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Total warfare “imminent” in West Papua – PNG dragged into the conflict

AP Photo/Dita Alangkara

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Total warfare “imminent” in West Papua – PNG dragged into the conflict

Shortly after the announcement of the formation of a provisional and clandestine government in West Papua, Indonesia intensifies its military operations in western New Guinea—in the darkness of prolonged internet blackouts. At the same time, volunteers from neighboring Papua New Guinea join West Papua’s armed struggle for independence in a historic announcement.

Papua New Guinea is politically neutral in the conflict—but the volunteers’ announcement forces the central government in Port Moresby to confront Indonesia and its own stance on the West Papua issue.

By Klas Lundström

WEST PAPUA On 6 May, a battalion consisting of volunteers from Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea, announced they will join the armed struggle for an independent West Papua. 

It’s the first time Papuans from both sides of New Guinea’s vertical border join forces to confront Indonesia’s 60-year-old annexation of the western half of the island.

“On behalf of the citizens of Papua New Guinea, we are now standing here to declare ourselves that we are ready to go and fight against Indonesian soldiers for helping our people of West Papua,” a spokesperson for the Sepik battalion says in their announcement video.

PNG dragged into the conflict

In late April, the central Indonesian government led by President Joko Widodo officially declared that they consider every armed separatist movement in West Papua a “terrorist organization”—an announcement that occurred in the wake of heavy fighting between the Indonesian army and the West Papuan independence movement “Organisasi Papua Merdeka” (“The movement for a free West Papua”), OPM.

During the clash, Indonesian brigadier general Danny Karya Nugraha was killed, prompting President Widodo to declare swift and large-scale military retaliations. A development that has led volunteers from neighboring Papua New Guinea, PNG, to act.

“Our government [in Port Moresby] does not have an initiative to support our people of West Papua, therefore we the people of Sepik, are ready to go and support,” the spokesperson for the Sepik battalion says.

The historic announcement of volunteers joining the armed conflict for an independent West Papua pushes the boundaries for the conflict and puts PNG’s central government on the spot. Its continuing good relationship to its counterpart in Jakarta is of great concern, but even more important is to nurture PNG’s relationship to its southern neighbor Australia—who’s come to  the rescue amidst the Port Moresby government’s shortcomings in its dealing with the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic—and who officially “respects” Indonesia’s annexation of West Papua. 

“The Indonesian government call them [OPM] terrorists, but they are not the terrorists—they are fighting for their land. Indonesia—you are the thief,” the Sepik battalion spokesperson says.

The voluntary battalion’s entry into the conflict now forces the central government in Port Moresby to make a political stand in the West Papua issue.

“Total warfare” imminent

Benny Wenda, West Papuan provisional President based in London, says West Papua hasn’t been so close to total warfare since the 1970s.

“The level of military operations we now see is a return to the Suharto era in the 1970s,” he tells Global Magazine.

When Benny Wenda was young, he endured Indonesia’s military raids and operations, and witnessed them firsthand. Then, Indonesian dictator Suharto enforced gross human rights violations in West Papua—e.g., in the form of using Napalm and chemical weapons and documented massacres—in the central highlands, where people are still traumatized by the chocking events.

Indonesia then tried to quell the widespread desire for West Papuan independence, but the resistance has survived and today it’s the second generation of independence fighters, born under Indonesian occupation and raised during a time of encouraged “transmigration,” in hopes of turning West Papuans into a minority on their own turf. The second generation now continues their parents’ war on Jakarta and its discharge of natural resources, most visible at the Freeport Mine, earlier known as Grasberg.

“Indonesia shuts down the internet”

Indonesia is currently deploying more troops to the military “hotspots” of the central highlands, something that’s been done in the protection of a prolonged internet blackout—which has kept telephones, social media, and information channels silent for days in the most vulnerable regions of West Papua.

The internet blackout occurred as Benny Wenda announced the formation of the historic provisional government, whose department secretaries remain anonymous as they operate inside West Papua “to undermine Indonesian rule.” 

“The internet is being cut off, hundreds more troops are being deployed, and we are receiving reports that West Papuan civilians are fleeing from their villages in Intan Jaya, Puncak Jaya, and Nduga regencies,” Benny Wenda writes in a statement on 4 May. 

Internet blackouts – a political tool

It’s not the first time that internet is cut and blocked in West Papua. In August and September 2019, all digital doors to West Papua were slammed shut amidst political unrest, which resulted in killings of civilians by Indonesian army and police forces. 

In June, the Jakarta State Administrative Court, PTUN, ruled Indonesia’s actions as “unlawful” and a violation of the 1959 State Emergency Law to impose the internet blackout to, officially, halt the spreading of “fake news” per social media. The court ruling was historic and a testimony to the measures the Indonesian state apparatus is prepared to take, in violation of its own enacted laws, to quell dissatisfaction and exchange of information among West Papuan residents.

The current internet blackout bares no political motives, per telecom and communications service provider PT Telkom Indonesia, per Radio New Zealand’s reporting on 3 May. 

A solution to the blackout in large parts of the central highlands is yet, on 6 May, to be found.

Aceh might join forced against “alleged genocide”

The armed West Papuan independence struggle might soon—in addition to volunteers from neighboring Papua New Guinea—also see recruits from Indonesian Aceh province, per sources to Global Magazine. 

Aceh, the northern part of Sumatra on the Western side of the Indonesian archipelago, long waged its own independence struggle against the central government in Jakarta ever since the formation of the Indonesian Republic in the 1940s. A bloody war that resulted in a peace agreement in 2005 and increased autonomy for Aceh.

This information—although at this stage only rumors—pushes the conflict of West Papua into a new stage, on the battlefield in the central highlands as well as inside political corridors. The question is how long the outside world can continue to ignore Indonesia’s military development, West Papua’s 40,000-odd internally displaced citizens and the recurring usage of internet blackouts as a tool to halt witness accounts from the conflict’s “hotspots” in the central highlands to reach the outside world.

“The Indonesian state is conducting a program of genocide against the West Papuan people. A bloody conflict that the US, Europe and the rest of the world community must intervene to stop,” Sebby Sambon, spokesperson for the OPM, tell Global Magazine.

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