Jakarta, Indonesia – The three main armed separatist groups in West Papua have joined forces to step up their push for independence as clashes between the rebels and the Indonesian military has forced thousands of civilians from their homes.
The groups announced this week that they will fight together under the title West Papua Army to be coordinated by the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) – an umbrella group for separatists.
The armed groups – the West Papua Revolutionary Army (TRWP, short for the Tentara Revolusi West Papua), West Papuan National Army (TNPB, short for the Tentara Nasional Papua Barat) and the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPN.PB, short for the Tentara Pembebasan Nasional Papua Barat) signed the ‘Vanimo Border Declaration’ on May 1.
“The ULMWP is ready to form an independent West Papua,” Wenda said in a statement this week. “Politically and militarily we are united now. The international community can now see without a doubt that we are ready to take over our country.
“Indonesia cannot stigmatise us as separatists or criminals any more, we are a legitimate unified military and political state-in-waiting.”
West Papua was a colony of the Dutch until the early 1960s when Indonesia took control, cementing its rule with a controversial referendum that followed.
A low-level armed rebellion by indigenous Papuans, who now make up about half the population after years of migration by people from other parts of Indonesia, has been rumbling ever since.
“The military should take this seriously because they tend to underestimate the [rebels],” said Vidhyandika Djati Perkasa, the head of the department of politics and social change at the think-tank Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta.
“For sure, we know there is fragmentation, but Benny Wenda has strong support.”
The government in Jakarta maintains that West Papua, which occupies the western half of the island of Papua New Guinea, is Indonesian because it was part of the Dutch East Indies which forms the basis of the country’s modern-day borders.
Papua is also rich in natural resources and the site of the world’s largest gold mine and its second-largest copper mine, but its people remain among the country’s poorest.
Violence flared again in December after rebels attacked a road construction project in the central highlands killing at least 17 people, triggering a military crackdown.
Some 35,000 civilians have been forced from their homes as the security forces attempt to flush out the rebels from the forested mountains.
Brigadier General Sisriadi, the spokesman for Indonesia’s military, told Al Jazeera he could not comment on the formation of the armed alliance.
He stressed that the military would continue to work with the police to track down suspected separatists, accusing them of destroying property and attacking civilians.
Sisriadi pointed to a local media report from January that said four separatist groups were surrendering to the army.
“They are Indonesian,” he said. “And we don’t think of them as outsiders.”
CSIS’s Vidhyandika Djati Perkasa said the think-tank’s recent research indicated that there was widespread support for independence among young Papuans and that the government needed to reconsider its strategy in the territory by focussing more on diplomatic than military approaches.
“The paradigm must change,” he said.
Human rights groups have long accused the Indonesian security forces of abuses in Papua.
In a report last July, Amnesty International described the territory as a “black hole” for human rights and said its research had found at least 95 unlawful killings between 2010 and 2018.
Human Rights Watch has documented what it says is the misuse of treason laws against pro-independence supporters in the restive territory.
Papuans risk detention for expressing their views including holding peaceful demonstrations or attending meetings related to West Papua’s political status. Those who fly the Morning Star flag – the symbol of West Papuan independence – could face a prison term of as many as 15 years.
In May, 39-year-old Polish traveller Jakob Skrzypski, was jailed for five years after being found guilty of treason for meeting pro-independence activists when visiting Papua.