Indonesia’s Papua Region Hosts National Games Amid Rise in Insurgency

Victor Mambor
Jayapura, Indonesia
Indonesia’s Papua Region Hosts National Games Amid Rise in Insurgency Locals in traditional costumes welcome the arrival of the National Games’ torch in Jayapura City, Papua, Indonesia, Oct. 1, 2021.
[Courtesy Antara]

A major national sports event opens in Papua on Saturday, with officials hoping it will showcase the Indonesian government’s commitment to developing the province and reassure the public that the region is safe despite an active and escalating separatist insurgency.

The National Games, an event held once every four years, were scheduled to take place in 2020 but were postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The games now will run from Oct. 2 through Oct. 15 in Jayapura, the provincial capital, and three regencies.

Billy Mambrasar, a Papua-born advisor to President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, said the government hopes the games will help boost the economy of the deeply impoverished region, which lies at the eastern tip of the Indonesian archipelago.

“The National Games in Papua, as Mr. Jokowi hopes, will be successful not only in terms of sporting events and organization, but also in creating a multiplier effect,” he told reporters in Papua.

Billy said he had traveled across Papua to ensure that Papuan small businesses were involved in organizing the games.

The people of Papua are already benefiting economically from the games, said Youth and Sports Minister Zainudin Amali.

“It has brought an economic impact on the communities,” Zainudin said on Thursday, in a statement posted on the ministry’s website.

“People sell T-shirts and souvenirs. Moreover, the situation here is under control.”

Papua won the right to host the games in 2014, outbidding Bali and Aceh provinces. A total of 7,039 athletes and officials have descended on Papua for the country’s biggest sporting event, in which competitors will vie for medals in 56 sports.

The games will be held at venues in Jayapura City and three regencies – Jayapura, Merauke and Mimika. Some events, including esports, began last week.

‘All events will go well’

The director of the National Counter-Terrorism Agency (BNPT) expressed optimism that the games would proceed without incident, saying the separatist insurgency was “hundreds of kilometers away.”

“The military and police have taken necessary security precautions, so we are optimistic that all events will go well,” Boy Rafli Amar said in a video interview with

More than 21,000 police and soldiers had been “deployed to prevent any security and public order disturbances,” national police chief Gen. Listyo Sigit Prabowo said.

“What we hope is that the games will run safely and smoothly, while COVID-19 remains under control,” Listyo told reporters after visiting sport venues in Papua on Thursday.

The areas where the games will be held are generally peaceful. But violence linked to the insurgency has broken out in other parts of the sprawling and underdeveloped region that comprises Papua and West Papua provinces, and which makes up the western half of New Guinea Island.

In September, suspected rebels set fire to public buildings, including a health clinic and an elementary school in Kiwirok district, after security forces killed an insurgent during a gunfight, police said.

A 22-year-old nurse died after falling into a ravine while trying to flee the scene of the attack. One of her colleagues survived after being stabbed.

A policeman and a soldier were also killed in clashes with rebels.

The separatist insurgency has simmered for decades in the Papua region, but violence has intensified in the past three years.

In April, 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 Jokowi to order a crackdown.


Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who will officially inaugurate the National Games, buys Nokens – traditional Papuan bags – from a craftswoman in Jayapura, Papua, Indonesia, Oct. 1, 2021. [Courtesy President Joko Widodo’s official Facebook account]

Some local businesses unhappy

Jayapura Regent Mathius Awoitauw said the games could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

“The National Games are a matter of pride for Papuans, because it is extraordinary to have been entrusted to host it,” he said.

But some local businesses, including members of the Chamber of Papuan Indigenous Entrepreneurs (KAPP) and the Papuan Coffee Community, said they had been left out.

“We have had several meeting with the games’ organizers but there has been no progress,” Meky Wetipo, KAPP’s executive director, told BenarNews.

“We hope that they can entrust us with providing 3 tons of skipjack tuna, several tons of carrots, and fruit. But all these things are being done by government agencies.”

Denny Yigibalom, a coffee farmer and owner of the TIYOM coffee brand, said he had met with local lawmakers to discuss cooperation between coffee farmers and the games’ organizers, but there had been no further communication.

Makers of noken, traditional Papuan bags, said they were disappointed not to have been enlisted to provide souvenirs for the games, said Cintya Warwe, the manager of the Papua Women’s Market.

“During a meeting at the end of August with the women of the Meepago noken community, the women complained because the organizers had promised to buy 5,000 nokens. But this has not happened,” Cintya told BenarNews.

She said she heard news that the games’ committee wanted to buy 25,000 fake nokens from outside Papua to be used as mementoes.

However, some indigenous small businesses are taking part in the events by setting up tents to sell handicrafts outside the new Lukas Enembe Stadium, which cost nearly $1 million to build and is named after the serving governor of Papua.

Individual residents have also been allowed to set up stalls outside the stadium and sell handicrafts and betel or areca nuts, which are traditionally consumed raw by Papuans and people in neighboring Papua New Guinea.

In Merauke, women from the Marind tribe are selling handicrafts, including bags, hats, wallets, bracelets, necklaces, and bows along the city streets.

“Sales are worth up to 3 million rupiah (U.S. $210) a day. Bags, wallets and hats are the most popular. Most of the buyers are contingents from outside Papua,” said Maria D. Keimawu, leader of a small businesses association.

COVID-19 concerns

The provincial government, meanwhile, has taken measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 during the games, including by ramping up vaccinations and limiting the number of people who can enter the main stadium to fewer than 10,000, officials said.

“Gatherings of large numbers of people, even with strict health protocols, should be cause for concern,” said Masdalina Pane, a member of the Indonesian Association of Epidemiologists.

She said cases spiked after the recently completed Tokyo Olympics and the European football championship.

Yunus Wonda, the games’ chief organizer, said more than 50 percent of people in the areas that host the games had received at least on dose of a vaccine.

“We will make sure that everyone entering the venue have been vaccinated, that’s the main requirement,” he said, referring to the opening ceremony at the Lukas Enembe Stadium.


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