Papuan Separatists Unification Unlikely to Stabilize

Papuan Separatists Unification Unlikely to Stabilize

West Papuan separatist groups have recently united under a single banner. However, internal conflict and a determined Indonesian government will likely lead to a deterioration in the security environment in Indonesia’s Papua Province. This will increase the risk of disruption to mining operations in the resource-rich province.

On 1 July 2019, the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) announced the unification of the three main armed separatist groups in Indonesia’s Papua Province under the political leadership of exiled ULMWP Chairman Benny Wenda. According to the ‘Vanimo Border Declaration’ signed on 01 May 2019, the West Papua Revolutionary Army, West Papuan National Army, and the West Papua National Liberation Army will unite to form the West Papuan Army. 

This represents a historic step for the West Papuan self-determination movement, with the establishment of a unilaterally declared ‘self–defence force’ under the political leadership of the ULMWP. However, disputes over the actual unity of these factions by another West Papuan political organisation — the Free Papua Movement (OPM) — raises doubts over the cohesion of this new political-military front. 

Deep Roots of Conflict  

West Papua and Papua — collectively referred to as ‘West Papua’ — represents the easternmost provinces of the Indonesian archipelago.  Despite being ethnically, culturally, and linguistically connected to neighbouring Papua New Guinea and wider Melanesia, West Papua has been part of Indonesia since 1969. 

Sovereignty over West Papua was handed over to Indonesia from the Dutch following a UN-backed referendum on independence dubbed the ‘Act of Free Choice’ in which approximately 1,000 pre-selected government delegates voted on behalf of the entire population. Despite questions over the referendum’s legitimacy, Indonesia has vigorously defended its claims over West Papua because it was once part of the Dutch East Indies — the basis of Indonesia’s current borders.  

Since coming under Indonesian sovereignty, West Papua has experienced decades of low-intensity but consistent conflict. This has involved an ongoing armed struggle by several separatist groups which has been met with military force and political suppression by the Indonesian Government. Human rights groups have long accused Indonesian security forces of abuses in West Papua, with independence activists highlighting the ‘slow-motion genocide’ of the indigenous population through transmigration programs from densely populated Java. 

Recent pushes by Jakarta have attempted to simmer tensions through a ‘hearts and minds’ approach in what is one of Indonesia’s most impoverished and underdeveloped regions. This has included ending the controversial transmigration program in 2015 and an ambitious infrastructure development program throughout West Papua. Despite this, grievances over historical human rights abuses, an overt military presence in the province, and the exploitation of natural resources has fueled the drive for self-determination. 

Most recently, on December 2018, armed separatists from the military wing of the OPM attacked a state-owned construction site, killing 31 workers. The year before, tensions over labour disputes, environmental damage, and resentment over revenue distribution from the Grasberg gold and copper mine boiled over resulting in a state of emergency and a violent standoff between OPM-aligned militants and security forces. 

Selfdetermination, Sovereignty, and Gold

The Grasberg mine — the world’s second-largest copper mine — has been at the heart of West Papua’s turbulent history since it began operating in 1967 under US company Freeport–McMoran. Most recently, the Indonesian Government nationalised the mine buying a $3.85 billion majority share. The purchase came instead of new regulations requiring foreign mining companies to divest their majority stakes in Indonesian operations to local entities.

The most recent push to nationalise Indonesia’s natural resources highlights not only Indonesia’s economic interests but also its desire for control and sovereignty. Maintaining control over West Papua is not only a matter of preserving the nation’s sovereignty but has also been key to Indonesia’s economic prosperity. In the eyes of critical decision-makers in Jakarta, an organised, coherent, and active self-determination movement in West Papua represents a severe threat.

Indonesian Government Response

Since the ULMWP announcement, the Indonesian response has been somewhat muted with military officials ‘shrugging off’ the formation of the West Papuan Army. West Papuan separatists have traditionally been treated as ‘armed criminal groups’ and will likely continue to be so unless there is a significant shift in the way the separatists fight. 

In response to a gunfight between separatists and the Indonesian military in January 2019, the Chief of Indonesia’s Presidential Staff General Moeldoko floated the idea of re–categorising West Papuan ‘armed criminal groups’ as separatists. This would place any response to the separatist activity under the jurisdiction of the military as opposed to the police. Such a move would likely draw a stronger military presence; impact mining operations, and have a destabilising impact on both the security and economic environment in West Papua.

Despite the declaration of a West Papuan Army, it remains unlikely that such a group would be able to mount significant and organised offensive and defensive operations in West Papua. Separatists groups remain ill-equipped, poorly disciplined, and under-trained. Furthermore, the historically factionalised nature of the movement and personal loyalties to individual commanders will likely cause in-fighting and possible conflict between the newly amalgamated groups. It is also likely that factions operating in areas with high-value natural resources, such as the Grasberg mine, will prioritise the prosperity of their communities over the overarching policies of the ULMWP.   

Categories: Oceania, Under The Radar

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