Coronavirus, Papuan separatism and growing distrust towards the government

By Yan Ramadhan, Junior Analyst

It has been just over three months since the first two coronavirus cases were confirmed in Indonesia in early March. Hundreds of new infections are being confirmed daily, with the official death toll constantly creeping higher.

President Joko Widodo has avoided implementing a nationwide lockdown to stem the spread of the virus and has opted for a less resource-intensive route by allowing individual regions to impose the so-called expanded social distancing policy (PSBB), which limits public and business activity with some exemptions for sectors deemed vital to mitigating the outbreak.

The PSBB has so far failed to flatten the infection curve, but there are some indications that the policy has helped to slow the spread of the virus in the worst-affected regions. Nevertheless, enforcement of the policy remains subpar and 40% of residents in PSBB-affected regions are not adhering to the measures, according to the result of a survey by the National Media Survey Institute released in early May. This means there are at least 120 million residents who are highly prone to contracting the virus and potentially spreading it to others.

The central government has also begun implementing a scheme to relax the PSBB to allow businesses to re-start activity and prevent further damage to the economy. On May 26, Widodo ordered the deployment of 340,000 police and military personnel in Jakarta, West Java, West Sumatra and Gorontalo, along with 25 other municipalities, as part of preparations before the regions are permitted to implement the so-called “new normal” of the public co-existing with the coronavirus.

In Papua, Governor Lukas Enembe has charted his own course in response to the outbreak, given the challenging infrastructure and security conditions in the province. On March 17, Enembe declared a coronavirus emergency in the region, followed by temporarily shutting all airports, ports and land borders in the province a week later.

Home Affairs Minister Tito Karnavian previously expressed his disapproval of Papua’s shutdown policy. In a statement circulating among reporters, Karnavian slammed Enembe’s move to block all access to Papua, as the policy was not in line with the central government’s approach of only limiting mass gatherings and restricting public activity. The shutdown in Papua has been extended until June 18.

Despite the lockdown, separatist activity is continuing unabated. According to monitoring by Concord Strategic, a police officer, a soldier and four civilians, including a foreigner, have been killed, while four police officers, two soldiers and nine civilians were injured in at least 20 incidents involving alleged separatists since late February. Authorities have also killed seven alleged separatists and injured three others in raids and shootouts during the same period.

Tensions between authorities and Papuan separatists have been on a downward slope ever since the uprising in Papua last year, which was centered on Deiyai and Jayawijaya regencies and claimed the lives of dozens of people, including several members of the security forces, and internally displaced an estimated 20,000 civilians. The violence was initially fueled by racial abuse against Papuan students in Surabaya, East Java but it quickly transformed into protests and riots that spread in Papua and West Papua amid calls for self-rule in the impoverished region.

The declining public trust towards the local and central governments and the inability of officials to mitigate the coronavirus pandemic have allowed the separatist movement to pin the blame on the Indonesian authorities and intensify the rebels’ propaganda war, with allegations that Jakarta is purposely allowing the coronavirus to spread in Papua to further marginalize the native Melanesian population.

More security as government solution
The central government has deployed thousands of additional police and military personnel in Papua and West Papua since August 30, 2019, when the uprising began, but the additional security force presence has failed to rein in violent separatist activities.

Rosita Dewi, a researcher at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), told Concord Strategic that historically, a large police and military presence in Papua and West Papua has failed to improve the security situation, largely due to a long history of suspicion and distrust of security personnel and trauma from past human rights abuses.

In October 2019, three people identified as app-based motorcycle taxi drivers were killed in Intan Jaya regency. The victims, who were also believed to be migrants from other provinces, were beaten and shot over allegations by separatists that they were undercover intelligence officers. Migrants to Papua often end up becoming unwitting targets of the negative sentiment brewing among the indigenous population.

At the other end of the spectrum, two Papuan youths were shot dead by military personnel after they were mistaken as separatists in Kuala Kencana district, Mimika on April 13. The victims, identified as Eden Armando Debari and Ronny Wandik, went fishing in an area belonging to mining company PT Freeport Indonesia but did not return to their homes by nightfall, prompting a search which located the bodies. Police have vowed to identify and prosecute those responsible but no further developments have been reported.

Security loopholes despite military presence
It has become apparent that the additional deployment of police and military personnel in Papua and West Papua has not translated into improved security and a reduction in separatist activity.

On March 30, New Zealand national Graeme Thomas Wall was killed and six other people, all Indonesians, were injured in a shooting by armed separatists at PT Freeport Indonesia’s residential and office complex in Kuala Kencana district, Timika, Mimika regency.

Papua Police and officials of the Cenderawasih Regional Military Command (Kodam XVII) said they were evaluating security measures after reports that the separatists were able to enter the area undetected a day before the attack. “Eight of them moved into the district through secret passages during heavy rain to avoid detection, while also armed with several firearms,” Papua Police chief Insp. Gen. Paulus Waterpauw said.

In early February, the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB), the military wing of the separatist Free Papua Organization (OPM), claimed that it had shot down an Army helicopter that went missing in Bintang Mountains regency in late 2019.

TPNPB spokesman Sebby Sambom said a group led Lamek Alipky Taplo was responsible for the incident, adding that Taplo located the debris of the helicopter on February 4. “We have located the missing helicopter and all of TNI firearms found at the crash site now belong to us,” Sambom said in a written statement published by various media outlets on February 6.

More recently on May 15, a police officer was injured and four firearms were stolen in an attack by separatists at a police post in Bogobaida district, Paniai regency. Three unidentified people attacked 1st Brig. Kristian Paliling at around 8:00 PM local time while he and three other officers were attending a meeting with residents. The suspects, believed to be members of a separatist cell led by Ton Tabuni, also stole four assault rifles from the post, police said.

On May 22, two medical workers attached to a local coronavirus task force were shot by unidentified gunmen in Wandai district, Intan Jaya regency. One of the workers died on the scene while the other was wounded in the leg.

Papua Police spokesman Sr. Comm. Ahmad Mustofa Kamal on May 25 said the suspects were linked to the separatists responsible for the May 15 attack on the police post in Paniai.

The separatists are said to be planning to expand their territory in the area due to its proximity to Paniai. “They are planning to establish a post in Wandai but the medical workers reportedly convinced residents to reject their plan,” Kamal said.

The TPNPB on May 23 denied responsibility for the Intan Jaya attack and instead pointed the finger at the security forces.

The deployment of more than 6,000 additional military and police personnel in 2019 has not had much of an impact on the OPM’s activities and the government is likely underestimating the security threat posed by the guerrillas, who are often seen as less dangerous compared with the unarmed independence movement and its foreign supporters.

The OPM operates as a detached association of clan-based units under the leadership of a supreme TPNPB commander, who oversees a network of 33 regional commands or KODAPs, which report to an operational commander, identified as Lekagak Telenggen. Moreover, Sambom, who acts as the network’s spokesman, is based near the border with Papua New Guinea, issuing press statements and claiming or rejecting responsibility for attacks.

In addition to acquiring arms or ammunition by raiding military or security posts, the various separatist units frequently purchase supplies from corrupt members of the military. There have also been reports of dealings with gun smugglers in Papua New Guinea and Maluku but most of the weapons appear to be locally acquired.

In April, the separatist group urged President Widodo to immediately withdraw all security forces and non-native troops and threatened “large-scale confrontations in the near future” if their demands were not met.

The OPM also demanded the release of all Papuan political prisoners amid risks of contracting the coronavirus due to prison overcrowding. They also reiterated their longstanding offer to the Indonesian government to negotiate an end to the conflict in Papua with an international third-party mediator.

The OPM also said they are committed to several measures due to the outbreak. They vowed to not attack health facilities, allow the movement of medical equipment and personnel, assist medical treatment and disseminate accurate information on how to deal with the pandemic.

Coronavirus and the ‘genocide of Papuans’ narrative
Papua remains one of the poorest regions in Indonesia, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics (BPS). As of September 2019, at least 900,950 people, or 26.55% of the province’s population, lived below the poverty line, compared with the national average of 9.22%.

Statistics for the province’s healthcare sector are just as problematic, with only 41 hospitals and 1,568 public health centers, staffed by 1,126 doctors and 5,744 nurses for a population of 3.3 million.

At least 736 confirmed coronavirus infections, eight deaths and 106 recoveries have been reported in Papua and West Papua, based on the government’s official tally, but the actual figure is believed to me many times higher due to a lack of testing and residents’ generally poor health condition compared with those in provinces with better access to medical care.

According to separate reports, at least 124 workers at Freeport Indonesia in Papua have tested positive for the coronavirus with two of them succumbing to the disease.

Vidhyandika D. Perkasa, a researcher from the Jakarta-based Central for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said there are other dimensions to the challenges in dealing with the coronavirus outbreak in Papua.

The social disparities experienced by indigenous Papuans make them highly prone to the coronavirus and this is also marred by negative sentiment resulting from the differences in financial resources enjoyed by migrants from other provinces, Perkasa said.

The emergence of the coronavirus amid the recent rise in separatism and dissent in Papua has given rise to several conspiracy theories, which are exacerbating the already high level of social tension in the region.

Octovianus Mote, a separatist and spokesman of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP), juxtaposed a past conspiracy theory on the spread of HIV/AIDS in Papua with the coronavirus outbreak, saying it was used to threaten the safety of the indigenous community in the region and force Papua Governor Enembe and his West Papua counterpart Dominggus Mandacan to implement a regional lockdown.

Many Papuans are already pointing fingers at migrants from other provinces and authorities sent by the central government for bringing the disease to the region. This conspiracy theory was given more fuel by Minister Karnavian’s rejection of the temporary lockdown implemented in the region in March, prompting many villages in Papua to take matters into their own hands and pile logs across roads to prevent outsiders from entering.

Socratez Yoman, a church leader and renowned Papua independence activist, wrote in an article circulated on pro-Papuan social media that “any opposition towards imposing a lockdown in the province would be another way for the central government to slowly murder the indigenous Papuan community.”

“We (Papuans) have already suffered long enough from the cruelty, violence of the military operation that have slaughtered our people,” Yoman wrote.

The OPM issued a similar statement, saying: “Papuans cannot help but wonder if Jakarta is pursuing its genocidal policies by allowing the continuous flow of people from infected regions in Indonesia into West Papua.”

The OPM on April 8 issued another statement saying it fully supported the efforts of local officials in implementing lockdowns, “despite threats by Jakarta,” while questioning why the Armed Forces (TNI) continue to send more personnel and supplies from infected regions to Papua.

Alternative policies
Triwibowo told Concord Strategic that the constant skirmishes between the security forces and separatists in Papua will not end if Jakarta continues to insist on prioritizing a military approach to the problem while overlooking the political aspects.

“The government should begin by withdrawing its troops from the region. As the collateral damage and fatalities from the violence recede, authorities then can begin their attempts to regain the much-needed trust of both residents and members of the separatist movement,” Triwibowo said.

This should also be conducted in parallel with paying more attention to unresolved past human rights violations while ensuring support for those who have been direly affected by years of unrest in the region, Triwibowo added.

The central government’s failure to properly address the coronavirus outbreak in Papua will further deepen residents’ suspicion of the government, he said.

Dewi meanwhile said that concerns over the massive security force presence in Papua have become a dilemma but there is no easy solution to the problem. “The government should always consider the traumatic effect a massive military and police presence has on the local community in the province, especially due to the recent violence between authorities and separatists,” she said.

Dewi said the deployment of more security personnel will not solve tensions in the province. She urged the government to instead focus on marginalization, discrimination and understanding the different perspectives on Papua’s history and political status.

Perkasa said the militaristic approach favored by the central government and the diplomatic approach proposed by experts are outdated and would be difficult to implement due to the intensive social dynamic in Papua. He said people in the region are different from those in other parts of the archipelago and this paradigm must be reconstructed to prevent baseless stigmatization from growing even further.

Perkasa suggested a more straightforward approach by conducting community-based policies that include greater participation by residents in policymaking on a national level.

Growing distrust and prolonged stigmatization of Papua
The spread of the coronavirus appears unlikely to slow down anytime soon and if left without any immediate attempt to improve mitigation efforts, distrust towards policymakers in Jakarta will continue to deepen and the narrative that the central government is imposing genocidal policies will likely strengthen.

The OPM and TPNPB have threatened further confrontations amid the pandemic until their demands are met. TPNPB spokesman Sambom last month claimed that the separatists attacked four security posts in Nduga regency on May 23, seizing cash, military equipment and thousands of rounds of ammunition.

The central government is clearly overwhelmed by the coronavirus outbreak and has yet to make any significant progress in dealing with it and the economic fallout. However, further indifference toward the simmering multi-faceted conflict in Papua risks igniting more widespread unrest that will likely not easily be swept under the rug through the use of security personnel.

The Papuan uprising last year, which was triggered by a single racial incident in Surabaya, highlights the fragility of the overall situation – a fact not lost on separatists and pro-Papuan activists.

Papuan activists have been active recently on social media drawing parallels between race-fueled protests and rioting in the US triggered by the death of an unarmed black man caused by police in Minnesota and the treatment of native Papuans at the hands of law enforcers and security personnel in Papua and West Papua as well as other provinces of Indonesia.

With much of the anger among native Papuans over the coronavirus outbreak directed at symbols of Indonesian rule and domination in the easternmost region – including migrants – the pandemic risks setting back communal relations further, with more long-term security implications for the volatile region.