Indonesia’s new military chief downplays escalating violence in Papua

Arie Firdaus and Dandy Koswaraputra
Indonesia’s new military chief downplays escalating violence in Papua Pro-Papua independence demonstrators hold signs during a street protest in Jakarta, Dec. 19, 2022.
Ajeng Dinar Ulfiana/Reuters

Indonesia’s new military chief said Tuesday that violence in the troubled Papua region had not risen to an emergency level after one person died and eight others were injured when police fired on rioting villagers in a newly established province.

Villagers who were armed with arrows and crude weapons attacked a police station in Tolikara, a regency in Papua Highlands province, on Monday after two apparently drunk people allegedly assaulted an officer, police spokesman Ahmad Musthofa Kamal said. Three civilians and five officers were injured.

“Not yet. I don’t think it has reached that level,” Adm. Yudo Margono, who was sworn in as Indonesian Armed Forces commander on Monday, said in response to a reporter’s question about whether a regional spike in violence over the past few years had reached the level of an emergency.

“So far it remains a criminal law enforcement issue, so Indonesian police are in charge, but we are helping law enforcement,” he added, noting that it would be up to President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to declare a state of emergency in Papua.

On Monday, Jokowi said a reduction of troops in Papua as requested by human rights groups would be a “good” idea, but he warned that violence would persist without strong action against armed rebels.

“A humane approach is good, reducing troops is good. But we have to be firm. Without firm action, armed criminal groups will continue to do what they do and problems will never end,” the president said in a speech after inducting Yudo.

Violence has intensified in Papua since 2018, when separatist rebels attacked workers who were building roads and bridges in Nduga regency, killing 20 people, including an Indonesian soldier.

Police said Monday’s attack on the Tolikara police station occurred after officers arrested a man and a woman over the alleged assault.

Kamal said the pair escaped but “moments later, they returned to the Tolikara police station with dozens of people, family and friends, carrying crude weapons, arrows and rocks.”

Police fired warning shots and tear gas, but the crowd did not stop, forcing personnel to respond, Kamal said.

“One person was killed on the way to the Wamena Hospital after measured force was taken,” he said.

Sebby Sambom, spokesman for the West Papua National Liberation Army, dismissed Jokowi’s remarks about reducing troops as “lip service.”

“We Papuans know very well the habit of the Indonesian government. They say one thing and do another,” Sambom told BenarNews on Monday.

Later, BenarNews could not immediately reach him for comment about Monday’s deadly violence.

The Papua region, which makes up the western half of New Guinea island, is notorious for human rights abuses committed by members of the Indonesian police and security forces. Armed separatist Papuan rebels have also been accused of committing atrocities against civilians.

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

Six years later, only about 1,000 people voted in the U.N.-sponsored referendum, called a sham by locals and activists. The U.N. accepted the vote, essentially endorsing Jakarta’s rule.

Earlier in December, activist groups accused Indonesian police, soldiers and rebels of engaging in extrajudicial killings in Papua.

In a report marking Human Rights Day, Amnesty International said 36 people were killed by security forces and separatist rebels in the Papua and West Papua provinces this year, an increase from 28 in 2021.

“Of the cases allegedly perpetrated by security personnel, none have been prosecuted in public courts,” said Fauziah Mayangsari, an Amnesty researcher in Indonesia.

In August, six Indonesian soldiers were arrested in connection with the deaths of four Papuans whose mutilated bodies were found a week earlier in Mimika Baru, a district in Mimika regency.

Earlier this month, a human rights tribunal in the city of Makassar found a retired Indonesian military officer not guilty of charges stemming from security forces fatally shooting four teenage protesters in Papua’s Paniai regency in 2014.

Poltak Partogi Nainggolan, a researcher at the cabinet-level National Research and Innovation Agency, said both the military and police should reduce personnel in Papua.

“It will be good if this materializes,” Nainggolan told BenarNews.

“There have been recent deployments of Brimob [elite paramilitary Mobile Brigade police unit] in areas considered vulnerable,” he said.

An Amnesty campaign manager, Nurina Savitri, said violence in Papua stemmed from what she called “a security approach.”

“Indigenous Papuans live in the atmosphere of violence and experience various restrictions on activities in the public and private spheres due to the increasing presence of Indonesian security forces,” Nurina told BenarNews.

“The presence of security forces is a traumatic experience that has been felt by Papuans for generations.”

The government has ignored the demands of Papuans, she said.

“As a result, distrust between the two sides has become deeper and violence persists,” Nurina said.

Pizaro Gozali Idrus in Jakarta and Victor Mambor in Jayapura, Indonesia, contributed to this report.


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