Following a spate of shooting incidents over the last few weeks, including one that killed the head the State Intelligence Agency (BIN) in Papua, Brig. Gen. I Gusti Putu Danny, the government has declared the armed rebel group in the territory a terrorist organization. The impact will be overarching in particular on the local people, but the decision is unlikely to bring peace back to the easternmost territory anytime soon as we all desire.
Instead, the government’s move risks escalating violence in Papua as it will justify counterterrorism operations involving both the police and military. The draconian 2018 Terrorism Law allows the police to preempt acts of terrorism and the military to actively participate in countering terrorism in the form of deployment for non-war operations.
Even before the policy shift, which the government claimed to have gone through careful assessment and consultation, violence and alleged human rights violations were somewhat a daily routine. Amnesty International Indonesia’s monitoring found military and police personnel often justified the killing of Papuan people who they accused of being members of the Free Papua Movement [OPM] or "armed criminal groups" without solid evidence.
There have been reports of local people being displaced, fleeing their homes either as a result of violence or intimidation by security forces accusing them of helping the rebels. With minimum scrutiny by the local media, let alone international media, the acts of violence on the ground in Papua could be underreported.
Both the security forces and the Papuan armed groups may have committed human rights violations, but when they are perpetrated by the military or police, it always come across worse in the global public opinion.The House of Representatives endorsed the new Terrorism Law in the wake of church bombings in Surabaya and attacks on police installations in Depok and East Java in 2018 and has so far targeted terrorist cells who are intent on turning Indonesia into a caliphate. The enforcement of the law in Papua, one of a few regions where Muslims are the minority population, may help the government prove the fight against terrorism has nothing to do with certain religions.
But with the stigmatization of indigenous Papuans who voice their rights still pervasive, the new label of terrorists will only add insult to injury and evoke a new source of resentment toward the Papuans. It will come as no surprise if racial discrimination against Papuans worsens.
For many years the government has refused to take into consideration calls for dialogue as an alternative to the security approach to settle Papua grievances beyond doubt. Presidents come and go, but Papua has remained infamous for its high poverty rate despite its wealth of natural resources and hefty amount of special autonomy funds injected into Papua and West Papua over the past 20 years.
Dialogue will give the government a better chance to identify the root problems facing Papua and seek solutions to them. A security approach, including labeling Papua as a terrorism hotbed, will not.
As we are calling for cessation of violence in Myanmar and in other parts of the world, we are about to escalate violence in Papua.