Conflict Resolution in Papua and the Label of Terrorism

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Conflict Resolution in Papua and the Label of Terrorism

Labeling the West Papua National Army-Free Papua Organization a terrorist outfit complicates future conflict resolution efforts.

Conflict Resolution in Papua and the Label of Terrorism

Indonesian soldiers stand guard during a protest in Timika, Papua province, Wednesday, August 21, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Jimmy Rahadat

On April 29, the Coordinating Minister for Politics, Legal, and Security Affairs formally labelled Papua’s armed criminal organization (KKB), also known as the West Papua National Army-Free Papua Organization (TNPB-OPM), a terrorist organization. The decision comes after a series of attacks by TNPB-OPM in April resulted in the death of Brig. Gen. I Gusti Putu Danny, the head of the State Intelligence Agency (BIN) in Papua. While national stakeholders were largely supportive, Papua Governor Lukas Enembe issued a statement the following day rejecting the policy — calling on the government to adopt a more humane security approach to Papua.

Labeling the TNPB-OPM a terrorist organization will only complicate the resolution of Papua’s long standing low-intensity conflict, Conflict resolution in Papua has been neglected and undermined in national policy discourse. By opening up room to increase more security personnel and conduct pre-emptive arrests, the policy risks antagonizing local communities, shoring up local support for TNPB-OPM, and increasing wrongful arrest of members of nonviolent pro-independence movements. All of this further jettisons the possibility of a meaningful dialogue between Papua and Jakarta — a dialogue that is vital to achieving humane conflict resolution in the province.

The TNPB-OPM Today

Conflict and violence in Papua are sparked by multiple overlapping factors including, but not limited to, the political history of Papua’s integration into Indonesia, the economic marginalization of Papuans in a resource rich province, and serious and intense human rights violations. It is these unresolved grievances that have given rise to various pro-independence groups, some embracing violence while others prioritize peaceful political protest, which all coalesce in the movement generically known as the Free Papua Organization (OPM).

The TNPB-OPM is the armed wing of the OPM. Established during OPM’s formal announcement in 1964, the TNPB-OPM has consistently been beset with clan-based rivalries, communication problems, and a lack of central leadership. In theory, the organization is comprised of a network of 33 regional commands and headed by one supreme commander who oversees the network and coordinates with OPM’s nonviolent political wings. However, in practice, only four or five regional commands are active and the role of the supreme commander is often disputed between multiple personalities — preventing any coordination between them and OPM’s nonviolent political wings. 

Despite its internal disarray, the Indonesian government’s oscillating conflict with the TNPB-OPM has lasted 50 years and is now the country’s longest campaign of violence. In the past six years, the TNPB-OPM’s activity has increased noticeably. Data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Dataset (ACLED) shows that between 2015 and 2021, the TNPB-OPM was involved in 186 acts of violence targeting the military (42.5 percent), civilians (29.6 percent), and police (28 percent). The group’s activity peaked in 2020 when they were involved in 73 violent incidents, twice the amount of activity in 2019 and almost seven times the amount of activity compared to 2015.

However, despite this rise, violent incidents involving the TNPB-OPM are not the most common forms of violence in Papua, as they only comprise 23 percent of all violence in the province. In addition, the increasing frequency of attacks is not necessarily accompanied by a rise in lethality. By 2021, each violent incident involving the TNPB-OPM only resulted in an average of 0.63 fatalities, only half the lethality rate of the group in 2015. Additionally, the rise of TNPB-OPM involvement in violent incidents is not equally spread out across Papua, as 81.2 percent of all the incidents occurred in the subdistricts of Mimika, Intan Jaya, Nduga, and Puncak.

Conflict Resolution in Papua

Despite the long-winded conflict with the TNPB-OPM, a grand strategy for conflict resolution is practically non-existent in Papua. This is not necessarily from a lack of trying. The Indonesian Institute of Science (LIPI), for example, developed a proposal in 2009 for a peace dialogue based on respect, genuine interest, active listening, and practical questioning, to be conducted in Papua as one way to break the cycle of violence. These dialogues were designed to build trust between Papua and Jakarta, which could then be used as a modality to begin addressing Papua’s grievances. But the proposal has never been taken seriously by the central government.

The central government seems to be “traumatized” by the prospect of considering anything resembling a dialogue. They perceive that it would only lead to a proposal by the Papuans to opt for a referendum or even independence, as exemplified by the experience of former President B.J. Habibie when he met 100 Papuan leaders in Jakarta on February 26, 1999. At that occasion, Papuan traditional leaders asked Habibie to return Papua’s independence. Another reason to avoid dialogue stems from the central government’s argument that it is not easy to identify the “representative” of Papua.

Despite the lack of comprehensive dialogues, there have been some attempts at conflict resolution in Papua. However, these attempts have their own shortcomings. First, conflict resolution has tended to be limited to individual initiatives. This occurred during Abdurrahman Wahid’s (Gus Dur) short-lived presidency. In December 1999, Gus Dur visited Papua to have an informal dialogue with diverse “representatives” from Papua. The dialogue began as an effort to induce a humanitarian approach to the conflict. Gus Dur also approved the pro-independence congress and approved the raising of the Morning Star. Unfortunately, these initial attempts of humanitarian approaches to the conflict did not continue after Gus Dur’s presidency ended.

Second, policies that aimed to solve Papua’s economic, political, and socio-cultural grievances were often poorly implemented. This is what has become of the Special Autonomy Policy that was enacted in 2001 under President Megawati Soekarnoputri — a policy that will end in 2021. Largely, the Special Autonomy Policy was seen as a failure. Local Papuans complained that it failed to increase the welfare of indigenous Papuans and address their socio-cultural and political grievances. The Commission of Truth and Reconciliation and the establishment of local political parties, which could have served as an important panacea to Papua’s political and human rights issues, were never implemented.

How Labels Complicate Papua’s Conflict Resolution

It is within this background of a largely non-existent conflict resolution effort that the labeling of the TNPB-OPM as a terrorist organization should be assessed. Juxtaposed with the consistently lackluster effort from Jakarta to design meaningful and sustainable policies to address Papua’s grievances, this labeling of the TNPB-OPM can easily be seen as a disproportionate security response from Jakarta, one that can further cement distrust and stoke fear in the population, complicating future conflict resolution attempts even further. Labeling the TNPB a terrorist organization complicates conflict resolution because of two operational implications. 

First, such a label opens up room to increase security personnel in Papua under additional counterterrorism operations. Indeed, after the Coordinating Ministry of Politics, Legal, and Security Affairs officially labelled the TNPB-OPM as a terrorist organization, the National Police (Pori) stated that discussions were already underway regarding how Special Detachment 88 (Densus 88) can be integrated into existing military operations in Papua — similar to how they were integrated to Operation Tinombala against the Mujahidin of East Indonesia (MIT) in Poso, Central Sulawesi.

An increase in security personnel may be particularly problematic in Papua due to the already immense military and police presence the province has amassed in the last decade. Data from Imparsial estimated that in 2019 there were 12,100-16,320 TNI personnel operating in Papua, resulting in a TNI per capita ratio of 1:211 — more than twice as dense as Indonesia’s overall TNI per capita ratio. Unfortunately, due to the lack of cultural context briefings and their de facto impunity, Papua’s large security presence has not dented TNPB-OPM’s activities more than it has harmed civilians. Adding more counterterrorism personnel will only further antagonize local communities as such moves raise fears of increased disproportionate security responses.

Furthermore, if additional counterterrorism operations are not transparently executed, a successful capture/killing of TNPB-OPM personnel can risk increasing local support for the organization. Such errors are not new to Indonesia’s counterterrorism efforts. This has happened once before in Timika, Papua with the murder of Kelly Kwalik, a TNPB-OPM commander, in 2009 by Densus 88, who claimed to have acted in self-defense. The incident resulted in Kelly Kwalik being locally venerated with a hero’s funeral. A similar event also occurred in Kayamanya, Central Sulawesi where the burial of Abdullah and Darwin, two MIT members who were shot by police in 2011, was attended by hundreds who saluted them as heroes.

Second, the labelling of the TNPB-OPM as a terrorist organization gives legal authority for Densus 88 to conduct “pre-emptive” arrests against TNPB-OPM members and supporters. Since the issuance of Indonesia’s Law No. 15/2018, Densus 88’s scope of operations was significantly expanded. For instance, they are now allowed to arrest individuals who have “connections to a terrorist organization” and intentionally distribute “propaganda.” Indeed, the number of arrested suspected terrorist exponentially increased after the law was issued. In 2018, Indonesia arrested 396 suspected terrorists, a 117 percent increase from the number of terrorist arrests in 2017.

While this increased scope of operations has greatly aided Indonesia’s fight against religious-based terrorist organizations, it carries risks in Papua because, often, a community’s support of a TNPB-OPM operation does not mean support of their cause. Papua’s communities face multiple conflict issues that, due to the lack of effective governance, require them to pragmatically court the help of whoever is willing to solve their issues. In 2001, for instance, communities in Bogen Divoel did not shun help from Willem Onde, a TNPB-OPM commander, when he took hostages from a logging company, not because they supported pro-independence sentiments but because the community wanted more compensation for their land that the company had taken. 

Moreover, because Densus 88 has the authority to arrest those who spread the propaganda of a terrorist group, this label on the TNPB-OPM also puts even nonviolent pro-independence movements at risk of being arrested — further dampening the possibility of open dialogue to solve Papua’s grievances. This can be particularly problematic in Papua’s Northern Coast area where nonviolent movements have blurred relations with the TNPB-OPM. Although Densus 88 would surely have ways to differentiate between the TNPB-OPM and its nonviolent counterparts, such measures would do little to address fear of wrongful arrest due to the already high level of distrust between the population and security personnel.

The Need for Open Dialogue

Currently, Indonesia is debating whether and how Papua’s Special Autonomy Policy should be continued. If done properly, a newly revised and redesigned Special Autonomy can become an effective tool in addressing grievances in Papua and reducing support for the TNPB-OPM. However, the current process of developing Special Autonomy Part Two is heavily flawed. Aside from the fear by Jakarta’s political elite that more autonomy will increase the TNPB-OPM’s access to state resources, the current process is unlikely to create meaningful change because there is a lack of consultation and dialogue with key actors in Papua. 

With the TNPB-OPM now being labelled a terrorist organization, it is a big question whether initiating dialogue with anyone holding pro-independence grievances is still an option. Especially with the increased risk of arrests for nonviolent pro-independence movements and the ever-growing military presence that heightens fear of disproportionate security responses, it will require immense effort on the part of Jakarta to convince Papuans that a meaningful, humanitarian approach to Papua’s grievances is possible. That said, there is currently no other mechanism except the Special Autonomy Policy that Jakarta can rely on to humanely address this conflict, and there is no other mechanism to develop it meaningfully except for open dialogue.