Two Papuan independence fighters, including a rebel commander, were killed in the latest clashes between Indonesian security forces and separatist insurgents in Papua province.
According to the Associated Press, a joint military and police force killed two of the Papuan fighters during a battle Wednesday with dozens of rebels who were armed with military-grade weapons as well as axes and arrows.
Citing Iqbal Alqudussy, a spokesperson for the joint operation, the AP reported that the fighting took place at a village in Puncak regency in the Papuan highlands, which has been the recent focus of clashes between the Indonesian army and the West Papua National Liberation Army (WPNLA), the military wing of the Free Papua Organization (OPM).
The fight came after police and military forces launched a joint operation to find those responsible for setting fire to several schools in Puncak’s Beoga village. Alqudussy said that one of the dead men was identified as Lesmin Waker, a rebel commander who killed a member of the joint security forces in a gunfight two weeks ago.
After discovering the bodies of the two men in the jungle, security forces seized a military helmet, separatist flags, documents and scores of axes, machetes and arrows from the battle scene, he added.
Wednesday’s clash took place weeks after Indonesia’s intelligence chief in Papua, Brig. Gen. Gusti Putu Danny Nugraha, was killed in a rebel ambush while on a patrol in the central highlands on April 26. Responsibility for the killing was later claimed by WPNLA/OPM.
Writing in The Diplomat recently, Bilveer Singh of the National University of Singapore noted that the upswing in rebel attacks reflected insurgents’ increased sophistication and access to modern weaponry. “OPM, and especially the WPNLA, have become increasingly violent, daring, and militarily organized,” he wrote.
Gusti’s assassination – the first general to be killed in five decades of low intensity conflict in Papua – has prompted a widespread crackdown in Indonesia’s easternmost province, which was officially absorbed into Indonesia in 1969.
President Joko Widodo subsequently told Indonesian media he had ordered security forces to “chase and arrest” all WPNLA rebels, while Bambang Soesatyo, chairman of the People’s Consultative Assembly, told the government to “destroy them first. We will discuss human rights matters later.” The government has also formally designated West Papuan separatists “terrorists.”
Since then, the government has strengthened its military presence in Papua, and launched attacks on local villages in Puncak that have reportedly displaced thousands. One community leader from Wamena, near Puncak, told The Guardian this week that the situation for local people as a result of the crackdown was dire.
“Thousands are displaced in Puncak, five villages fled into the jungle,” she said. “Health clinics and schools have been taken over by the military. Soldiers are everywhere. We are living in a war zone.”
Earlier this week, Indonesian police arrested the independence leader Victor Yeimo in the provincial capital Jayapura, in connection with the spate of protests and violent riots that seized the region in August 2019, during which he called for a referendum on independence.
With the WPNLA/OPM resorting to more violent methods to achieve its aims, and the Indonesian military and police showing their willingness to respond in kind, Papua seems set for a spell of intensifying instability and conflict.