The Implications of the Worsening Security Situation in Papua

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The Implications of the Worsening Security Situation in Papua

The recent killing of an Indonesian brigadier general heralds an intensification of the conflict in eastern Indonesia.

The Implications of the Worsening Security Situation in Papua
Credit: Flickr/AK Rockefeller

On April 25, while taking part in a military patrol in the village of Dambet in Beoga district, part of Papua’s Puncak Regency in eastern Indonesia, Papuan separatists succeeded in killing Brig. Gen. Gusti Putu Danny Karya Nugraha. Gusti was the head of the State Intelligence Agency (BIN)’s Papua regional office, having taken over the position only in June of last year. Prior to his Papua posting, Gusti served the much-feared Indonesian Special Forces, Kopassus, and held key positions in Jakarta, including as assistant for intelligence for the Jakarta Military Regional Command.

Between April 8 and 25, the Beoga area saw a series of attacks by Papuan separatists, which led to the death of six soldiers and six civilians, and the burning of a number of schools and others properties. These attacks were launched by the West Papua National Liberation Army (WPNLA), the armed wing of the Free Papua Movement (Organisasi Papua Merdeka, OPM). The WPNLA quickly claimed responsibility for the killing of Gusti, via its spokesperson Sebby Sambon.

The territory of Papua has witnessed much violence since the 1960s. Since the Dutch handed the then territory of West New Guinea (later Irian Jaya and now West Papua, which itself was split in 2003 into two provinces, Papua and West Papua) to the United Nations in October 1962, which in turn handed the territory to Indonesia in May 1963, a protracted low-level insurgency has simmered, with massive loss of lives. Before and after the 1969 plebiscite on the territory’s future, the Papuans’ separatist struggle had been loosely organized by OPM.

In this context, how significant is the killing of Brig.-Gen. Gusti, and what does it mean for the restive region? First, the commander was visiting the Puncak region due to the steady escalation of violence in the region, and his visit was supposed to ascertain the severity of the OPM/WPNLA threat. According to BIN’s spokesperson, Wawan Purwanto, Gusti was “conducting a field observation to speed up the restoration of security after the brutal action of the Papuan Separatist and Terrorist Group (KST) in the region.” Gusti’s visit was also intended “to boost the morale and spirit” of the people who were victims of the cruelty and savagery of the [KST].” Clearly, Gusti failed in his mission, and if anything, the Papuan separatists claimed their biggest military scalp since the beginning of the conflict in 1963.

Second, there is the likelihood of increased violent reprisals from the Indonesian security apparatus, something which has happened following major Papuan separatist attacks in the past. Not only will this increase fear among the Papuans of retribution by Indonesian soldiers, but the gulf between Indonesia and Papuans will widen. President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has ordered the security forces to “chase and arrest” all members of the WPNLA, emphasizing that there was “no place for armed groups in Papua.”

Similarly, the chairman of Indonesia’s People’s Consultative Assembly, Bambang Soesatyo, urged the security forces to annihilate the Papuan rebels. For the leader of Indonesia’s parliamentary body, Bambang’s exhortation to “destroy them first; we will discuss human rights matters later,” raises serious questions and, naturally, fears among the Papuans of the likelihood of a serious escalation of violence. Following Gusti’s killing, a joint military-police-intelligence task force was set up under Operation Nemangkawi to hunt down Gusti’s killers.

Third, what is equally significant is that OPM, and especially the WPNLA, have become increasingly violent, daring, and militarily organized. Analysts have also noted that the OPM and its military units have come to control important areas in the Central Highlands of Papua, including Intan Jaya, Nduga, Timika, and Puncak Jaya. This is also partly due to the OPM’s military units gaining access to modern lethal weapons, usually purchased illegally from members of the Indonesian military and police.

The WPNLA military units are also coordinating their attacks under able commanders such as Goliat Tabuni, Egianus Kogoya and Puron Wenda. Since May 2019, the various military commands have also been coordinating their operations through the formation of the Papua National Army, with closer cooperation between the WPNLA and other insurgent forces such as the West Papua Revolutionary Army and the West Papua National Army. Hence, better coordination and collaboration, superior tactics, modern weaponry, and the likelihood of stronger funding explains the growing lethality of the OPM and its military struggle in Papua.

The new capabilities of the Papuan separatists are likely to result in worsening military conflict, and what has long been a low-level insurgency will probably escalate. The tell-tale signs have been present for some time, as seen in the increasing military clashes in Papua between the separatists and Indonesian security forces from 2017 to 2019. In 2017, a soldier, policeman, and a separatist were killed in clashes, as was one civilian. In 2018, two soldiers and 23 civilians were killed. In 2019, the toll rose to seven soldiers, a policeman, and eight separatists.

Finally, Gusti’s killing will probably have several other knock-on political-security effects. It has put paid to years of efforts by Jokowi to win over Papuans, through his annual visits to Papua, call for dialogue to solve problems, willingness to talk to the WPNLA and its commanders, and his government’s generous development investments designed to improve the welfare of Papuans. As mentioned, the killing has the potential to escalate the military-police conflict in Papua, with their conflicting approaches to the Papuan problem dividing the two services, as well as increasing their competition for Papuan resources.

This will be worsened with the military wanting revenge for the death of its most senior officer in Papua so far, what more, one from Kopassus and head of intelligence in the territory. Indonesia’s response following the killing is also likely to set back peace efforts and with Papuan radicals relishing that they have succeeded in not only scoring a major military victory but also expect Indonesia to lose the battle of hearts and minds in the territory. This is especially if more repressive measures are adopted by the security services against actual and alleged Papuan separatists.

Clearly, the killing of Gusti is a game changing event in Papua, Indonesia’s richest and yet least developed and most unstable territory. The description of Papua as a “state-in-waiting” and Indonesia’s El Dorado will only be enshrined further. Any mismanagement by either Indonesia or the Papuan separatists will have serious implications for the territory’s future in terms of independence, the way it is managed and most importantly, the welfare of its four million indigenous people, ensuring that Papua will remain an international flashpoint for years to come.