Violence Surges to New Levels in West Papua Conflict
According to Indonesian police, at least 53 Indonesian civilians and security forces were killed in the Indonesian Papuan provinces, or West Papua, in 2022. At least 39 were civilians; another 37 people were injured. In 2021, 34 people were killed – around 15 security forces and 18 civilians. Fifty-three civilians died between 2010 and 2017, for comparison. The West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) has driven this increase in deaths. Last year, Militant Wire interviewed Sebby Sambom, the spokesperson for the TPNPB, to explain the conflict in West Papua. The insurgency is still limited, but it is intensifying and becoming more violent.
On February 7, a TPNPB subgroup, led by Egianus Kogoya, took a New Zealand pilot hostage, after his plane landed at an airstrip in Nduga. They burned the plane. Sebby said in a statement that the hostage will be killed if Indonesia does not listen to the demands for independence. Fifteen workers also detained by the TPNPB were released after a local religious leader stepped in. Security forces are attempting to rescue the hostage. Militant Wire asked Sebby some questions regarding the intensification of the conflict again before this incident.
The TPNPB in 2022
Two attacks stand out in terms of casualties; in July, Kogoya’s TPNPB subgroup killed at least 10 people in Nduga. The current cycle of violence, on the TPNPB’s part, can be traced to Kogoya’s December 2018 attack, which killed around 20 workers in Nduga. At the start of 2018, the TPNPB unveiled a new structure and its goals, with a framework to achieve them. Kogoya has since gained significant prominence and notoriety that is usually seen amongst older leaders. There were allegations that Indonesian forces used white phosphorous in security operations in response to the December 2018 attack.
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Another notable attack last year was in March in Puncak, in which the TPNPB killed eight people. These were the highest in terms of casualties (in recent years too), but there were several other significant attacks. The TPNPB’s activity has been mainly concentrated in the highlands, where they have conducted an array of attacks, from killings, ambushes, and arson to property destruction. The TPNPB is active around some of the airstrips in the province as well.
The Yapen Islands attack in December also stood out; it was the first major shootout in the area since 2015.
Resistance to Indonesia, including armed, is not new in West Papua. Sebby (talking to Militant Wire) said that armed fighters there recently asked to join the TPNPB, which welcomed them. As for the TPNPB’s activity last year, Sebby said that they did as they stated in 2021, that they would increase attacks and kill more people in 2022. This was in response to, amongst the historical grievances, Jakarta’s plans to divide the Papuan provinces and the extension of the controversial Special Autonomy status for the Papuan provinces. Sebby added that access to weapons was improving, but more support was needed for TPNPB fighters.
“We Will Execute You”
In a statement following an attack, the TPNPB, after warning Indonesian security forces and immigrants to leave West Papua, said “if you still resist, we will execute you.” Last year, there was a marked increase in the killings of civilians (infrastructure workers, motorcycle taxi drivers, and others). The TPNPB has claimed that the civilians are spies working with security forces. The military is involved in major infrastructure projects in West Papua, especially in an engineering (and security) capacity, and security forces have used schools as bases.
Uday: There were many attacks last year – and the killing of Indonesian workers has become controversial. The TPNPB has claimed that the victims were all Indonesian spies. However, what evidence is there to prove this?
Sebby Sambom: The handover of West Papua from the Dutch to Indonesia on May 1, 1963, was illegal; the New York Agreement of August 15, 1962, was illegal and did not involve native Papuans; the 1969 Act of Free Choice* in West Papua was engineered and manipulated by the colonial government of the Republic of Indonesia. So, all Indonesian immigrants who come to Papua are part of the illegal occupation with the aim of taking over the rights of indigenous Papuans. The West Papua National Liberation Army has issued warnings to Indonesian immigrants to immediately leave the area of war. If they don't pay attention, then they are part of the Indonesian Security Forces, and ready to be killed. There is no argument that can justify that they are motorcycle taxi drivers and other workers. They are part of the Indonesian military and police espionage. People all over the world understand that during colonialism there are infiltrators and espionage; this has been proven in the practice of colonialism all over the world, so we also really understand what Indonesia is doing in Papua against us native Papuans. Therefore, we will always carry out our policy, and we will carry out our warning as a function of International Humanitarian Law on War, which states that civilians must be evacuated before the War, and we have done this. So, we will not change our policies in the West Papua National Liberation War, because the Indonesian people are very barbaric and cunning. They are very brutal in killing indigenous Papuans, so we, the West Papua National Liberation Army, stand up to defend and save our country and people, namely West Papua.
The Act (mandated by the 1962 agreement), in a 1969 US Embassy telegram from Jakarta in 1969, was described as: “The Act of Free Choice in West Irian (West Papua) is unfolding like a Greek tragedy, the conclusion preordained. The main protagonist, the (Indonesian government), cannot and will not permit any resolution other than the continued inclusion of West Irian in Indonesia. Dissident activity is likely to increase but the Indonesian armed forces will be able to contain and, if necessary, suppress it.”
The TPNPB has not really released any proof to substantiate claims that all the victims were spies, aside from this justification. In December, the TPNPB sent images of a motorcycle taxi driver, dead, with a pistol on his body (below).
West Papua is no stranger to extreme violence. The Indonesian occupation has been argued to be a genocide. Last year, six Indonesian soldiers killed four Papuans, beheaded them, and hacked their bodies into pieces, which were thrown in sacks into a river. An army major was recently sentenced to life in prison for this crime. Last year, the TPNPB’s attacks also got more brutal.
U: How does the TPNPB justify increasingly extreme actions? For example, a gold miner was beheaded by the TPNPB in Yahukimo in July 2022. In December 2022, an ojek (motorcycle taxi) driver seemed to be getting tortured in a video from Pegunungan Bintang. In both cases, the TPNPB said that they were spies. Even if they were spies, these actions seem extreme. How do you justify this?
S: The killing of gold panners in Korowai, Yahukimo Regency, Papua in July 2022 and the killing of Indonesian intelligence who disguised themself as motorcycle taxi drivers in the Bintang Mountains regency of Papua on December 5th, 2022 is normal for us. It is a strong warning to Indonesian immigrants to stop the theft of our natural wealth immediately. And it is our duty to kill in order to expel thieves and robbers from our ancestral lands. And for the international community that killing is extreme, but for us killing is normal because we have traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation to support these extreme killings. What the international community needs to know is that some of our tribes have customs to go to war and kill people and cut of their limbs or behead them; they are taken to Traditional Custom War Houses, where they are cooked and eaten, while dancing. There are tribes in West Papua that are the last cannibals of the world. So, the custom in our tradition is still attached to our blood, therefore we consider the killing to be normal, and we hope that the world will accept it. Because we are just getting to know modern human civilization, we have just come out of the stone age to modernity, our culture and traditions are still firmly embedded in our souls and blood. And we will continue to kill, that is why we ask to Indonesian Immigrants leave our country immediately. In this case, we will not listen to the scrutiny of the international community, because Indonesia has been killing us for last 60 years in sadistic and inhumane ways and is still killing us in a heinous way, and now is the time for revenge. We will kill any Indonesian who comes to our villages, and we will stop killing after Papua is fully independent from Indonesian colonialism.
The Surging Conflict
Violence has been increasing since 2018. Since 2021 it seems to be picking up even faster. There are several factors that could explain some of this. Jakarta has hastened its project to integrate West Papua into Indonesia. Last year, it created four new provinces in West Papua. To Papuans, this is a move to divide and conquer, and will accelerate making them “Minorities in Their Own Land”. The Corruption Eradication Commission also started investigating the corrupt but popular Papuan Governor, Lukas Enembe. Indonesia has a history of targeting (assassinating in some cases) popular Papuan political leaders. In 2021 an Indonesian court also acquitted the sole defendant of the Bloody Paniai incident. (In 2014, Indonesian forces opened fire on peaceful protesters, killing four and injuring several.) Megawati Sukarnoputri, one of the most powerful people in Indonesia, said last year that she likes Papuans like “milk coffee,” and not black. Three years ago nationalist and hardline organizations, along with police, surrounded a Papuan university dormitory in Surabaya, East Java, calling the Papuan students “monkeys”. This set off the largest Papuan demonstrations in years.
Jakarta has said that it would take a more humane and softer approach in recent years, but rhetoric and actions have not yet matched. There is limited space to express political views that do not conform to Jakarta’s. Peaceful activists are often charged with treason, and discussions in universities are broken up. Peaceful protests are put down with force. In one instance, at least 30 Papuans died during a crackdown on protests in 2019.
Most Papuans were not consulted in the division of provinces. UN experts last year expressed concerns about the deteriorating human rights situation. With increasing social media use, it is becoming easier for information to circulate, and highlight the allegations of abuse. Authorities impose the most internet blackouts in West Papua (out of 12 recorded suspensions in 2021, 11 were in the Papuan provinces). Blackouts are also used for “security,” essentially to curb organization and the spread of information that is not controlled by Indonesian security forces. They were imposed shortly after the 2019 protests broke out.
Another factor that could contribute to the changing dynamics of the conflict is a sense of desperation. The internet has increased the circulation of information that would have never made it out of the country before, but there is a sense that West Papua is being drowned out amongst all this, despite attempts by various types of activists and interests to raise attention to the conflict. Conflict journalist and founder of the British media outlet, Popular Front’s Jake Hanrahan said that the conflict was “not sexy enough for the world,” which is an apt assessment. In this sense, the TPNPB’s more extreme attacks could be perceived as possible attempts to gain international attention for the conflict.
Jakarta will not willingly let a referendum occur, which is what most Papuans want (the TPNPB included). That would be a threat to the idea of the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia. In response to all this, the TPNPB is increasing its activity and becoming more violent. Operational capabilities are rising, as is access to weapons. They can hold areas for days in some cases. They still do not have the logistical support, or other support, that they seek from the international community. Despite their gains, they are still fighting a logistically, technically, and financially, superior force. But, the TPNPB has the intention to intensify the conflict, and this resolve is key. Motivation is not lacking; Kogoya’s July 2022 attack came about two weeks after Jakarta announced the creation of three new provinces. The beheading happened days after that.
It is notable how the TPNPB is incorporating aspects of Melanesian tribal history and customs to justify what is perceived by most to be extreme actions. It will impact perceptions of them, and they are increasingly being called “terrorists” by Indonesians. Jakarta officially designated them as such in 2021, after they killed the State Intelligence Agency’s Papua head, the highest-ranking Indonesian military personnel killed in the West Papua conflict. He was visiting an area that was wracked with violence to show that the situation had normalized and the TPNPB threat had subsided.
In 1996, the Free Papua Movement, OPM, (a group of Papuan rebels out of which came the TPNPB), kidnapped 26 locals and foreigners on a World Wildlife Fund project in Mapenduma (Nduga). The 15 Indonesians among the group were released, and the foreigners were held for five months. Two of the latter were killed in a rescue operation. The OPM similarly demanded West Papuan independence. The hostage situation was complex; the TPNPB likely let the 15 locals go because there is more leverage in holding foreigners. There was a lot of pressure on Indonesian security forces to retrieve the remaining hostage safely, and quickly. The TPNPB likely tried to use the incident to draw more attention to the West Papua conflict, in hopes of the international community pressuring Jakarta.
Sebby did raise a thought-provoking point: is it fair to assign standards and expectations by more global perspectives to places that have not seen the development that defines these standards? Regardless, the conflict will get more polarizing and volatile. Nor does the TPNPB care about how it is perceived. The TPNPB’s actions are likely to increase local Papuan opposition towards them. The TPNPB always had varying degrees of support from different Papuan tribes and clans. More violence also means more displacements. Over 60,000 Papuans have been displaced in Nduga since 2018. In this regard, the TPNPB said that they would not hesitate to target Papuans who work for Jakarta. And they have: TPNPB fighters stole a marksman’s rifle from a Papuan brigadier they killed last year.
These are not the only factors contributing to the increasing violence, which could be entering a new phase of the conflict that started surging in 2018. The dynamics of the West Papua conflict are incredibly complex. Sebby Sambom said that in 2023, the TPNPB will continue as it had the previous year. He hopes that the situation garners international attention. The Indonesian government will not deviate much from its long-entrenched approach. The cycle of violence will likely intensify, given everything that is happening.
U: Do you have any last words or messages for our readers?
S: We hope that kind-hearted readers can share our news so that the international community can know that the Papuan people are still fighting for the political right to self-determination, and we ask everyone for support in our struggle to gain independence. Because our struggle is to fulfill human rights, namely the basic right to self-determination, therefore we need support from anyone. And our struggle for peace is because there is still cruel and inhuman colonialism by the colonial government of the Republic of Indonesia. Our organization is legal, and not a criminal or terrorist organization. Therefore, we also ask UN member states to be able to help us with the financial and war logistics, so that we can fight Indonesia with balanced armaments, and we will test it to see who is good at war. Indonesians or Papuans? And our question is if the United States, Australia, and the European Union can provide weapons to Ukraine to fight against Russia, then why can't they do the same for Papua? This question is from our hearts, which we convey openly. Hopefully, there are world leaders who are generous and have humanity, and can be interested in our questions above. Thank you.