKB), bands of rifle-toting men who roam the highlands kidnapping women and stealing pigs and other valuables.
One striking exception was the 2019 attack on Wamena, which eyewitnesses say had a clear political objective, despite news reports lumping it together with riots that had taken place in the Papuan capital of Jayapura and other major towns across the two provinces.
Analysts saw a similarity in the tenor of the UN statement with remarks made on February 25 by Papua Governor Lukas Enembe, who claimed an unidentified senior government official had been pressuring him not to talk about human rights cases.
A three-man legal team set up by the governor, a member of the dominant Dani tribe and former district chief of Puncak Jaya, found there was substance to the allegations of abuse, although team leader Saor Siagian did not elaborate.
Likewise, Guatemalan lawyer and diplomat Francisco Cali Tzay, the UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people, did not respond to an Asia Times request for more detail that would support charges of widespread, systematic military abuse.
He and fellow rapporteurs Morris Tidball-Binz (extra-judicial, summary or arbitrary executions) and Cecelia Jiminez-Damary (internally displaced people) said the situation had "dramatically deteriorated" since the 2021 killing of Brigadier-General Putu Nugraha Karya, 50, a veteran special forces intelligence officer.
The statement claimed more than 5,000 people were forcibly displaced between April and November 2021, adding to an estimated 60,000 to 100,00 villagers driven from their homes since the escalation of the violence in 2018. Many, they said, had not returned due to a heavy security presence and ongoing clashes.
The rapporteurs said they had written to the government a dozen times in the past three years expressing concern about numerous alleged incidents, which they claimed may be only the tip of the iceberg given that access to Papua is denied to foreign journalists and most international observers.
The one exception is the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which inspected refugee (IDP) sites in Nduga last year. A spokesman says the government has granted every request the organization has made to visit Papua.
Many of the ICRC's long-established programs focus on human rights training for officers and men of both the police and also the Cendarawasih (Papua) and Kasuari (West Papua) regional military commands based in the province capitals of Jayapura and Manokwari.
Darusman, the chairman of the first Indonesian Human Rights Commission who has been involved in UN human rights investigations on North Korea, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, says frustrated officials have lost patience with the UN because "they seem to feel they have done all that is possible."
That was reflected in the Indonesian response, which said the UN failed to understand the need for a security presence in areas "where attacks by armed groups against civilians, including women and children, health and construction workers, local election offices and teachers are rampant."
It was particularly incensed at the UN's claim that IDPs had no access to adequate and timely food and health services, and that security forces had stopped aid workers from visiting villages where the refugees had taken shelter.
The Indonesians called that a "bold-faced lie," noting that the Social Affairs Ministry has provided 6.5 billion rupiah in basic needs to IDPs in Intan Jaya and Nduga regencies, both the scene of past violence, and also "billions of rupiah" to internal refugees in Yahukimo and Yalimo regencies.
Puncak has become the main trouble-spot because local sources say it is a convergence point for five or six different rebel groups, amounting to more than 300 men, most armed with assault rifles and more ammunition than they have had before.
Yahukimo has also been the scene of continuing armed clashes, but analysts have been unable to explain the reasons behind a sudden outburst of violence in Pegunungan Bitung regency on the Papua New Guinea border, where ethnic groups have little in common with those in the rest of the highlands.
The violence has also spread to Maybrat regency in West Papua, a once-quiet area with an increased military presence and growing conflicts over natural resources, according to Tapol, a British NGO monitoring human rights in Indonesia.
The organization says a presidential instruction issued in 2020 giving the army a mandate to assist in development efforts has led, directly or indirectly, to indigenous villagers being pressured into relinquishing communal land for palm oil plantations.
The methods run counter to the 2002 Special Autonomy Law, which requires consultation on land and other issues. But critics note that when the national parliament passed amendments to the law last year, it was also done without proper consultation as it should have been.
The most telling revisions focused on the special autonomy fund and efforts by Jakarta to ensure accountability and improve the delivery of goods and services; according to official data, $8.3 billion was transferred to Papua from central government coffers between 20002 and 2020.
The UN statement was issued only two months after TNI chief Perkasa told a Parliamentary hearing he wanted to abandon the combat-heavy policy to Papua and replace it with a softer "humanistic approach" that is considered long overdue.
The move, publicly endorsed by Vice-President Ma'ruf Amin, who nominally oversees Papua policies, and newly-installed army chief of staff General Dudung Abdurachman, foresees servicemen functioning as teachers, health workers and building contractors.
Perkasa's plan also calls for the operational command of non-organic combat units passing from their headquarters outside of Papua to a network of 22 district commands (kodims), each fielding 700-900 men. About 9,000 troop reinforcements are sent to Papua each year as part of a regular rotation.
Military planners say that under ideal conditions there should be 60 kodims across the territory, which has a sparse 5.4 million population and covers nearly 450,000 square kilometers, much of it still clothed in Indonesia's richest store of primary forest.