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Security Brief: PACOM Week of May 10, 2021

Week of May 10, 2021 | Issue 13


Antonia Gough, PACOM


The Indonesian province of West Papua and the independent state of Papua New Guinea[1]

Date: April 29, 2021

Location: Jakarta, Indonesia

Parties involved: West Papua National Liberation Army; President Joko Widodo; Indonesian Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs, Mahfud MD; human rights organizations

The event: Indonesia’s Minister for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs announced the designation of the West Papua National Liberation Army, as well as their wider umbrella organization - the Free Papua Movement - as a terrorist organization. This announcement came only four days after the high-profile killing of a top security official, Brigadier Gusti Putu Danny, by the group, and an accompanying announcement by Indonesian President Widodo that the military and police must prioritize the clamping down on armed separatist groups active in the country. Brigadier Danny is the highest-ranking officer to die as a result of this long conflict. In response to the terrorist labeling, a spokesperson for the National Liberation Army was adamant that the group will never concede, even in the face of military action by the government.

The implications:

  • The West Papuan separatist conflict is already the longest and most complex Indonesia has seen, and this announcement has the potential to lead to a further increase in violence and casualties in the region, which has been escalating in recent months and years. Between 2015 and 2020, the number of violent acts perpetrated by the group has increased, peaking at 73 instances during 2020. However, the group only accounts for 23 percent of the total violence committed in the province.[2] This will also lead to internal displacement. As many as 40,000 West Papuans are believed to be internally displaced already.[3] Further securitizing the separatist quest and carrying out pre-emptive arrests will likely antagonize local Papuan communities. A likely result will be increased support among Papuans for separatist violence.

  • This new classification is also likely to result in a greater role for the military in law enforcement, a concerning development considering that the military and police presence in the Papua region is already more than double than Indonesia’s average.[4] Moreover, most Indonesian soldiers are not trained in law enforcement methods. Wrongful arrest or killing of pro-independence, but peaceful individuals are therefore at higher risk now.

  • The announcement is likely to lead to further human rights violations directed at the West Papuan population, which in turn will result in increased violence by the armed group. Chairman of the People's Consultative Assembly in Papua, Bambang Soesatyo, has reportedly said “I demand that the government deploy the security forces at full force to exterminate the armed criminal groups (KKP) in Papua which has taken lives. Just eradicate them. Let’s talk about human rights later.”[5] This categorization now gives authorities the legal ability to detain suspects for longer periods without pressing charges, and for as long as 100 days before trial. This increases the risk of abuse or even torture. Increased surveillance operations, including intercepting communications, are also now more likely. This would impinge on Papuans’ right to privacy.

  • This action has been perceived by both Papuans and external observers as a tactic used by the Indonesian Government to silence the Papuan independence movement. Indeed, only three days after this designation, 400 troops were deployed in West Papua.[6] This timing very much indicates that the government has used the terrorist label as a justification for increasing their military presence for control and suppression. This designation gives counterterrorism authorities the power to arrest individuals who spread terrorist propaganda and is likely to dampen the peaceful wing of the independence movement further, as even those who have no violent/terrorist intentions will be more fearful to express their views. Such groups may in turn then opt for undercover violent actions as an alternative. The move also appears disproportionate given that the government has devoted little effort to resolve the territorial dispute.

  • Over the years the international community has expressed some support for the West Papuan movement, so designating the West Papua Liberation Army as a terrorist organization may also be an attempt by the government to discredit the group, whose integrity and reputation has already been damaged by the increased violence it exhibited recently.

  • The West Papuan ethnic group has always faced stigmatization by the Javanese Indonesian majority, but this announcement is highly likely to worsen their treatment further. Papuans live elsewhere in Indonesia, and they may be adversely affected by this decision in terms of increased racial, social, economic, and political discrimination.


Date: May 1, 2021

Location: West Papua, Indonesia

Parties involved: West Papua interim president, Benny Wenda; West Papuan provisional government; United Liberation Movement for West Papua

The event: The exiled separatist leader of West Papua’s provisional, unofficial government - Benny Wenda - announced the composition of the new, covertly formed, first cabinet of the West Papua provisional government, which was first announced in December 2020. The provisional government and wider movement believe that this lengthy campaign of violence can be resolved by the creation of an autonomous government serving the region. Wenda also stated that the military build-up, and the resulting recent displacement of West Papuans from certain villages, provide cause for concern.

The implications:

  • Although the terrorist designation event demonstrates how the Indonesian Government has framed the West Papua issue as purely a security matter, the region’s decades-long quest to seek independence stems from a number of motivations. These include a multitude of human rights violations directed towards West Papuans by the government, including direct casualties and extrajudicial killings, considerable historical animosity within the group about their integration into Indonesia, and the economic marginalization of Papuans who live in a part of the country that is rich in natural resources which are kept tightly under government control.

  • Despite an increase in violence exhibited by the West Papua National Liberation Army since 2018, and the topic of conflict resolution not ever having been a high government priority, pro-independence aspirations run very strongly amongst the West Papuan population. Their goal is to directly challenge Jakarta’s rule by establishing an underground, covert West Papuan government infrastructure.

  • The giving of autonomy to West Papua by the Indonesian Government would be highly likely to spur demands for increased autonomy, or even separation, of other parts of the hugely diverse island nation. In addition, West Papua holds the sixth-largest gold mine and second-largest copper mine globally.[7] This explains why the government has so closely guarded control.

  • Papua New Guinea will be affected by the increasing number of West Papuan people that cross the border as tensions rise. The two populations have little in common in terms of history, religion, or language, but they do share a common Melanesian heritage, and there is a general feeling of sympathy towards the West Papua cause. The West Papuan conflict has destabilized the border region with Papua New Guinea and this is the main trigger for disputes between Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, although the two countries have signed a friendship treaty. This wider context means that the use of Papua New Guinea as a sanctuary for rebel fighters is far less likely and that the likelihood of Indonesia moving their fighting with West Papuan forces onto Papua New Guinea territory is very low.




Date: May 9, 2021

Location: Jayapura, Indonesia

Parties involved: Spokesman of the West Papua National Committee, Victor Yeimo; National Police; Indonesian President Joko Widodo

The event: Indonesian law enforcement arrested West Papuan independence activist and spokesperson, Victor Yeimo. Police have arrested him on charges of having been the mastermind behind the 2019 independence protests, as well as committing treason, inciting violence and rebellion, and insulting national state symbols. He is the latest in a number of individuals who have been arrested in the aftermath of the protests and had been on the run since. Following his arrest, separatist leader Benny Wenda called for his immediate release and for international governments to put pressure on the Indonesia Government to halt his prosecution and to intervene to stop the “genocide in motion” taking place in West Papua.[8]

The implications:

  • Yeimo’s arrest is highly likely to further inflame tensions in the region and spawn increased violence. Relations between West Papuans and the government have already been weakened by the terrorist labeling and Danny’s killing. It is likely that West Papuans will take to the streets to express their anger at these wider developments and to demand Yeimo’s release. His arrest comes within the wider context of increasing violence by the West Papua National Liberation Army.

  • Yeimo’s vocal attempts to spark negotiations between West Papua and the government provide an explanation for the government’s desire to imprison and silence him. However, this and recent events will make dialogue even less likely. A potentially more useful approach by the government would be to investigate how the West Papua National Liberation Army has secured the weapons and resources that have allowed it to increase in strength and evade dissolution by Indonesia’s better-funded and resourced military.

  • In recent weeks the government has also cut off the internet from the region, removing Papuan communities’ access to information, something especially important for them to access given recent developments. This shutdown will make it harder to get news on what is happening on the ground, something that is already difficult given the government’s refusal to allow journalists into West Papua. This could in turn result in conflicts or human rights violations going undetected.

[1] West Papua & Papua New Guinea Flag Map by AK Rockerfeller, licensed under Public Domain

[2] Conflict Resolution in Papua and the Label of Terrorism, The Diplomat, May 2021, https://thediplomat.com/2021/05/conflict-resolution-in-papua-and-the-label-of-terrorism/

[3] Indonesia deploys 400 battle-hardened troops to troubled Papua, Reuters, May 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/indonesia-deploys-400-battle-hardened-troops-troubled-papua-2021-05-06/

[4] Conflict Resolution in Papua and the Label of Terrorism, The Diplomat, May 2021, https://thediplomat.com/2021/05/conflict-resolution-in-papua-and-the-label-of-terrorism/

[5] ‘Let’s talk about human rights later’ after ‘crushing’ Papuan rebels, warns Jakarta Speaker, Asia Pacific Report, April 2021, https://asiapacificreport.nz/2021/04/29/lets-talk-about-human-rights-later-after-crushing-papuan-rebels-warns-jakarta-speaker/

[6] Indonesia Deploys Forces to Troubled Papua Region, The Diplomat, May 2021, https://thediplomat.com/2021/05/indonesia-deploys-special-forces-to-troubled-papua-region/

[7] Ibid.

[8] Urgent alert: Massive military operations in West Papua imminent, United Liberation Movement for West Papua, May 2021, https://www.ulmwp.org/urgent-alert-massive-military-operations-in-west-papua-imminent

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