Tria Dianti and Arie Firdaus, Jakarta – The illegal sale of government-issued weapons and ammunition by Indonesian soldiers to separatist rebels in the Papua region surged in 2022, military officials said, warning that service members caught aiding the separatists could face execution.
Twenty-seven cases of such illicit sales by army personnel were reported last year, compared with 10 in 2021 in six Papua provinces, Adm. Yudo Margono, commander of the Indonesian military (TNI), said this week.
The military will harshly punish any personnel involved in such transactions, including buying and selling illegal weapons, TNI spokesman Rear Adm. Julius Widjojono said. Headquarters will continue monitoring to prevent illegal weapons trading, especially in the far-eastern Papua region, he said.
"In the future, Adm. Yudo will impose maximum punishment, the death penalty, if military personnel are found to have committed wrongdoing," Julius told BenarNews on Thursday.
Indonesia as a whole is notorious for corruption across the government and public sector. "Apart from buying and selling, the abuse includes carrying weapons in inappropriate places, threatening people with arms," Julius said.
'An old practice'
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the rebel side and experts on the long-running Papuan conflict confirmed that such sales were occurring but did not comment on the volume or types of weapons sold.
The West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB), the military wing of the Free Papua Organization, said such sales have been going on for a long time in Papua.
TPNPB spokesman Sebby Sambom said he bought three automatic weapons from Indonesian troops in Wamena, Papua Pegunungan province, for 300 million rupiah (U.S. $20,435) in 2007 and 2008.
"So, it's an old practice. It's not something new. Besides, not all TNI members hate Papuans," he said.
Sambom said rebels obtained firearms by purchasing them from soldiers or seizing them from the Indonesia army and police.
Yones Douw, a human rights activist in Papua, confirmed that rebels had been purchasing and selling illegal weapons in Papua for years, both individually and in groups.
"Selling weapons in groups is difficult to detect because those who sell and buy protect each other. This is what causes a prolonged conflict that never ends," Douw told BenarNews.
Supply and demand
Adriana Elisabeth, a researcher at the Papua Peace Network (Jaringan Damai Papua), an NGO focusing on conflict resolution, said the sources of firearms in Papua could come from anywhere, including from members of Indonesian military and police. She said the marketing of such firearms was related to the principle of supply and demand.
"The illegal arms trading involves many parties, including security forces and ordinary people," Adriana told BenarNews. "That's financially beneficial as well as a source of prolonged conflict. This condition also 'commonly' occurs in many armed conflicts in other countries."
House member Yan Mandenas urged Yudo to take action against soldiers involved in selling weapons to armed separatist groups and prepare a strategy to prevent this from happening in the future.
"This is a serious violation, so it must be a strict penalty against those who sell weapons," Yan told BenarNews.
The growing strength and expansion of the TPNPB coincided with an increasing number of factory-made firearms, according to a report published in July 2022 by the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), a Jakarta think-tank.
In May 2021, the report said, police claimed that six-armed groups operating in Papua possessed 70 firearms – most were government-issued that were stolen or purchased from rogue military or police officers. The firearms included assault weapons manufactured by PT Pindad, the national munitions company.
Some independent estimates put the number of firearms possessed by rebel troops across Papua to be as high as 400 to 450, according to IPAC.
Reports of illegal arms purchases by the TPNPB have been making headlines since 2020. One high-profile case occurred in February 2021 when a soldier and two police in Ambon were arrested after allegedly attempting to sell weapons, according to IPAC.
Weapons and ammunition are either delivered by personnel who use their counterinsurgency assignment in Papua as an opportunity to carry them or hand them over to buyers who can transport them to Papua via sea routes, IPAC reported.
[Victor Mambor in Jayapura, Indonesia, contributed to this report.]