4 killed, hundreds flee as Indonesian military battles Papuan fighters

Many tens of thousands of people remain displaced in the Papuan provinces from years of conflict.
Victor Mambor and Pizaro Gozali Idrus
Jayapura and Jakarta, Indonesia
4 killed, hundreds flee as Indonesian military battles Papuan fighters Some of the hundreds of villagers from Bibida district, Paniai regency, Central Papua province who sought refuge in the Madi Church in East Paniai district, in photo released on June 18, 2024.
Handout/Komando Operasi TNI “Harus Berhasil Maksimal”

Hundreds of residents in Indonesia’s restive Papua region have sought shelter in a church after clashes between security forces and Papuan independence fighters left two insurgents, a soldier and a civilian dead.

Fighting flared in Paniai regency in Central Papua province after the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB), part of the Free Papua Movement (OPM), burned a public minivan and killed its driver last week, the military said in a statement.

Two-hundred-and-fifty civilians fled the latest clash, the military said, but a local human rights activist told BenarNews at least twice the number have sought refuge.

As of last October, 76,228 refugees from the ongoing conflict were displaced in the Papuan provinces, the Papua Legal Aid Institute has reported, from a total population of 5.6 million people.

The violent conflict in the western half of New Guinea island is estimated to have cost hundreds of thousands of mainly Papuan lives since the 1960s, with the Indonesian government and independence groups accusing each other of serious human rights abuses.

Military forces pursued the TPNPB into the Bibida district of Paniai on Friday, resulting in a deadly firefight on Monday that killed two combatants, according to military spokesperson Lt. Col. Yogi Nugroho.

Residents of Bibida district requested assistance from security forces to temporarily relocate to Madi Church in the neighboring East Paniai district, he said.

“The people of Bibida have never accepted the presence of the OPM in their area due to their arbitrary actions and cruel acts, such as forcibly taking crops, livestock, and even some young girls,” Yogi told BenarNews.

TPNPB spokesperson Sebby Sambom has denied the group committed any criminal acts in Bibida that led to the displacement of residents.

“That’s not true. That’s the Indonesian military and police propaganda,” he told BenarNews.

Papuan activists display banners during a rally in Jakarta commemorating the 61st anniversary of the failed efforts by Papuan tribal chiefs to declare independence from Dutch colonial rule in 1961, Dec. 1, 2022. [AP/Tatan Syuflana]

A human rights and church activist in Papua, Yones Douw, accused the presence of government troops in Bibida of fueling fear among Papuans and causing them to flee.

Douw also said the number of displaced residents was 574, not 250 as stated by the military.

“I asked the people of Bibida directly, and they said that it was not true. They [TPNPB] have never stolen crops, and they have never killed livestock,” Douw told BenarNews, adding they usually bought local produce from residents.

“The TPNPB-OPM allowed them to evacuate because Bibida would be used as a battleground,” he added.

Yogi said according to security forces’ observations, insurgents seeking to destabilize Bibida had taken positions in the forest and nearby regions.

“Therefore, if there are people moving into the Bibida forest, they can be confirmed as sympathizers or members of the OPM,” he said.

Security forces on Friday retook Bibida, which had been under TPNPB-OPM control, Yogi said.

One of the slain Liberation Army members was identified as Danis Murib, a deserter from the Indonesian military who had abandoned his post in April.

“Yes, he was a former active member of the Indonesian military who joined the TPNPB four months ago,” Sambom told BenarNews.

On Saturday, the TPNPB shot dead a government soldier, identified as Hendrik Fonataba, in the neighboring Puncak regency, Yogi said.

In 1963, Indonesian forces invaded Papua – like Indonesia, a former Dutch colony – and annexed the region.

Papua was incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 after a United Nations-sponsored referendum, which locals and activists have decried as a sham because it involved only about 1,000 people. However, the U.N. accepted the result endorsing Jakarta’s rule.

The Indonesian Defense Ministry said last month it had requested a bigger budget to buy high-tech weapons that can “detect or retaliate” against Papuan groups who know the region’s terrain better. 

Human rights activists criticized the ministry proposal, arguing it would escalate violence and lead to more civilians being caught in the crossfire in the mineral-rich but underdeveloped region.


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Jul 02, 2024 10:48 AM

It is absolutely valid to challenge and question whether the UN of 1969 had any legitimate authority and jurisdiction to conduct a referendum to decide if Indonesia, rather than the Netherlands, may or may not colonise West Papua.

Tapia Dam
Jul 11, 2024 06:25 AM

Could the International Community condemn such brutality from the Indonesian military and demand for Papua to become an independent nation? Why is the International Community being so ignorant and allowing Indonesian army to kill innocent people at will?