The Indonesian Government, through the Coordinating Minister for Politics, Legal and Security Affairs, Mahfud MD, announced in an interview with media outlet CNN Indonesia that the government will change its policy regarding the conflict situation in Indonesia’s easternmost provinces Papua and Papua Barat, commonly referred to as West Papua. The announcement was broadcasted on 28 November 2021, one week before the freshly appointed armed forces chief, Andika Perkasa, will travel to West Papua to announce his new conflict strategy there.
According to Mahfud, the current combat operations in West Papua will become territorial operations which shall include public services such as healthcare, agriculture and education programs for the people in West Papua. Observers are concerned that the government’s change in policy will be nothing more than mere rhetoric.
Mahfud excluded the possibility of a temporary stop of the security operations in West Papua. He underlined that the ongoing operations in the central Papuan highlands are ‘law enforcement operations’, which must be undertaken in all parts of Indonesia. However, Mahfud indicted that the new approach would be a reaction to ongoing calls from Papuan civil society not deploy non-organic military troops to West Papua.
“Papua, is just like any other area. There are murders and other crimes just as in other parts [of Indonesia]. Why should these crimes be responded with combat operations. These are just normal law enforcement operations“, Mahfud said.
Mahfud MD did not mention the existence of about 60,000 internally displaced persons in West Papua, which fled their homes in fear of being killed during these “law enforcement operations”. IDPs from the Pegunungan Bintang Regency even stated that the military dropped mortar grenades from helicopters on their settlements, destroying houses and gardens.
According to Mahfud, the change in policy is based on Presidential Instruction No 9/2020. The instruction stipulates that a prosperity-based approach should be implemented through synergetic and comprehensive efforts. All state institutions, including police and military, should stay in close coordination with each other to support the development process in West Papua.
The minister did not elaborate how such a change in policy will look like on the ground. However, Mahfud’s statements during the interview allow some careful predictions. He explained that the government will implement programs “with public services, healthcare services, agricultural and education programs with schools, for example. The police and the military can become teachers and teach agriculture there”.
The involvement of the military in civil service positions is not a new thing. In January 2019, President Jokowi himself announced plans to create sixty new job careers for brigadiers, majors and lieutenant generals who could no longer be employed in the Indonesian security force apparatus. More importantly, many indigenous Papuans are afraid of the police and the military. Accordingly, the appointment of military members as teachers or health personnel could even hamper the access for many indigenous Papuans to these essential services.
Human rights observers fear that the announced government plans are nothing more than mere rhetoric. This concern is supported by the views regarding the conflict situation in West Papua, which Mahfud expressed during the interview. „The root cause of the conflict is not independence or no independence because this issue does no longer exist. The issue of self-determination is already finished. The root cause of the problem is prosperity. […] Where does this pro and contra actually come from? There is no pro and contra. This approach was requested by many people. Nobody is opposing this approach apart from those [people] like Mr Sambom.” Mr Sebby Sambom is the spokesperson of the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB), the armed wing of the West Papuan independence movement.
The statement allows two more conclusions: Firstly, the governments ignorance of the diverging views on the historic integration of West Papua into Indonesia as one of the root causes of the conflict, and secondly, the lack of openness for criticism towards the new government plans. One can conclude form the statement that anyone opposing the government’s policy on West Papua could be stigmatized as a supporter of West Papuan independence.
In light of the government’s position which ignores the growing aspirations for self -determination in West Papua, it is doubtful that the new conflict approach will bring upon a sustainable and peaceful solution for the West Papua conflict.