While we mourn for the more than a dozen lives lost in the Papuan regency of Nduga recently, we should spare a thought for the thousands of other lives lost in the natural resources-rich territory since this conflict began. We should ask why it is one of the world’s longest-running struggles and what can bring it to a close.
On Dec. 13, the speaker of the House of Representatives stated that he would provide support for a “military operation other than war” in Papua. Papuan people have suffered through at least 16 official military operations since 1961. Further operations would only deepen Papua’s wounds and make a peaceful resolution more difficult to achieve.
In previous military operations in Papua, civilians made up the largest numbers of victims. Furthermore, military impunity and a weak legal system means there has never been accountability for these civilian deaths. As a first step toward justice, instead of sending more troops, an independent team from the National Commission on Human Rights should be deployed to investigate the conflicting claims in Nduga.
There is a strong movement for peaceful resolution of the Papua conflict via an exercise of the right to self-determination. This non-violent movement is growing fast and not only in Papua itself. Thousands of people, Papuan and non-Papuan, have participated in meetings, public discussions and peaceful demonstrations in dozens of cities across Indonesia in recent years. Of the 537 people arrested for peacefully demonstrating on Dec. 1, alone, 185 were non-Papuans.
If the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) freedom fighters in Nduga are captured or killed in a military operation, we can expect that they would be replaced. Papuan youths who are members of non-violent organizations show tremendous support for the TPNPB. To them, TPNPB freedom fighters are elders making extreme sacrifices. Crushing the TPNPB in Nduga would not solve the conflict in West Papua; it would outrage and radicalize the non-violent wing of the movement.
The same goes for the repressive tactics being used against the non-violent movement. Non-violent activists in Papua’s urban areas have been subjected to illegal arrests, harassing surveillance, arbitrary destruction of property and other forms of interference. Many have told their lawyers, including me, that this repression leaves them feeling there is no room for peaceful action in urban areas and that they would do better to take up arms with the TPNPB in the jungle.
Papuan students in Java face additional repression from civil militia groups who threaten violence without fear of arrest. Some of these students have told me that if they have to fight off thuggish militias determined to stifle free speech, they might as well go all the way and fight the Indonesian military by joining the TPNPB.
The origins of the TPNPB show that the Papuan people have long fought to remain independent. In 1942 during the Japanese occupation, Papuans in Biak declared their independence. Tens of thousands of Free Papua Movement members in 1965 resisted Indonesia in the lead-up to the fatally flawed 1969 “act of free choice”. This history illustrates the fact that today’s TPNPB freedom fighters are continuing a longstanding “war of national liberation”.
International humanitarian law recognizes them as combatants and not, as the government prefers to describe them, merely members of an “armed criminal group”. Wars of national liberation are addressed under Additional Protocol I of the 1949 Geneva Conventions. Although Indonesia is not yet a signatory to this protocol, combatants on both sides must still respect basic international humanitarian law as a matter of customary international law during the armed conflict.
Until President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo fulfills his long-neglected promise to open access to Papua for foreign journalists, the outside world will cry foul. Free domestic discussion is also imperiled: Police have threatened a Papuan senator with prosecution under the draconian Electronic Information and Transactions Law after he spoke about six civilians who were allegedly killed in a joint military and police operation in Nduga.
Since last year, security forces have made similar threats against ordinary civilians and human rights defenders monitoring military and police operations in Papua’s remote areas. Any accounts differing from the biased military line are declared to be “hoaxes”.
We must urgently resolve the conflict in Papua once and for all. The government is misguided in its belief that an infrastructure program will placate Papuans’ abiding demand for self-determination. As the Indonesian Institute of Sciences has recognized, the root cause of the conflict is the forceful integration of Papua into Indonesia.Indonesian lawmakers would do well to acknowledge this reality.
As a newly elected member of the UN Security Council, Indonesia’s stated priority is fighting for the noble cause of the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination. It should be no less a priority for Indonesia to democratically address the same fundamental demand being voiced by the Papuan people.
The writer is a human rights lawyer representing hundreds of activists who rallied on Dec. 1.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.