Sebastian Strangio – This last weekend brought the news of another deadly attack in the Papua region of eastern Indonesia, amid rising tensions ahead of the Indonesian government's planned subdivision of the region.
According to police in Papua, nine people were shot dead in a suspected attack by armed separatists in Nduga Regency, deep in the thickly forested Papuan highlands.
"It is true that there were attacks on civilians, causing 10 of them to suffer gunshot wounds and led to nine of them losing their lives," Faizal Rahmadani, director of criminal investigation at the Papua regional police, told the Indonesia state news agency Antara. The headline of the article attributed the attack to a "terror group."
The June 16 attack comes amid a campaign of protests against an Indonesian government plan to split the provinces of Papua and West Papua into five new provinces, by creating a South Papua Province, Central Papua Province, and Papua Central Highlands Province.
According to a July 16 article by the Asia Pacific Report, protesters last week "braved brutal police blockades, forced dispersals, and assaults while staging simultaneous mass actions across Papua."
Their aim was to voice their opposition to the provincial subdivision plan and the recent extension and revision of the Special Autonomy Law that governs Papua and West Papua, and to air perennial calls for an independence referendum. According to one Papua-focused rights advocate, the state deployed 2,000 soldiers in the Papuan capital Jayapura ahead of the protests.
The Indonesian parliament first announced the plans for the creation of new provinces in Papua and West Papua in April, though similar schemes have been considered at various times since the days of President Suharto's New Order regime. The laws enabling the creation of the new administration divisions were passed by the House of Representatives on June 30.
The government's rationale for the subdivision is that it will produce more manageable administrative units and help promote good governance and economic development in Papua and West Papua. This, Jakarta seems to believe, will address the root of the separatist rebellion that has simmered since the region's absorption by Indonesia after a dubious referendum in 1969.
"We hope that this will not only reduce conflicts but also bring equitable development to the whole of Papua," Ahmad Doli Kurnia, chair of the House commission overseeing home affairs, said after the passage of the laws, the Jakarta Post reported.
But the past five years have offered ample evidence of the disconnect between the Indonesian government's own perception of what it is doing in Papua and West Papua and those of many of its indigenous inhabitants. Particularly telling are the frequent attacks on infrastructure projects, such as the 4,300-kilometer Trans-Papua Highway, which was the subject of a 2018 attack from the West Papua National Liberation Army that killed 16 laborers working on the road.
While Jakarta views infrastructure as in the interests of Papuan population, the separatist movement views such development as something that is only likely to erode the local culture and facilitate the extraction of the region's rich natural resources, while facilitating transmigration from other parts of the Indonesia and the deployment of security forces across the region.
Over the past five years, particularly since the attack on the Trans-Papua Highway, Papua province in particular has become increasingly militarized as the government has strengthened the security presence in the region in response to separatist attacks. In November 2020, the regional U.N. Human Rights Office expressed its concern about the "escalating violence" and "the increased risk of renewed tension and violence."
As a result, many observers claim that the plan to create new provinces is likely to complicate efforts for a peaceful solution to the Papua conflict. As Aprila Wayar and Johnny Blades wrote in a feature for The Diplomat last month, the ongoing conflict stems not from a lack of development per se, but from core grievances over how Indonesia took control of Papua in the 1960s and the decades of human rights violations that accompanied its incorporation into the Indonesian state.
In the plan for new Papuan provinces, they wrote, "many people sense a kind of 'end game' strategy by Indonesia's government that is expected to worsen the long-running conflict in Papua." This week's attack demonstrates that the truth of this assessment
[Sebastian Strangio is Southeast Asia editor at The Diplomat.]