One Year Later: Papua in the Wake of Indonesia’s Terrorist Designation

By Hazen Williams

April 29 marked one year since Indonesia’s coordinating minister for political, legal, and security affairs Mahfud MD announced that “organizations and people in Papua who commit mass violence are categorized as terrorists.” Although they were not mentioned by name, the separatist movement in Papua, the Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM), was de facto assigned the label as a terrorist organization, making Indonesia the only country to designate OPM in this way. One year later, this designation has done little to reduce separatist violence in the region.

In 2018, Indonesia amended its Anti-Terrorism Law, granting the police more latitude to detain suspected terrorists. The law’s broad legal definitions set a low threshold for what actions the government can prosecute as acts of terror. Prior to the designation last April, OPM members had been arrested on treason charges under the Indonesian Criminal Code. The more recent shift to arresting OPM members under counterterrorism laws broadened the resources Indonesian security forces can access to suppress OPM.

Since Mahfud’s designation announcement in April 2021, Densus-88—the Indonesian police force’s special counterterrorism squad—has been able to pursue OPM. The Indonesian military’s Joint Special Operations Command, Koopssus TNI, is also in Papua for what is described by Indonesia’s then-coordinating minister for political, legal, and security affairs Tedjo Edhy Purdijatno as an expanded security role. The Indonesian security force presence in Papua was already significant; however, the terrorist designation for OPM preceded the deployment of 500 additional Koopssus TNI and Densus-88 personnel to Papua. Commander of the Indonesian National Armed Forces (TNI) General Andika Perkasa also announced the construction of an additional two outposts from which to pursue the “Armed Criminal Group”—the term the TNI uses to refer to OPM—following a separatist attack on a TNI outpost in January. This expansion, according to the Papuan police chief, was intended to “wipe out” OPM members.

In October 2021, helicopters and drones dropped 81mm mortar rounds on eight villages in the Kiwirok District of Papua. Serbia had sold the mortars to Badan Intelijen Negara, Indonesia’s spy agency, in February 2021. Serbia has verified that the lot numbers on the shells match those of the purchase, indicating that the counterterrorism response in Papua extends beyond the police and military’s counterterrorism forces.

OPM’s attacks on Indonesian security forces, which started as a slow-burn insurgency against the Indonesian government in the 1970s, have been orchestrated through OPM’s military wing, the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB). As recently as March 28, 2022, TPNPB-OPM has claimed responsibility for several lethal attacks in Papua. The continuation of OPM attacks shows that the new terrorist designation has not deterred the organization from continuing separatist violence even though they lack the organizational capacity to seriously threaten Indonesia’s authority in the region at this time.

Despite this, Indonesia perceives OPM as a threat to national security. Ethnic separatism undermines Indonesia’s claim to be a unitary state governing diverse populations under its national motto of “Unity in Diversity.” Indonesia is also unwilling to lose Papua because it is a critical part of the Indonesian economy. The Grasberg gold mine in Papua’s Mimika regency alone is expected to produce $1.94 billion in revenue in 2022. Largely out of these economic concerns, in 2000, Indonesia tried to quell separatism by granting Papua special autonomy through the Special Autonomy Law, but despite these efforts, separatism in Papua continues. The #PapuanLivesMatter movement, which took inspiration from Black Lives Matter protests in the United States in calling out Indonesian society for racist tendencies against Papuan people, brought the Papuan situation to Indonesian and global headlines, making the situation more sensitive for Indonesia.

In addition to trying to eliminate separatism militarily, on April 6, 2022, Indonesia’s House of Representatives approved the presentation of three bills to propose the division of Papua and West Papua into five provinces on the Dutch colonial model. Indonesia’s parliament passed these bills on June 30, 2022. Papua perceives this political move—ostensibly infrastructure development purposes—as a divide-and-conquer tactic and a manifestation of the Indonesian government’s multifaceted approach to suppress separatism in Papua, which has further fueled separatist violence. There have also been concerns that this decision will invite an expansion of the security apparatus presence in Papua through new military bases and outposts. Since the legislation’s proposal, consistent Papuan protests have prompted a crackdown by Indonesia’s security apparatus. In March, one such protest led to the deaths of two Papuan protestors who the police claim burned a storefront during the protest. There are disputes, however, over the timeline of the protestors’ deaths and the burning of the store. Another round of protests occurred in May, showing that the proposal has undermined efforts to reconcile Papua with the rest of Indonesia.

The dispute over the timeline of the shooting of the March protestors demonstrates the information constraints concerning violent events in Papua. The Indonesian government does not allow non-governmental organizations and foreign press into the region. In 2014, Indonesian president Joko Widodo mentioned opening Papua to foreign press during his presidential campaign; however, the policy has not changed. The information scarcity that this creates complicates pinpointing specific causes of individual instances of violence in the region. What information is available is filtered by the government or comes from messages Papuans themselves manage to convey to international sources—a tactic that the Indonesian government undermines by cutting off access to the internet, especially during TNI military operations against separatists throughout Papua and West Papua.

Drawing on the limited information coming out of Papua, several Pacific Islands nations have become Papua’s most vocal advocates on the international stage. Since 2017, the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) has used a “constructive engagement” approach to the West Papua issue following a series of protests by a group of Samoans at the Pacific Forum Summit hosted in Samoa that year. Indonesia simply disregarded the PIF’s concern as “arrogant.” Vanuatu followed up on this, openly calling for Indonesia to address human rights violations in West Papua in both its 2020 and 2021 speeches at the United Nations General Assembly. The 2021 speech did not mention the terrorist designation for OPM. Indonesia responded by requesting that countries respect Indonesia’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity. Vanuatu has also raised this issue in the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG), where it presses for the United Liberation Movement for West Papua to be promoted from observer status to full membership and for Indonesia’s associate member status to be withdrawn. Vanuatu also continues to be vocal against Indonesia’s financial contribution to the MSG because of the West Papua issue.

After Indonesia designated OPM as a terrorist organization, in September 2021, Australia signed a new counterterrorism agreement with Indonesia. The United States has also continued its financial support for Indonesia’s counterterrorism initiatives, including $5 million from the U.S. Agency on International Development in 2020. Despite its stated emphasis on human rights, the Biden administration has made no statement on the situation in Papua. In a time of increasing geopolitical competition between China and the United States, the United States is focused on building the U.S.-Indonesia bilateral relationship on shared cooperation and may not want to force issues that could strain that relationship. As the United States and Australia continue to support Indonesia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in Papua, both administrations are unlikely to take bolder stances. International action in the situation is likely to remain limited to the Pacific Islands for the foreseeable future. Indonesia’s decision to label OPM as terrorists has not achieved its desired end of eliminating separatism in Papua. Instead, separatist violence, having shown its resiliency to Indonesia’s attempts to control the region, is thus likely to continue.

Hazen Williams is a research intern with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.