Indonesian defense ministry seeks budget boost to counter Papuan insurgency

Arie Firdaus
Indonesian defense ministry seeks budget boost to counter Papuan insurgency A Papuan man (right) in traditional clothing, with his face painted in the colors of the Morning Star Flag that’s banned by Indonesia, stands next to a police officer during a demonstration demanding a referendum on the independence of the Papua region in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, Dec. 1, 2023.
[Devi Rahman/AFP]

Indonesia’s Defense Ministry said Wednesday it had requested a bigger budget to buy high-tech weapons that can “detect or retaliate” against separatist rebels in Papua who know the region’s terrain better. 

Human rights activists criticized the ministry proposal, arguing it would escalate violence and lead to more civilians being caught in the crossfire in the mineral-rich but underdeveloped region. 

The government, though, is also working on economic upliftment, because security measures go hand in hand with improving Papuans’ welfare, said Donny Ermawan Taufanto, the ministry’s acting secretary-general.

“We’ve asked the government for additional funding specifically for Papua, but so far that budget has not been released,” Donny said during a speech to a joint armed forces and police event at a military college in Jakarta.

“Our soldiers and police officers are not as good as OPM [the Free Papua Movement] in terms of terrain recognition. They [the rebels] know the terrain, they are physically fit,” he said.

OPM has waged a low-level guerrilla war against Indonesian rule ever since Jakarta annexed the far-eastern Papua region in 1963. 

He said technology would help troops counter the rebels’ superior knowledge of the hills, mountains and forests, where they are able to evade the security forces and go into hiding.

“[With the additional funds] we will provide some additional helicopters, planes, and the like, and equipment such as sensors to detect or retaliate against the OPM,” Donny said.

He did not say how much more money the ministry had requested.

In 2023, there were 61 deaths attributed to rebel actions. The fatalities included 32 civilians, 26 members of the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI), and three police officers, the military said in March. So far this year, two soldiers and three police have been killed in Papua.

‘Occasional criminal incidents’

Resolving the Papuan conflict, however, requires more than military action and efforts must be made to advance the region’s development, according to Donny.

The government of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo had “initiated welfare programs for the Papuan people, built various roads, and advanced the economy,” Donny said.

“However, occasional criminal incidents continue to occur.”

On Wednesday, the president met with his security aides and other cabinet members to discuss Papua. 

The attendees included Defense Minister and President-elect Prabowo Subianto, State Intelligence Agency Chief Budi Gunawan and Suharso Monoarfa, head of the National Development Planning Agency.

“The National Development Planning Agency is working on speeding up Papua’s development,” Suharso told reporters after the meeting. 

“We’re also focusing on welfare initiatives there,” he said, highlighting the government’s efforts in education and health.

Papua, which covers the western half of New Guinea island, has seen a separatist insurgency since the 1960s.

In 1963, Indonesian forces invaded Papua – like Indonesia, a former Dutch colony – and annexed the region.

Papua was incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 after a United Nations-sponsored vote, which locals and activists said was a sham because it involved only about 1,000 people. However, the U.N. accepted the result, essentially endorsing Jakarta’s rule.

Papuans march with placards during a demonstration in Jakarta demanding a referendum on Papua's independence, Jakarta, December 1, 2023. [Bay Ismoyo/AFP]

Human rights activists criticized the Defense Ministry’s proposal, arguing that more weapons in the hands of the military would result in more violence.

Adriana Elisabeth, a Papua expert, called the proposal unnecessary. 

“Situations like difficult terrain aren’t new for the military. With the sheer number of personnel, they heavily outnumber separatists,” Adriana, researcher at the National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN), told BenarNews.

“So, aren’t there other ways besides adding weaponry?” 

She said the total number of security forces are estimated at 19,000, while the insurgents number around 2,000.

For their part, Indonesian officials say that security operations are needed to address ongoing attacks by separatists against the military, police, and civilians.

Human rights groups have accused the Indonesian military of abuses in Papua, including extrajudicial killings and suppression of dissent. Jakarta has denied these accusations.

Both government forces and rebels accuse each other of such abuses in the insurgency.


The ongoing conflict has caused mass displacement over the years, said Emanuel Gobay, director of the Papua Legal Aid Institute. 

“The conflict will surely escalate. How many more refugees will there be?” he told BenarNews.

From 2018 to 2023, the institute recorded that 76,228 refugees from seven Papuan districts had fled the fighting, Gobay said.

He said he believed that instead of granting additional funds for defense, the money should be used for education, health, and housing for Papuans. He cited cases of Papuan students losing scholarships due to local government funding cuts. 

“In my opinion, the Ministry of Defense is misprioritizing,” he said.

One Papuan human rights activist, Yones Douw, urged Jakarta to consider a peace agreement for Papua such as the one that ended a similar conflict in Aceh province in 2005. 

“Adding military strength and weapons will only complicate the problems in Papua,” he told BenarNews. 

“It was possible there [Aceh], so why not in Papua?”

Victor Mambor in Jayapura, Indonesia, contributed to this report.


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