Students from the Indonesian Peoples Front of West Papua (FRI) participating in a protest rally in Makassar, South Sulawesi, on Dec. 1. The group called on the government to better support the people of West Papua and to distribute more funding and development to the region. (Antara Photo/Yusran Uccang)

Commentary: Recent Gun Contact in West Papua Challenges Jokowi’s Development Approach


NOVEMBER 17, 2017

Recent gun contact followed by reportedly 1,300 people being taken hostages in Tembagapura, Mimika, West Papua, by TPN/OPM, or the Papuan National Freedom Army, continues to demonstrate political and policy battles between Papuans in general and TPN/OPM in particular and Indonesian government.

The area of Tembagapura, a subdistrict in Mimika regency, is the home to the world’s giant gold mining company Freeport Indonesia. It is an area of constant gun fights between the Indonesian security forces and TPN/OPM.

It is also an area where political-economic interests and cultural-social identity was in a total clash for years. No one knows for sure when it is going to end.

The recent gun fight has caused a number of deaths and serious injuries from both sides and it is not likely to end soon following a number of demands and conditions presented by TPN/OPM to the Indonesian government to end the fight.

The demands, of course, are difficult to meet because they deal with sovereignty and delicate political issues.

However, what is particularly striking, though, as reported by numerous mainstream media, is that the hostages are not only non-Papuans but also native-civilian Papuans, mostly coming from the same or neighbor tribes as the TPN/OPM.

There are different assessments and interpretations dealing with the case. Some journalists including local journalists, community leaders and activists raise doubts whether the term “hostage” is the proper word used to describe what is actually happening.

Jonathan Kibak, a local community leader, for example, testifies that there are no hostages taking place as claimed by Indonesian authorities and the activities of the villagers of Banti and Kimberly run as usual. Others claim that it is simply a manipulation of the real situation to justify a military action.

For that reason, they simply describe the situation as temporary isolation done by TPN/OPM to restrict the movement of security forces in the area and to prevent people from entering and leaving the villages.

When people are allowed to go out, it will put their safety in danger and make TPN/OPM vulnerable of being attacked by joint security forces of military and police.

They also describe that it is strange to call “hostage crisis” because there is no crisis that harms the villagers and it is unusual that TPN/OPM would take hostages against the people sharing the same tribe with them. In other words, taking Papuan civilian hostages is not a common method of TPN/OPM tactics.

An internationally famous incident where TPN/OPM took hostage was in January 1996 where 26 hostages, 20 Indonesian and four foreigners were held in the jungle for more than four months. They were finally released through a rescue mission.

But whatever the terms and the situation are, this incident, of course, poses a serious challenge to Jokowi’s administration. Under Jokowi’s administration, his expectation is so high to end political battles by promoting a policy of development through comprehensive changes.

For Jokowi, political battles between strong-held ideologies of the Unitary State of Republic of Indonesia (NKRI) versus West Papua Political Independence can be ended or at least compromised through comprehensive development approaches in Papua, a belief which was also shared by his predecessors.

Although Jokowi’s approach reflects a continuation and change of policy from his predecessors, it is fair to mention that among all his predecessors, Jokowi is perhaps the only president who pays serious attention to develop Papua.

His frequent trips to the easternmost region in Indonesia and his strong commitment to break the Papua remoteness and promote Papuan welfare by building massive roads and implementing one-fuel price policies for West Papua and other parts of Indonesia gives a strong signal that his administration is different from the past.

It also indicates that Jokowi is seeking solutions to bring those who have different political aspirations to support him in promoting development in the region.

In the last couple years and continued to this year, media has reported that several members of TPN/OPM have decided to surrender and stop fighting for a political independence following impressive development growth in the area promoted by Jokowi.

Their integrations into society signify a major transformation from active guerilla combatants to non-combatants and it is a key aspect to achieve peace by integrating and disarming the active combatant groups.

The government built them houses and promised to improve their welfare once they were integrated into society but this was not followed by empowerment and peacebuilding initiatives. As a result, constant fighting and resistance still continue.

And the recent incident of gun contact has illustrated once again that the political and policy battles are still far from over and the new approach needs to be done.

One one hand, Jokowi’s government has begun to initiate a comprehensive and sustainable development approach to Papua. But on the other hand, the security approach is still strongly embraced. This is counter-productive and likely to affect the overall initiatives of Jokowi.

It is true that although the dominant security approach has been minimal following the introduction of prosperity approach through a special autonomy law granted in 2001, the security approach remains strong in practice.

Of course, it is not easy to withdraw security forces from West Papua due to active separatist groups in the region but the large presence of security forces and excessive use of force will lead to unprecedented consequences.

As a matter of fact, a number of human rights reports have repeatedly revealed how the presence of security forces and the unnecessary use of force against Papuans have exacerbated the conditions and led to continuing human rights violations.

In addition, although recent approach by Jokowi who strongly emphasizes infrastructure development which is expected to connect villages to villages in Papua in order to promote economic development in the area, the resistance from Papuans against central government will likely to continue.

The issue of civil resistance among Papuans is not new. It has lasted before and after Papua integrated into Indonesia in 1969 through Act of Free Choice.

Indonesian Institute of Science (LIPI) has indicated that there are four root causes of conflicts in Papua: marginalization and discrimination, failure of development, political and history contradiction, accountability of human rights violations.

The Jokowi government appears to have addressed the first two issues seriously but not other two. His initiative to uplift restrictions of foreign journalists to West Papua in 2015 to monitor human rights conditions and the region development received strong resistance from other state authorities.

Indeed, to solve the persisting problems in Papua, it is not enough to take one aspect of the policy and leaving the others behind, but all should be taken. In other words, a comprehensive measure needs to be taken to ensure a productive and mutual understanding, trust and stable conditions.

It is also important to show that Jokowi’s government does not primarily focus on development issues but also political and human rights issues, a key to achieve peace and justice.

Petrus K. Farneubun teaches international relations at the Cenderawasih University in West Papua. He is currently pursuing his doctoral degree in the field of international relations at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, with support of LPDP scholarship.

West Papua