Jakarta is turning West Papuans into ‘terrorists’ to justify waging a war

May 11, 2021
Protesters hold a banner that reads "West Papuans are not terrorists" in Manokwari, West Papua. Photo: @VeronicaKoman/Twitter

The Indonesian government has officially labelled the OPM (Organisasi Papua Merdeka) Free Papuan Movement and its military wing, the TPNPB (West Papua National Liberation Army) as terrorist groups.

This came about at the height of a string of shootings and killings over recent months in Papua’s highlands, which led to the killing of a senior Indonesian intelligence officer, General I Gusti Putu Danny Karya Nugraha.

In response, Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo ordered a crackdown on the armed resistance group OPM-TPNPB.

A few days later, Mohammad Mahfud MD, the coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs, declared that those in Papua (presumably the OPM – TPNPB) who commit crimes would be classified as “terrorists”.

The People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) Speaker in Jakarta, Bambang Soesatyo, said: “I demand that the government deploy their security forces at full force to exterminate the Armed Criminal Groups (KKB) in Papua, which have taken lives.”

“Just eradicate them. Let’s talk about human rights later.”

[Editor’s note: KKB is an expression used by security force members for TPN PB fighters.]

The announcement and statements have caused a reaction among Indonesian leaders and civil society groups.

"Terrorist" label

Police observer Irjen Pol Purn Sisno Adiwinoto warned that labelling Papuan independence groups as “terrorists” would not solve problems in West Papua.

Philip Situmorang, public relations officer from the Fellowship of Churches in Indonesia (PGI), asked the government to be careful of their decision to label the “KKB” as a terrorist group.

Church groups have warned that Jakarta should choose a different approach to Papua.

The terrorist label will psychologically impact on the Papuan community, and instil fear, distrust and hatred among communities in the land of Papua.

West Papua is subject to an international media blackout. This makes it challenging to allow independent media or human rights agencies to investigate the killings.

The country’s justice system often fails to provide fair, transparent justice for alleged perpetrators.

The governor of Papua province, Lukas Enembe, also expressed his concern about the central government’s announcement, saying that this labelling would affect the Papuan population, not just OPM-PNPB. Papuans in West Papua and abroad will also be stigmatised.

The governor asked the central government to review its decision and strongly suggested the central government check with the United Nations about its decision.

United Liberation Movement for West Papua leader Benny Wenda also condemned Jokowi’s announcement.

“My questions to the president of Indonesia are: Who invaded our country in the first place? Who has killed over 500,000 men, women, and children? Who has displaced over 50,000 civilians since December 2018, leading to the deaths of hundreds of more people?

“An illegal invasion and occupation is a criminal act. Genocide is a terrorist act. Resistance to these are legitimate and necessary,” said Wenda.

These concerns are expressed in recognition that, after 60 years, Jakarta insists on introducing a policy that will harm the Papuan people.

Fifty-eight years ago, in May 1963, Indonesian troops landed in West Papua after Western powers gave them the green light during the controversial “New York Agreement” – which Papuans were not invited to participate in.

The real terror in Papua began from that day.

Jakarta invents words and phrases and decides their definitions to control the Papuan people.

The Indonesian government has used many names and phrases to legitimise their military operations in the land of Papua.

Act of No Choice

Between 1964–66, leading up to the Act of Free Choice in 1969 — which Papuans consider a sham, or an “Act of No Choice” — General Kartidjo Sastrodinoto led an operation called “Operasi Wisnurmurti III and IV”.

Between 1977–82, General Imam Munandar led another operation named “Operasi Kikis”, followed by “Operasi Sapu Bersih”.

The “Operasi Penyisiran” was another name given for 2002–04 operations in Wamena, in Papua’s highlands.

These are just a few of many, both visible and invisible, military operations in West Papua.

Their names carry specific energy and command and manifest different state behaviours that target Papuan lives; and mean to “wipe-out, clean, straighten, remove, tame the wild forest, restore order”, etc.

This is not the terminology of healing and reconciliation but of war and elimination.

The elites in Jakarta have convinced themselves that there is a monster in the land of Papua and that the beast needs to be eliminated. This paranoid way of thinking is akin to saying all non-black immigrants in the land of Papua are scary, so we should label them as demons and kill them, or label all Muslims as terrorists because they follow Islam.

One of the main concerns that has been raised within the resistance movements is that the Indonesian government is labelling the West Papua national liberation activists as terrorist, to criminalise the movement and depict them as radical extremists in the eyes of the international community.

It intends to damage the integrity and reputation of the West Papua liberation movement, which has been gaining a lot of sympathy from international communities and institutions, such as the Africa Caribbean Pacific group of states (ACP), the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG), the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) and the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

This is an old colonial game, where blaming the victims makes it difficult for them to report the crimes, allowing the perpetrators to avoid being held accountable for their actions.

Desperate to halt independence

Mahfud MD told Metrotvnews on April 30 Jakarta must contain the situation in West Papua before controlling the situation outside of Papua, inferring that influencing public opinion in the international community must begin by creating a terrorist of West Papua.

Many described the announcement as a desperate attempt to halt the region’s independence movement. As David Robie reported in Asia Pacific Report on April 30, this is Jakarta’s “worst ever” policy on West Papua.

Jokowi’s welfare offering in 12 visits to Papua have turned out to be a mere Trojan horse. He and his government are not delivering welfare to Papuan people at all — they are creating terrorists in West Papua to justify war against the Papuan people.

How will they distinguish and catch this monster, which they have called “terrorist” in Papua? Or are they going to create one that looks like a terrorist?

The power of OPM

Is OPM a terrorist group, or a legendary saviour in Papuan’s independence imagination?

In the 1980s, when I was growing up in my highland village of Papua from the age of 8 to 12, I often heard the name OPM. At the time, the name sounded like it had magical power. I still associate the name OPM with that story.

At that time, I was told that OPM has a secret power that controls phenomena in nature. This kind of story made me very curious about the OPM.

I then asked my elders, who OPM’s enemies were and whether OPM were human or forest spirits? They would say to me that OPM were not forest spirits. They were human beings just like us, but they couldn’t divulge their identities, to keep their family members safe from interrogation, in case their true identities were revealed to Indonesian soldiers.

According to the village story, OPM have the power of nature, and they can obscure the sight of the Indonesian soldiers and make them crazy. At the time, I was astonished by these stories.

With these fascinations, I continued to ask if the OPM was something that I should fear.

They would tell me: “Child, you should not be afraid of the OPM, because the OPM will protect you, and they will expel the Indonesian soldiers who were roaming around here, killing and raping women.”

I grew up with these types of stories, and I am sure that many Papuans have similar stories to tell about what the name of OPM means to them.

Hope for a better world

OPM carries the spirit that keeps the hope of a better world alive. That’s how I understand it. That hope, in Papuans’ imagination, is political independence from Indonesia.

To be OPM is to be a proud Papuan, and to be Papuan is to be proud to be OPM, because, in the minds of Papuans, OPM represents hope, freedom, salvation, healing, and reconciliation.

As legend has it, on the island of Biak, during the early 1940s, before Indonesia got their independence from the Dutch, it was the spirit of the Morning Star that healed the legends Manarmakeri and Angganitha.

OPM stands to manifest that utopian dream of a free Papuan state with a sovereign people. This fear of manifesting Papuan statehood drives Jakarta’s reckless policies toward West Papua.

If Papuans were asked, without any intimidation or bribery, which spirit do they trust and believe in — the OPM or Indonesia security forces — I am confident they would choose the spirit and the legend of OPM, because that spirit stands for freedom and salvation.

Labelling is dangerous

This reckless labelling is dangerous, as already expressed by Governor Lukas and other civil society groups, because all Papuan people will suffer, not just OPM. This labelling will add more suffering under Indonesian rule and the western capitalist world order.

It is unfortunate that Indonesia is one of the most religious places, and yet unable to uphold its own religious morals and ethical teachings, as inscribed in their constitutional pillars: Ketuhanan Yang Maha Esa (Belief in the Almighty God) and Kemanusiaan Yang Adil dan Beradab (Just and Civilised Humanity). Do the Indonesian ruling elites still believe in these words?

With all the human and material resources being spent on securing West Papua, the question we need to be asking is: “Why is Jakarta still unable to catch all the perpetrators and bring them to face justice?”

If the elites in Jakarta believe with sincerity in promoting the slogan “Wonderful Indonesia” on the world’s stage, then the way they approach Papua needs to change.

Papua will always be like a pebble in Indonesia’s shoe — it must be resolved in a humane manner if the “wonderful Indonesia dream” is to be fully realised. Turning West Papua into a terrorist and justifying it to wage war against the Papuan people is not the way to achieve peace in the land of Papua.

[A version of this article first appeared in Asia Pacific Report. Yamin Kogoya is an Australian-based West Papuan academic from the Lani tribe in the Papuan Highlands. Reprinted with the author's permission.]

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