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War ‘declared’ in West Papua

On the last day of January 2019, the Free Papua Organisation (OPM) announced in Port Moresby that it recognized that West Papua was in a state of war with Indonesia and supported the OPM’s military wing, the National Liberation Army of West Papua (TPNPB) is its own declaration of war against Indonesia early in 2018. In early December 2018, a TPNPB group kidnapped and killed a number of Indonesian construction workers in the Nduga district, as part of a campaign to stop a major road being constructed through the area.  

Following the Nduga killings, the Indonesian military, the TNI, launched a major campaign in the area. This has led to further killings and a large number of villagers fleeing to the forest where they remain at the time of writing.

The recognition of a state of war raises the question of the low-level conflict that has existed in West Papua since 1965. The conflict started after Indonesia’s occupation of West Papua in 1963 under the terms of the ‘New York Agreement’, ceding authority from the Netherlands to Indonesia via a year of UN administration.

In part the declaration of war follows several years in which the TPNPB reduced its operations in the hope of the Indonesian government agreeing to allow West Papua to become a ‘land of peace and freedom’. That ambiguous goal did not eventuate, so last year the TPNPB moved to a war footing.

At the Port Moresby briefing at which the OPM announced its support for the TPNPB’s state of war, it also announced that it was ready to negotiate a peace with the government of Indonesia. The Indonesian government has not responded to the call for negotiations.

Having talks about ending the conflict is unlikely before Indonesia’s presidential elections in April. No presidential candidate could reasonably expect to win after agreeing to talk with the OPM following the killings at Nduga. Even if the killings had not occurred, the timing would likely preclude leading politicians from committing to talks, in light of a growing tendency of promoting a ‘nationalist’ agenda, including the ‘unity of the state’.

The other difficulty is that, apart from the Indonesian government regarding the Nduga killings as murder rather than an act of war, the OPM’s own starting point for talks is a referendum on self-determination. This is consistent with the 1.8 million (of three million West Papuan) signatures on a petition calling for such a ballot recently handed to the UN’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet.

However, such a referendum runs counter to Indonesian nationalist rhetoric. Any talks, should they happen, would have to start on the basis of no preconditions by either side.

Potentially assisting the OPM’s call for talks was the announcement by the Ms Bachelet, that Indonesia had agreed in principle to allow her to visit West Papua, to investigate claims of human rights abuses. The problem here is that, as with a similar previous agreement which the TNI vetoed, it would be likely to do so again.

The TNI’s direct business interests in West Papua have reduced over the past two decades, but it still exists and provide a substantial reason for not wanting to alter the status quo. As the self-proclaimed ‘guardians of the state’, the TNI also reserves for itself the right to determine political outcomes in ‘security’ areas, most noticeably West Papua.

The recognition of the OPM of the TPNPB’s state of war with Indonesia is stating the obvious; its call for talks is to be welcomed. But the impediments in the way of achieving such talks are substantial. Even if they are allowed to begin, the chances of them producing a mutually agreeable outcome remain, at this stage, remote.