Why Indonesia is losing the West Papua conflict
It has been over a month since an armed group abducted Phillip Merthens, a New Zealand-born pilot, on February 7, 2023, in Indonesia’s Nduga, West Papua. The group is the West Papua Liberation Army. Known by the acronym TPNPB, it’s an armed wing of the Papua Liberation Movement (OPM).
As local media reported, TPNPB, led by Egianus Kogoya, a local commander, stormed the Susi Air small plane after it landed, set it afire and took the pilot hostage. TPNPB then brought him to its stronghold area where it would use him as its “political leverage”. The military and police still have no clue where TPNPB is hiding the pilot, mostly due to terrain difficulties.
However, the military has swept into villages to gain information about the armed group’s whereabouts. Intimidated, some Papuans have fled their villages in Nduga and Lanny Jaya regencies. Following the kidnapping, a deadly riot erupted, and most recently, armed confrontations between the group and the security forces have killed both civilians and soldiers in Yahukimo and Puncak regencies.
It’s clear from all of this that there is no end in sight for the intensified hostilities that have plagued West Papua over the past six years. Yet the reality is that none of this is surprising.
To understand this increasing escalation, it’s vital to look at the failures of successive Indonesian governments in responding to the crisis.
The central government focuses more on addressing the effects than the causes of the conflict. Its counterinsurgency policies — whether development programs, a special autonomy for the region or out-and-out military operations — are aimed at reducing Indigenous discontent and violent attacks from the TPNPB to controllable levels. There has not been a sincere political process between the central government, Indigenous Papuans, and nationalist groups in West Papua.
That’s why these policies have met with distrust among Indigenous Papuans, even as the TPNPB armed group has developed more deadly capacity to attack civilians and security forces.
It is worth remembering that the roots of the conflict aren’t new and have been building up since the 1960s.
Since becoming part of Indonesia through a widely criticised referendum called the Act of Free Choice in 1969, the western half of the island of New Guinea and Indonesia’s easternmost region, commonly referred to as West Papua, has barely enjoyed stability. This disputed referendum — when the military handpicked less than one per cent of the West Papuan population to vote for integration with Indonesia under the threat of violence — set a precedent for how the Indonesian state disregards Papuans’ interests.
From the 1970s to the 1990s, the Indonesian government settled hundreds of thousands of people from other parts of the country in West Papua through the transmigration program, aiming to forcibly change the region’s demography and control the region, even as the government also embarked on military operations. The result: A decline in the number of Indigenous Papuans on their own land, numerous deaths, and massive displacement.
Because of these measures, Papuan identity — as distinct from Indonesia — emerged not from cultural, religious and physical differences but rather from racial discrimination by the state, combined with Indigenous Papuans’ past and contemporary grievances.
The conflict has led to both a non-violent movement and an armed struggle to defend Papuans’ identity and rights.
When Joko Widodo became Indonesia’s president in 2014, there was hope for a resolution to the crisis. He released a handful of Papuan political prisoners and vowed to address the 2014 Paniai human rights abuse case, relating to an incident where the Indonesian army fired on hundreds of Papuan protesters, killed four teenagers, and wounded more than a dozen others in highland Papua. A promise to open West Papua to foreign journalists was seen by many as another sign of Widodo’s goodwill.
However, the commitment to address the conflict fell apart in the waning days of his first administration.
Under Widodo’s second administration since 2019, Papuan grievances have intensified. Instead of the root causes of the conflict, the state has focused chiefly on development and infrastructure programmes, including the Trans Papua highway that’s under construction in some regencies in West Papua, a food estate, a special economic zone, strategic tourism areas and palm oil plantations.
The main beneficiaries of these initiatives are mostly nonindigenous Papuans residing in coastal and urban areas. Indigenous Papuans, particularly those living in highland areas, barely reap the benefits of development projects. Instead, they live in constant fear and trauma due to escalated violence. Hundreds to thousands of civilians are caught in the crossfire and suffer displacement and other human rights violations every time armed confrontation breaks out between security forces and TPNPB.
In 2019, racial slurs directed at Papuan students triggered peaceful demonstrations that then turned violent across Papua. Rather than acknowledging and resolving such deep-seated racism and discrimination towards Papuans, Indonesia in 2021 revised the special autonomy for the region first introduced in 2001, for another 20 years. It has also divided the region into six provinces. This top-down set of policies — implemented without wide-ranging consultations with Papuans and their representatives — reflects a desperate strategy aimed at containing the conflict rather than resolving it and exposes the failures of the central government.
Meanwhile, TPNPB has consistently rejected state policies, including economic activities, in highland Papua. The group has warned against the continuing operations of commercial flights and has even shot a handful of planes flying across highland areas. It has demanded that non-Papuan civilians leave conflict zones. The recent kidnapping of the pilot suggests that the TPNPB believes its previous warnings have fallen on deaf ears.
But the conflict and its escalation also highlight the unresolved transgenerational trauma that Papuans continue to endure. This, reinforced by the availability of relatively sophisticated weapons — accessed by TPNPB from illegal trade with the military and police as well as illicit supplies from Papua New Guinea, Thailand, and the Philippines — has facilitated armed campaigns since 2018 in Nduga, the poorest regency in Indonesia.
Indeed, TPNPB has recruited its members mostly by capitalising on the deep grievances of Papuan youth. I know, because as a local volunteer in 2019, I spoke to a handful of Nduga’s displaced children interested in joining the armed group because of deep-seated trauma and hardships living in uncertain conditions. They were barely receiving a proper education in their districts and were enthusiastic about meeting teachers and studying at an emergency school built by local humanitarian volunteers. Yet the Indonesian government has systematically failed to recognise and address transgenerational trauma among armed conflict-affected victims in Papua, particularly the children. This contrasts starkly with its massive deradicalisation programmes elsewhere in the country.
At the same time, TPNPB has modified its fighting capacity to intensify armed attacks against the state and civilians. Financial support from its sympathisers has also increased. Its organisational structure has been modernised, with Papuan youth occupying key positions. Lastly, its use of social media to counter government narratives by exposing the state’s power abuses has grown more sophisticated.
In short, Indonesia’s relationship with Papuans appears set to only get worse.
It doesn’t have to be that way. A lesson from armed conflicts in the deep south of Thailand and in Mindanao in the southern Philippines is that the presence of credible and trusted individuals or groups is crucial to initiate peace talks. That’s an element missing in the Papua conflict.
The capture of the pilot is only symptomatic of this trust gap. It’s a deficit that is only deepening, and the Indonesian government has no one but itself to blame.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.