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Indonesian military urged to cut presence, use of force in Papua

Jakarta Post - April 17, 2024

Dio Suhenda, Jakarta – A recent string of fatal clashes in Papua has led experts to call for more restraint in the Indonesian Military's (TNI) handling of tensions in the country's restive easternmost region.

Resource-rich Papua has seen conflict between separatists and security forces since the 1970s, but tensions have escalated considerably since 2018, with pro-independence armed groups mounting deadlier and more frequent attacks.

In February of last year, the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB), the armed wing of the Free Papua Movement (OPM), took a New Zealand pilot hostage in the hope of using him as a bargaining chip to negotiate for Papuan independence.

Despite the government's promise to prioritise a "soft approach" in efforts to rescue the pilot, conflict has escalated. The National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) has reported that at least eight people have died in 12 clashes that have occurred since March.

Tensions are reaching new heights because the government has continued to look to the TNI to provide an answer to the TPNPB's more frequent attacks, said Deka Anwar, a researcher at the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), a Jakarta-based think tank.

He said the deployment of more soldiers to safeguard national strategic projects such as the Trans-Papua highway project had followed the intensified TPNPB attacks.

"Rather than deescalating conflict, this chain of action-reaction has escalated it," Deka said on Tuesday.

Adriana Elisabeth, a National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN) researcher with expertise on Papua, said the government should reconsider its approach to handling tensions in Papua, as sending more troops to address conflicts with separatists had proven ineffective.

"Since these separatists are armed, the government might assume that solving the problems with guns would be effective," she said. "The reality is armed conflict keeps on happening, putting the innocent Papuans at risk."

The topics of Papua and Indonesia's handling of the armed conflict there have repeatedly surfaced on the international diplomatic stage.

The latest example was in March, when the United Nations Human Rights Committee wrote in a report that it was concerned about multiple reports of extrajudicial killings in Papua. It also underlined the lack of investigation into the incidents despite "the state party's commitment to do so".

New name, same problems

The TNI recently decided to officially refer to the TPNPB as part of the OPM, the government-recognized separatist group. Previously, the TPNPB was officially considered an armed criminal group (KKB).

The decision was made to protect the soldiers on the ground, the TNI said.

"If the OPM acts brutally, the TNI can take stern action because they are combatants and can be killed in combat, which is in line with humanitarian law," TNI spokesperson Brig. Gen. Nugraha Gumilar said on Sunday, as quoted by Tempo.

The National Police, however, were against the decision and still refer to the TPNPB as a KKB.

Adriana of BRIN said the government would be better served if it looked at the OPM as more than just a security threat, since the movement had constituent organizations beyond the TPNPB.

"It might be easy to [treat the OPM as simply] an armed group, but in reality, it has other bodies focusing on diplomacy and political negotiations," she said. "As long as there is a misunderstanding [about what the OPM is], it will be difficult to address the situation in Papua."

Adriana urged the government to quickly come up with a conflict resolution plan that not only sought to develop Papua's economy but also addressed its underlying tensions through a multisector dialogue with the respective governmental institutions.

New leadership

Barring an upset at the Constitutional Court next week, Defense Minister and former Army general Prabowo Subianto is set to become the country's next president, likely bringing new developments to the government's handling of the Papua situation.

Prabowo's presidency, according to Deka of the IPAC, could either be beneficial or detrimental to Papua, when taking into account Prabowo's military background and that he has been accused of committing human rights violations, allegations he denies.

"Prabowo could give a blank check to the TNI to do as they please in Papua," Deka said. But Prabowo might also be more involved than President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo in handling security issues in Papua.

"Jokowi hasn't been too hands on. He generally relies on the TNI to ensure the safety of his national strategic projects," Deka continued. "But if Prabowo decides to be more involved, there could be a clearer strategy and coordination, pushing the TNI to be more professional."

Source: https://asianews.network/indonesian-military-urged-to-cut-presence-use-of-force-in-papua