Eight Indonesian soldiers were killed on February 21 in West Papua. The attacks were claimed by the armed wing of the Free Papua Movement (TPN-OPM).
The attacks came after a series of violent crackdowns by Indonesian authorities on a growing movement of peaceful protest by Papuans calling for end to Indonesian occupation and for self-determination.
In the first attack, a military post in Tingginambut, Puncak Jaya, was raided. One soldier was killed and another injured.
About an hour later, another armed group ambushed Indonesian soldiers. Seven soldiers and four civilians being escorted by them were reported killed.
The Jakarta Globe reported that Papua Police Chief Tito Karnavian said Goliat Tabuni, head of TPN-OPM, had personally claimed responsibility for the killings in a phone call, linking the attacks to the recent district elections. The election ballots were due to be counted two days after the attacks.
The TPN-OPM, however, released a statement that day denying any link to the elections. The statement, signed by Teryanus Satto, claimed the shooting of soldiers in Puncak Jaya was carried out by the TPN-OPM under its commander, General Goliat Tabuni, and had nothing to do with the district's elections or anywhere else in Papua.
However, it said the TPN-OPM “do reject the programs of the Indonesian government, including the district elections in Puncak Jaya or elsewhere in Papua land”.
In a statement to West Papua Media, TPN-OPM spokesperson Nikolas Tabuni said the area of the new military post is “formally claimed to be owned by the TPN OPM” and is “under indigenous customary law of the indigenous community of that area”.
Tabuni said the Indonesian military ignored TPN-OPM’s letter asking for the post to be abandoned, leading to the attack.
The Jakarta Globe reported newly elected governor Lukas Enembe saying the problems in the province were as much due to high unemployment, poverty, and underdevelopment, as pro-independence and anti-government sentiments.
The paper said the Central Statistics Bureau found the poverty rate in Papua province was 31% as of September last year. More than 1.1 million people in the territories two provinces live below the poverty line.
Enembe said: “As long as Papua is still seen as a land to make profit, the problems here will not go away.”
He also drew attention to rampant corruption impeding development. The Jakarta Post reported that this was raised by the Regional Representatives Council (DPD). Papua DPD member Ferdinanda Ibo Yatipay said: “Ten years after the granting of special autonomy status [to West Papua], no new infrastructure in the transportation, education and health sectors has been built, while the largest chunk of special autonomy funds has been used to finance the bureaucracy or been stolen by corrupt local elites and powerful officials from Jakarta.”
DPD deputy chairperson Laode Ida also urged the withdrawal of non-garrison, elite troops from West Papua as essential to stopping the violence, saying, “Their presence and their irregular operations have triggered attacks on garrison troops and innocent civilians”.
Indeed, the Jakarta Post reported Indonesian Military (TNI) commander Admiral Agus Suhartono acknowledging that the soldier killed in Tingginambut was a member of the army's Special Forces Command (Kopassus). This unit’s activities have drawn condemnation from human rights groups for atrocities committed throughout Indonesia, as well as West Papua.
However, Suhartono denied that Kopassus' presence at the military post meant the force had been carrying out special operations in the region, saying: “The slain Kopassus member had been stationed there for quite a long time.”
The Jakarta Globe reported that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono told a cabinet meeting that the government would seek to improve the living standards of Papuans and would not use a military approach to restore peace in the affected provinces.
However, Djoko Suyanto, the coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, said in a press conference that the government is prepared to send more weapons and made it clear that the government has “a clear and firm stance on any party who is trying to disrupt public security or refuses to acknowledge the sovereignty of the unitary state of Indonesia in Papua”.
Despite the president's words, Indonesia's devotion to protecting its "unitary state" despite the wishes of the Papuan people who were forcibly incorporated into Indonesia in a fraudulent "act of free choice" in 1969 means the wishes of the Papuan people will continue to go unheeded.
In its statement on its attacks, the TPN-OPM said it was, “not asking for anything from the government of Indonesia. TPN-OPM demands the political rights of the Papua nation for independence and to be fully sovereign so that they sit equal with other countries in the world.”
West Papua Regional Legislative Council deputy chairperson Jimmy Demianus Ijie said in the Jakarta Globe: “We've never enjoyed Indonesia's independence. What we have is only blood and tears.
“Let's talk about our unity. Why is the government afraid of opening a dialogue with Papua? Today, there are many military personnel in plain clothes in Papua, as if a big war is happening here.”
He said the Papuan people love Indonesia, but want to be freed from poverty and to look after the interests of future generations.
Ijie calls for dialogue and equality within the Indonesian state, but reports of a huge military operation in the areas of the shootings shows why many Papuans support independence as the solution to the conflict.
West Papua Media said that at least 1000 TNI troops are occupying villages around Puncak Jaya, searching for suspects to the shootings. Villagers are being forced to hand over food and subjected to interrogation.
It seems that Yudhoyono’s benevolent words are not being realised on the ground. According to WPM sources, as of February 26, at least 18 houses, five churches, two schools and a library have been razed by the combined police/TNI forces.
Animals and food gardens are also being destroyed, sparking fears of an impending humanitarian disaster. Thousands of local people have already fled their homes. The occupied villages could potentially be used as staging posts for destroying the TPN.