Security situation at the Freeport Mine in Tembagapura deteriorates

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Tensions in the armed conflict at the Freeport mining area in Tembagapura of Mimika Regency have increased after one further 'Police Mobile Brigade' (BRIMOB) officer was killed on 14 November 2017 during exchange of fire with members of the Papuan Liberation Army (TPN). One police officer and a Freeport employee sustained bullet wounds during the fire fight. The TPN unit under command of general Ayub Waker (see top-left image) has claimed responsibility for the ongoing armed clashes at the Freeport mining area since mid-October 2017. During the past weeks, the group uploaded a statement and several videos on the internet. The Papuan Regional Police (POLDA Papua) published a search list with 21 names in response to the videos.

Some villages in the surrounding area of Tembagapura were cut-off from supplies because the security situation along the connecting road to Timika had become more tense during past weeks. On 17 November 2017, an armed clash occurred as joint police and military forces approached the villages Banti and Kimbeli in an attempt to evacuate the local population. The security forces brought the villagers in a convoy to Tembagapura, where they received temporary emergency accommodations. Nobody was injured.

The Indonesian military general Gatot Nurmantyo and the national police chief Tito Karnavian classified the situation as the 'taking of 1.400 hostages by a criminal armed group' ('Kelompok Kriminal Bersenjata'). National media outlets reported the hostage taking in the villages of Banti and Kimbeli, hence the security situation at the Freeport Mine received Indonesia-wide attention in national newspapers and television broadcasts. Both villages are inhabited by indigenous Papuans and migrants working in the illegal gold panning sites near the Freeport mine - probably one reason why the security forces chose to evacuate the population of Banti and Kimbeli. Some national media outlets reported that the TPN burned down small stores owned by migrants.

The TPN denied the national media claims, stating that they did not intend to involve any attacks against civilians. However, Ayup Waker admitted that the group had searched houses and publicly requested the villagers not to enter the area around Utikini, Grasberg and Porosait which had been designated as war zone. The independent Australian media network Fairfax interviewed a villager from Banti Village in relation to the so called 'hostage taking'. According to the villager, neither Papuan nor Non-Papuan villagers had been taken hostage and no stores were burned down as it had been reported by the national media.

Laurensius Kadepa, a member of the Papuan Provincial Parliament (DPRP), expressed his concerns over a further aggravation of the situation in Tembagapura in a public interview with the independent news outlet Taboid Jubi. He feared that security forces will not hesitate to use repressive measures against civilians in other nearby villages - particularly those which are only inhabited by indigenous Papuans. The TPN shared similar concerns on one of their website, asking the Indonesian security forces not to apply warfare tactics which could affect the civilian population. The statement was published in response to an attack by Indonesian security forces on 17 November, which involved the use of missiles against TPN positions.

The provincial government has formed a task force consisting of police and civil society representatives to negotiate a peaceful solution in the armed conflict. However, it is doubtful whether the team will be able to establish negotiations between the conflict parties. On 10 November 2017, the TPN  published a document with eight requirements for peace talks, among those the closure of the Freeport Mine, the withdrawal of all Indonesian troops from West Papua, mediation of peace talks by a representative of the United Nations (UN) and the implementation of a referendum under UN supervision. Despite the political demands of the TPN group, the national police chief Tito Karnavian argued in a press conference that the reasons for the armed conflict in Tembaggapura were rather economic than political.

The statement is not surprising if seen in relation to president Jokowi's recent plans to resolving the Papua conflict through a 'sectoral dialogue'. The 'sectoral dialogue' suggests peaceful negotiations of non-political issues under mediation of Rev. Neles Tebay, a Papuan Catholic priest and coordinator of the Papuan Peace Network (JDP). Accordingly, the statement may be understood as an attempt to defend the 'sectoral dialogue' and the Indonesian government's position that the Papua conflict may be settled under exclusion of political and human rights issues.