For Indonesia’s restive Papua region, will Biden’s human rights focus bring any change?
Reporting for this story was supported by the Round Earth Media programme of the International Women’s Media Foundation
It has been more than half a century since the former Dutch colony of Papua was integrated into Indonesia in a highly controversial referendum that triggered a bloody brushfire war between the Indonesian military and guerilla separatists.
And it has felt like a broken record ever since that United Nations-backed 1969 vote: civilian casualties caught in the crossfire, arbitrary arrests of activists, extrajudicial killings, displacements of entire villages, high-level corruption, sparse economic development, rigged local elections, and oppressive police and military personnel.
Just this year alone, hundreds of additional Indonesian troops poured into Papua to join a new military operation after Brigadier General I Gusti Putu Danny Karya Nugraha, the country’s top intelligence official, was killed in an ambush by the guerilla Free Papua Movement on April 25. In retaliation, police killed nine rebels in their own ambush a few days later, losing one officer who was shot dead during the firefight.
The Indonesian government has since designated the Free Papua Movement, better known as the OPM, as a terrorist organisation. More activists have been arrested, local journalists intimidated, and internet access was briefly cut in the region’s main city, Jayapura, in early June.
“The solution that has always been offered by Indonesia is sending the military, arrests of activists, silencing of democratic spaces, and doing infrastructure development in such a way that the Papua problem is limited to [development],” said Sakarias Orota, a senior member of the Papua Customary Council in West Papua province.
Aides to President Joko Widodo did not respond to requests for comment about the ongoing military operation, but Colonel Samsul Bahri, from the Directorate General of Defence Strategy at the Indonesian Ministry of Defence, told This Week in Asia that the deployment of additional troops into the region in recent weeks was “massive”.
“I think that the situation in Papua is very conducive; there are only four vulnerable areas because many OPM members are committing acts such as killings, shootings, burning public facilities, threatening people, the state apparatus, and so on.”
Yet 3,460km away in the Indonesian capital Jakarta, trouble could be brewing for Widodo, particularly after US President Joe Biden came into office and put human rights issues at the forefront of American foreign policy.
The US and Indonesia have a long and intertwined modern history, even before Jakarta’s declaration of independence from Dutch colonial rule in 1945. The US military used Papua to store aircraft fuel during World War II, and there is a monument in Jayapura dedicated to US General Douglas McArthur, the wartime commander of American forces in the Southwest Pacific.
But in recent decades, the relationship has been about economics – in particular in the Papua region, which lies on the west side of New Guinea island and is divided into Papua and West Papua provinces.
Papua province is home to one of the world’s largest gold and copper mining sites, run by the Indonesian unit of the American mining giant Freeport-McMoRan. The Indonesian military has for decades provided security, for a hefty fee.
Despite this mineral wealth – as well as a massive offshore gas operation run by BP in West Papua province – the Papua region’s demographics are comparable to Sub-Saharan Africa. It has Indonesia’s highest HIV/Aids rate, highest child mortality rate, lowest child vaccination rate, fewest roads and schools, and highest levels of poverty, in particular in its many highland areas that are only accessible by plane. Indigenous tribes in these areas still wear minimal clothing including penis gourds, and some are believed to still engage in cannibalism despite a decades-old ban.
Then there is the issue of human rights abuses. A 2020 US State Department report on Indonesia cited “significant human rights issues including: unlawful or arbitrary killings; reports of torture by police; arbitrary arrest or detention; political prisoners; restrictions on free expression, the press and the internet, including censorship and the existence of criminal libel laws; interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly; serious acts of corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women”.
“While the government took steps to investigate and prosecute some officials who committed human rights abuses, impunity for historic and continuing serious human rights abuses remained a significant concern, especially as some of those implicated in past abuses received promotions and occupied senior official positions,” the report said.
The State Department, however, also pointed a finger at the OPM, accusing it of extrajudicial killings of civilians and contributing to the displacement of thousands of people due to its attacks against the Indonesian military and police.
For its part, Indonesia mostly ignores reports on the human rights situation in Papua, as well as calls for third-party mediation, and has banned foreign journalists from travelling there. The OPM has denied targeting civilians, while civil society groups claim there is no viable evidence proving treason or insurrection by guerilla fighters and civilian activists who are either at large or in prison.
While Biden has frequently spoken out about human rights globally, some analysts say it is unthinkable that the US would somehow punish Indonesia with sanctions or international isolation, as it did with the 1999 East Timor crisis, or support a new independence referendum, given that the two countries are enjoying their warmest diplomatic, economic and military relations in decades.
In addition, the Biden administration knows the value of a stable Indonesian archipelago given its geostrategic location astride the Strait of Malacca, the world’s busiest shipping lane, and near the disputed South China Sea, both of which are two facets of the US-led Indo-Pacific security strategy.
“The US can intervene in human rights issues in Papua but only as a political tool to pressure Indonesia if its interests are interrupted,” said Dr Adriana Elisabeth, a researcher with the Indonesian Institute of Sciences in Jakarta.
The same can be said about regional leaders including mainland China, Australia, Japan and South Korea, and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), all of which are major investors in Indonesia and have remained silent for decades about the excesses of the country’s security forces in the Papua region.
China, which is also a major importer of the country’s coal and palm oil, has a non-interference policy while Jakarta keeps a delicate balance by maintaining ties with both Beijing and Washington.
The situation has pushed many Papuans, who are predominantly Christian, to either publicly or privately support the independence movement, driven by their belief that they are second-class citizens in Muslim-majority Indonesia.
“Thirteen districts with a total of almost 3,000 civilians have now fled to other villages to avoid conflict between the Indonesian Army and OPM,” said Latifah Anum Siregar, director of the Democratic Alliance for Papua. “Calling them terrorists will not stop their struggle. The next generation will continue to grow. This has been proven by the Papuan people’s struggle for 59 years.”
Indonesia annexed the former Dutch-controlled region in 1963, and incorporated it after the 1969 “Act of Free Choice”.
However, to this day critics of the referendum say it was rigged because only 1,025 local leaders chosen by the Indonesian military were allowed to cast ballots, rather than the entire adult population. This spawned the creation of both armed and civil society groups against what they perceive as Indonesian occupation.
When he first took office in 2014, Widodo promised a new deal for Papua, including new infrastructure projects, investigations into major human rights abuses, a less public military presence and open access to foreign journalists based in Indonesia.
None of it has happened – most glaringly the prosecution of security forces for the abductions and executions of pro-referendum leaders over the years, and other major human rights abuse cases.
Dozens of other activists have been imprisoned or are currently awaiting trial for treason over offences such as simply raising the traditional Papua independence flag or organising rallies, according to advocacy group Papuans Behind Bars. Some of those convicted were sentenced to as long as 20 years in prison.
Colonel Czi IGN Suriastawa, head of information for the Indonesian Armed Forces Joint Regional Defence Command Area 3, which includes the Papua region, told This Week in Asia that operations are being reinforced in conflict areas “because our duty is to protect the public from the OPM”.
Suriastawa denied that Indonesian soldiers were committing human rights abuses, and said that if any are caught doing so, they will be punished.
“If it is OPM, who will punish them if they commit such acts? The logic is that we went there to protect the public from the OPM, so if there is news that the TNI [armed forces] is shooting people, the news is not true and the news must be distorted,” he said.
“The OPM movement has now become three major groups: the armed movement, the political movement and the clandestine movement. And it is getting stronger, because it is supported by [rogue] local government officials who are allegedly taking state budgets targeted for the development of the area” and instead funding the independence movement, Suriastawa added.
The seemingly endless cycle of violence and Jakarta’s status quo rule have left many Papuan leaders and the average citizen alike bitter and exhausted.
“The United States is an imperialist country that allowed Indonesia’s colonisation of Papua,” said N Elko Kossay, chairman of the National Committee for West Papua in Sorong, the province’s largest city.
“The United States’ Freeport [mine operations] came with a military face to Papua. The bloodshed in Papua did not begin until a United States ‘colony’ existed in Papua. To secure Freeport, the United States supports the Indonesian military to rule over Papua, therefore the United States must be responsible for the blood of the Papuan people that has spread widely to this day,” he said.
In Jayapura, one car park attendant, who declined to be named because he feared he would be targeted by security forces, said the continual arrival of new soldiers into the region makes him anxious about a possible new crackdown that could extend to civilians.
“There are too many soldiers here. For what?” he said. “Papuans have been colonised by Indonesia for too long, and many Papuans have died at the hands of the military.”