Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Papua (Indonesian): This is What State Terror Looks Like.

by Elizabeth Kendal 

On Sunday 25 April a small detachment of Indonesian security personnel was patrolling a crime scene in Puncak Regency, in the Central Highlands of Papua Province, when it was ambushed by Papuan rebels. A firefight ensued and Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) provincial intelligence chief Brig. Gen. I Gusti Putu Danny Karya Nugraha was shot dead in what appears to have been a planned assassination

Indonesian President Joko Widodo immediately called for retaliation. 

On Thursday 29 April, police claimed to have killed nine Papuan fighters in Puncuk district on Tuesday 27 April in retaliation for Nugraha’s killing. However, the spokesman for the rebel group, Sebby Sambom denied the claim, calling it a “big lie” and “propaganda” designed to boost the Indonesian military’s (TNI) morale.  


On 29 April, Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister Mahfud MD announced that Papuan armed criminal groups (Kelompok Kriminal Bersenjata: KKB) would now be categorized as ‘terrorists’ in line with Counterterrorism Law No. 8/2018. The Counterterrorism Law grants security forces the power to authorise massive disproportionate surveillance, and detain suspects for longer periods without charge, increasing the risk that suspects will be abused and tortured. 

Papuan Governor Lukas Enembe immediately urged the government to reconsider. He warned that, rather than helping the situation, the “terrorist” designation could instead bring much harm. Governor Enembe “reiterated the Papua administration’s demand for the central government to tone down its heavy-handed approach in tackling problems in the province. ‘We want the security approach in Papua to be conducted in a more humane [manner], with an exchange of words and ideas, not an exchange of bullets,’ he said on Thursday [29 April]. He also urged the Indonesian Military (TNI) and the National Police to thoroughly assess the armed groups’ strength, location and characteristics to avoid civilian casualties or wrongful arrests.”

Numerous human rights organisations and advocates – including Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty International, and the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) – similarly denounced the move and expressed concerns that the terrorist designation could trigger racist violence against Papuans outside of Papua, and be used to justify mass, gross human rights abuses, including arbitrary arrests, torture and killings, much of it compounded by the extreme racial-religious hatred so many Javanese Muslims (especially in the Indonesian military) have for their Melanesian predominantly Christian compatriots. 

Amnesty International Indonesia executive director Usman Hamid said that the designation only showed the government’s failure to address the root of Papua’s problems and most probably will hurt rather than help that Papuans. “Based on our monitoring, military and police personnel allegedly often justify the killing of Papuan people by claiming that they were members of the Free Papua Movement [OPM] or ‘armed criminal groups’ without providing clear evidence – claims that are often denied by local residents and church leaders,” he said in a statement. “The [new] ‘terrorist’ label will only serve as further justification for such terrible human rights abuses.” (Jakarta Post, 2 May)


On Sunday 2 May, Indonesian media reported that the Indonesian military (TNI) had deployed its 400-strong elite Infantry 315/Garuda Battalion to Papua. Video footage has been released of the battle-hardened battalion – which earned its nickname “Satan’s Forces” (pasukan setan) in East Timor where it came to known for its brutal methods – performing military drills in Papua in 1 May.  

'Satan's Forces' perform military drills in Papua, 1 May 2021

On 4 May, Papuan leader-in-exile Benny Wenda issued a statement in which he warned: “huge Indonesian military operations, some of the largest in years, are imminent in West Papua. 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 . . . This looks like it will be the biggest military operation in West Papua since the late 1970s. . .” 

UK-based Wenda warned that along with Satan’s Forces, the Jala Mangkara Detachment (Denjaka), elite troops of the Indonesian Navy, are also being deployed for what he insists is “state terrorism”. 

On 6 May Reuters confirmed that internet services have been disrupted in the provincial capital of Jayapura and nearby Sentani (40km to the west) since 30 April. Exiled Indonesian rights activist Victoria Koman, said she had received reports that mobile and internet services in Puncak have also been disrupted. Papua has gone dark!

Andreas Harsono, a researcher with HRW’s Indonesia office is not alone in his assessment that, “The underlying problem in Papua is racism: racism against the dark skinned and curly haired people, and of course those that do most of the human rights abuses against ethnic Papuans, these dark-skinned, curly-haired people who are predominantly also Christian in Muslim-majority Indonesia, are Indonesian soldiers and police officers.” (RNZ, 7 May)

As tensions soared, Harsono urged the Indonesian government to put the threat posed by Papuan KKB into perspective. “According to Indonesian military estimate, they only have (around) 200 weapons. It is tiny, it is insignificant. Of course they are criminal, they kill people. Of course the police should act against them. But branding them as a terrorist organisation, these people who live in the forest who try to defend their forest, their culture, and their own people, mostly using bows and arrows, this is going to be ridiculous. This is going to affect these indigenous people so much.” 

What do children at this Christian school in Papua
want to be when they grow up?
A Pastor, a missionary, a pilot . . . 
Photo by Jeremy Weber, for his article, 
Life and Death in ‘The Land of the Clouds’,
Christianity Today, November 2020.

Which brings us to the truth

The real goal of this totally disproportionate military offensive is not security! The real goal is not to neutralise an existential terrorist threat, for there isn’t one! To the contrary, the real goal of state terror is always political! The real goal is to eliminate resistance to Indonesian rule by massively increasing the cost. The real goal is to spiritually crush and intimidate into silence every indigenous, ethnic Melanesian, predominantly Christian Papuan who has ever so much as dreamt of Papuan freedom! 


In his book Useful Enemies: When Waging Wars is More Important than Winning Them, (Yale University Press, 2012), Professor David Keen explains how war and violence can have a political function. “This is war’s possible function in intimidating a broad swathe of the population – well beyond the rebels or named enemy.”  

Keen quotes Shelton David who wrote concerning Guatemala: “Most observers are in agreement that the purpose of the Guatemalan army’s counterinsurgency campaign was as much to teach the Indian population a psychological lesson as to wipe out a guerrilla movement that, at its height, had probably no more than 3,500 trained people in arms.” 

Keen also quotes a donor who told him, “There was never a huge guerrilla movement [in Guatemala] – it was more used by the army so they could do what they wanted.” 

What’s more, Keen adds, the counterinsurgency narrative “provided cover and legitimacy for violence against a broad range of political activists and human rights workers”.

Critically, Keen quotes the Guatemalan Commission for Historical Classification which assessed that, “at no time during the internal armed confrontation did the guerrilla groups have the military potential necessary to pose an immanent threat to the State. The number of insurgent combatants was too small to be able to compete in the military arena with the Guatemalan Army, which had more troops and superior weaponry, as well as better training and coordination . . .  The State deliberately magnified the military threat of the insurgency, a practice justified by the concept of the internal enemy. . . [an identification which] served to justify numerous and serious crimes . . . the vast majority of the victims of the acts committed by the State were not combatants in the guerrilla groups, but civilians.” 

While these excerpts (which are taken from pages 112-113), relate to the conflict in Guatemala (1969-1996), they could just as easily be written today in relation to the conflict in Papua (1969 – ongoing). For as was the case in Guatemala (and numerous other conflicts), the Indonesian State is intentionally exaggerating the threat so it can target “politically inconvenient opponents under the cover of a wider war”. 

And make no mistake, this is a war

On 11 May, the Guardian quoted Lanikwe, a women’s community leader, from Wamena, near Puncak, who said the situation for local people was dire. “Thousands are displaced in Puncak, five villages fled into the jungle. Health clinics and schools have been taken over by the military. Soldiers are everywhere. We are living in a war zone.”


Arrested: Victor Yeimo in handcuffs, 9 May 2021.

On Sunday 9 May, Indonesian police in Papua’s provincial capital, Jayapura, arrested Victor Yeimo (38), one of the most prominent leaders inside Papua. 

The Indonesian government is accusing Yeimo of treason, which as UK-based Wenda explains, is ridiculous. “He is accused of ‘masterminding’ the 2019 West Papua Uprising, which was started by Indonesian racism and violence [RLM (27 Aug 2019)] and ended in a bloodbath caused by Indonesian troops” [RLPB 521 (24 Sept 2019)]. 

Human rights lawyer Veronica Koman said the case against Yeimo “feels forced and baseless, but if it goes to court, there is a high chance that judges will find him guilty – even with weak evidence.” 

It might be ridiculous and it might be a sham, but as People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) Speaker, Bambang Soesatyo so shamelessly explained at the outset, the real goal is to ‘destroy them first’ and ‘discuss human rights matters later’. 


Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. She serves as Director of Advocacy at Canberra-based Christian Faith and Freedom (CFF) and is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.

She has authored two books: Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (Deror Books, Melbourne, Australia, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat; and After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016).

See www.ElizabethKendal.com