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The West Papua National Liberation Army and Separatist Militancy in Indonesia
The Papuan Police Chief Inspector General Mathius Fakhiri said in late December 2021 that 44 people had been killed by separatists last year in the Papuan provinces in Indonesia. Out of this, 15 victims were members of security forces, and 18 were civilians. The remainder were members of the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB), which is responsible for all the separatist attacks in the Papuan provinces. Authorities recorded 92 shooting cases in 2021, nearly double from 49 cases in 2020.
A Brief History
Given the history of the Papuan provinces, it is no surprise that the conditions are ripe for insurgency. The provinces, which are collectively referred to as West Papua by pro-independence elements, were taken over by Indonesia following the Dutch withdrawal in the 1960s. Indonesia’s takeover was supported by the United States and other Western powers, who were at the time, concerned about the spread of communism in Indonesia and Southeast Asia. These dynamics led to the formation of the Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM), or the Free Papua Movement.
Papuans calls for independence have only strengthened since the 1960s due to several factors. These include various allegations of human rights abuses by Indonesian forces, the exploitation of resources in the Papuan provinces, and the ethnic and religious differences between Papuans and the rest of Indonesia. There is a high degree of racism towards Papuans in Indonesia; this was the main factor in the 2019 unrest in West Papua and Indonesia. There are several more reasons why the insurgency has brewed in the Papuan provinces; these have been well documented by others. At this point though, it should be made clear that not all Papuans support the TPNPB, or separatists, and their actions.
The OPM waged a low-level insurgency against Indonesian forces over the last few decades. The TPNPB is sometimes referred to as the TPNPB-OPM, even by some of its own. However, the current TPNPB is different from the original OPM. Today’s TPNPB, or whatever it may be referred to as, is far more active and operationally capable than previous iterations. Its attacks are spread across more parts of the Papuan provinces. The TPNPB is composed of several subgroups operating in their own areas. Each subgroup is led by its own leader. These groups operate in a decentralized manner, with little to no coordination.
Locations of significant TPNPB activity
Today’s TPNPB is a mix of the old guard and the new guard. There are leaders like Lekagak Telenggen, who is older and has closer ties to Goliath Tabuni (age 60+), the TPNPB leader. Lekagak is active in Puncak Regency. He is a high-ranking leader in the TPNPB; according to some sources, he runs TPNPB’s general operations. There are also leaders like Eganius Kogoya, who represents the younger TPNPB cohort. Eganius and his TPNPB subgroup are active in Nduga Regency, and they are responsible for one of the highest-profile attacks in recent years. In December 2018, Eganius and his group killed at least 20 workers employed on a construction project in the regency. The attack is known as the ‘Nduga Massacre’. As per reports, Eganius, in his early 20s, actively participates in attacks.
Since Eganius’ 2018 attack, there have been a few very significant attacks. In March 2020, the TPNPB Kali Kopi group, which operates in Mimika Regency, attacked Kuala Kencana, less than 15 kilometers from Timika, the second-largest city in Papua. Kuala Kencana was built by Freeport-McMoran, which operates the Grasberg Mine. Grasberg has one of the largest gold and copper reserves in the world. Henry Kissinger was at one time on the board of directors for Freeport-McMoran. It is alleged that one of the main reasons for the United States’ support for Indonesia was to ensure that an American company profited from the mine. Indonesia has since taken a majority stake, as of 2018. The TPNPB, and the OPM of past, have called for the closure of the mine; they have threatened to attack Freeport-McMoran and PT Freeport Indonesia on numerous occasions. They have conducted successful attacks in the past too. There have also been numerous protests by Papuans, demanding the mine be shut down. On March 30, 2020, a TPNPB group entered Kuala Kencana and killed a contractor from New Zealand, and seriously injured two Indonesian employees.
Screenshot from a video the TPNPB released of the March 30, 2020, Kuala Kencana attack
In April 2021, the TPNPB killed the chief of the State Intelligence Agency (BIN)’s Papua region office, Brigadier General I Gusti Putu Danny Karya Nugraha, in an ambush attack in Beoga, Puncak Regency. He was visiting the area following a spate of TPNPB attacks in the area in the weeks prior. He is the highest-ranking Indonesian military officer to have died due to the separatist conflict in Papua. Following his death, Jakarta officially designated armed Papuan separatists as “terrorists”.
There are some main sources of small arms. The first is from weapons TPNPB collects from security forces following ambushes. The TPNPB often conducts ambush attacks given their familiarity with the terrain, which they take advantage of. There is also a high degree of weapon proliferation in neighboring Papua New Guinea, where several TPNPB members are based or have hidden out. A TPNPB spokesperson, Sebby Sambom, is said to be residing in Papua New Guinea. The border between Indonesia and Papua New Guinea is not natural, it is nearly a straight line. There are deep historical and cultural ties between Papuans on both sides of the porous border. Weapons from Papua New Guinea have entered Indonesia’s Papuan provinces.
The third main source is from the Indonesian security forces themselves. There have been several documented cases of Indonesian forces selling arms and ammunition to Papuan separatists.
Another source is from various past conflicts in Indonesia itself; these weapons have been smuggled over to Papua. At one point, many TPNPB attacks would be conducted with bows and arrows, and spears. Now, there is a higher degree of small arms use. Some of the rifles documented to be used by the TPNPB include, (but are not limited to):
- M4 pattern carbines
- M16A1 & A2 rifles
- Pindad SS1 & SS2
- Type 2 AK-47 rifles
- Mauser carbines
Some weapons used by the TPNPB
The TPNPB has various sources of funding. It gets funds from local Papuans who are supportive of the cause and its actions. There is a lot of resource exploitation in the Papuan provinces; some of the profits are redirected to the TPNPB. The TPNPB also engages in extortion to fund its operations. In some cases, local Papuan politicians have been implicated in cases of funding the TPNPB.
Over the last two years, the TPNPB has expanded the scope of who or what it targets. The TPNPB has issued various warnings and threats against non-Papuans working or living in Papua. Since independence, the Indonesian government has moved a large number of migrants into Papua. This has diluted the Papuans ethnic and religious identity. The program, called transmigrasi, was officially stopped in 2015. However, by then, large numbers of non-Papuans have already settled in Papua. The TPNPB has attacked numerous Indonesian workers employed on infrastructure projects across the Papuan provinces. Pro-independence elements view this sort of infrastructure development as a tool for Jakarta to exercise more control in West Papua. Operators and employees of the Grasberg Mine remain a large target. The perceived resource exploitation in West Papua creates more targets for the TPNPB. The TPNPB also conducts arson attacks; targeting companies and public infrastructure. In areas without military bases, Indonesian forces set up bases at schools for instance. Thus, schools have been a TPNPB target in certain regencies. The TPNPB has conducted attacks at airports; air travel is the primary mode of transport in the Papuan highlands especially, where road networks are very limited or do not exist. They have also killed suspected informants; Jakarta has maintained that such attacks killed civilians.
Security Force Actions
Over the last few decades, Indonesia’s response to Papuan separatism has been a hardened, no-tolerance approach. The Morning Star flag, a symbol of Papuan independence, is banned in Indonesia. Earlier in January, officials said that they would pursue a ‘welfare’ approach to the situation in the Papuan provinces. It remains to be seen whether Indonesian forces can actually pursue a welfare approach given their history in West Papua. Following the recent killing of three Indonesian soldiers in Puncak Regency, authorities are reassessing the strategy. Jakarta’s designation of separatists as ‘terrorists’ increased tensions, and polarization.
The main reason why Indonesian forces are so challenged to maintain security in the Papuan provinces is the terrain. The Papuan provinces are distinctly unique in this sense. Most of the areas where the TPNPB operates are heavily forested, or jungled. It is also in the mountainous Papuan highlands; high peaks give way to steep valleys. There were glaciers in some parts of Papua, despite Indonesia being a tropical island archipelago. Indonesian forces are challenged to deal with the terrain that TPNPB fighters grow up in. Inspector General Mathius Fakhiri said that authorities had directed forces not to pursue TPNPB fighters in clashes in late 2021. One of the reasons given was that separatists could easily ambush Indonesian forces, and take their weapons.
At the end of December 2021, the TPNPB said that it would expand the conflict and attack Indonesia and its interests across more areas of West Papua in 2022. It is likely that the conflict in the Papuan provinces increases this year. The TPNPB’s capabilities are growing, but more importantly, the TPNPB has the intention to expand the conflict, and it is capable of doing so.