On 29 April, the Indonesian government declared that all ‘armed criminal groups’ (KBB) and people and organisations affiliated with them were terrorists. This includes groups like the West Papua National Liberation Army (TNPB) and the Free Papua Movement (OPM). According to Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs Mahfud MD, the violence committed by these armed groups should be considered acts of terrorism under Law No. 5 of 2018 on Counterterrorism.
Labelling the West Papuan resistance movement as ‘terrorists’ will have serious implications for the future of conflict resolution in West Papua. It is a term of stigma that can be used to further delegitimise the ongoing struggle for independence and obstruct the path to a peaceful resolution.
At the outset, it is important to note that the emergence of the West Papuan resistance movement – violent and non-violent – is rooted in pro-independence Papuans’ rejection of the way West Papua was integrated into Indonesia through the 1969 Act of Free Choice. There is a strong body of evidence to confirm that not only was the method of voting suspect – ‘consultation’ instead of one-person-one-vote – but also that violence and intimidation accompanied the vote, forcing the small group of Papuan representatives to vote in favour of merging with Indonesia.
Scholars and civil society have argued that past rights abuses in West Papua must be resolved through dialogue and a transitional justice mechanism. However, no Indonesian government has ever made moves to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that might address West Papuans’ historical grievances.
Further, in international fora, Indonesia has consistently cited the 1969 Act of Free Choice to support its claims of sovereignty over West Papua. At the 75th Session of the UN General Assembly, for example, the Indonesian representative used the 1969 Act of Free Choice to stress that West Papua’s status as part of Indonesia was “final, irreversible and permanent”. The pejorative term ‘separatism’ was also used in response to criticism about the human rights situation in the region. In other words, Indonesia remains unapologetic about West Papua’s incorporation into the country – despite being well aware of the controversial manner in which it was done.
The decision to label Papuan armed groups as terrorists will complicate the peace process even further. Terrorism has always been an elusive concept. One reason is that it is a multi-faceted phenomenon that often overlaps with other forms of political violence. This means the term can be easily politicised to dismantle nationalist or separatist movements that do not actually use the tactics of terrorism.
Governments should therefore be very cautious and context-sensitive when making determinations on terrorist status. If not, they expose themselves to claims that decisions were driven by the state’s political interests. As Schmid puts it, the concept of terrorism is “a manmade construct and as such tends to reflect the interests of those who do the defining”.
For analytical purposes, the government’s decision to label a group terrorist is better evaluated by the academic consensus on what terrorism means. One of many things that differentiates terrorism from other political violence is that terrorism mainly targets civilians and non-combatants. But applying this definition is particularly problematic in the context of West Papua, where the truth can often be very hard to establish.
For example, in recent incidents when civilians have been killed by either the military or armed resistance groups, the military has argued that a person it shot dead was a member of a resistance group. On the other hand, the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) has argued that a person it has killed was a member of the military disguised as a civilian. And when the killer is unknown, either side tends to accuse the other of being responsible. This pattern prolongs conflict and threatens the lives and safety of innocent West Papuans.
The way that resistance movements operate in West Papua cannot be isolated from the security approach to the conflict taken by the government. Without independent investigation of acts of violence – by both sides – use of the terrorist label will only worsen the human rights crisis in West Papua. As DeAngelis notes, the common use of war metaphors in government discussions of terrorism can create an “us against them” mentality. War metaphors not only demand military action but also creates an impression that the state has a ‘clear enemy’ that it must eliminate to win.
In the conflict between the Indonesian security forces and West Papuan resistance groups Indonesia has been a violent actor that has repeatedly opted for militarisation over peaceful resolution. Many cases of human rights abuses by security forces remain unresolved, contributing to a situation of pervasive impunity in the region. According to Amnesty International, from January 2010 to February 2018, at least 69 extrajudicial killings were committed by the military and the police in West Papua. Between February 2018 and September 2020, Amnesty recorded another 47 cases of extrajudicial killings that resulted in the deaths of 96 people. The majority of those who died were killed by the military and police. In 82% of the cases where the military was the perpetrator, it has never been held accountable for its crimes.
With this situation in mind, the objectivity of the Indonesian government in labelling armed separatist groups as terrorists must be in doubt. A better approach would be to start a peaceful dialogue process and open an independent investigation, as West Papuans have been demanding for years.
The government is relying on the terrorist label to distract attention from the real issues raised by pro-independence West Papuans and human rights advocates: the need to redress past injustices and reveal the truth about West Papua’s incorporation into Indonesia.
The terrorist label is designed to reinforce stigma against the independence movement and delegitimise the whole reason for its existence, without looking into the validity of its grievances. It will be used to arbitrarily restrict civil liberties, which will be particularly harmful for non-violent organisations in Papua. It has the potential – and was no doubt designed – to further narrow public discourse, so the government version of the truth will prevail.
Deciding to label separatist groups as terrorists is a foolish move that does nothing to address the aspirations of West Papuans, and can only prolong the conflict.