The US can no longer turn a blind eye to abuses in Papua

The Biden administration has to reconsider its support for the Indonesian military until it addresses abuse of civilians.

Indonesian soldiers stand guard during a protest in Timika, Papua province on August 21, 2019 [File: AP/Jimmy Rahadat]
Indonesian soldiers stand guard during a protest in Timika, Papua province on August 21, 2019 [File: AP/Jimmy Rahadat]

On October 28, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Indonesia as part of a five-country tour of Asia focused on strengthening ties amid ongoing tensions with China. A day after his arrival, an independent humanitarian team, consisting of several religious leaders, academics, and humanitarian activists in Papua, announced that it had found evidence that Yeremia Zanambani, a pastor in the region of Intan Jaya, Papua, had been allegedly shot, stabbed and ultimately killed by an Indonesian soldier. On November 2, Indonesia’s National Human Rights Commission further said that the soldier had allegedly tortured Pastor Yeremia in an attempt to extract information about an armed criminal group in the area.

Two days before Pompeo’s visit, military forces allegedly shot and killed Rufinus Tigau, a catechist working at a Catholic parish in the same region, saying that he was a member of an armed criminal group, a claim the local Catholic diocese denies.

These incidents are just the latest in a series of unlawful killings allegedly involving Indonesian military and police personnel in the provinces of Papua and West Papua.

There has been an Indonesian military presence in Papua since it was incorporated into the country in 1969 after a contentious referendum organised by the United Nations. Under former President Soeharto’s New Order regime (1966-1998), the region was designated as a military operation zone and military forces deployed there were accused of numerous human rights violations.

The designation was lifted shortly after Soeharto’s resignation in 1998, but the military presence has continued and successive governments have adopted a “security approach” to Papua – focusing on the threat posed by armed separatist groups while largely ignoring legitimate socioeconomic and political grievances from the civilian population.

Amnesty has recorded at least 52 cases of suspected unlawful killings by security forces in Papua between February 2018 and November 2020 alone, in which 103 people were killed.

In one such incident in July, 40-year-old Elias Karunggu and his 18-year-old son Sela were shot by Indonesian soldiers in Nduga regency while they were fording a river on the way to the nearest town. The father and son had lived in a forest refugee camp for nearly two years after being displaced from their homes due to ongoing military operations in the area.

Indonesia’s government and military have often sought to portray those killed as armed rebels, or, in certain cases, claim that it was armed rebels that were doing the killing. Official investigations into the killings have been few and far between.

Pompeo’s Jakarta trip came less than two weeks after Indonesian Minister of Defence Prabowo Subianto travelled to Washington for his first official visit after being banned from entering the US for two decades over his involvement as a high-ranking officer in human rights violations. In the 1990s, the US government also imposed military assistance restrictions on the Indonesian military and Kopassus, its army special forces unit where Prabowo was a commander, due to their alleged involvement in war crimes in the East Timor conflict. Kopassus has also been implicated in the kidnapping and murder of Papuan activist Theys Eluay in 2001.

In a statement issued after Prabowo met with US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, the Department of Defense said: “Both leaders shared their desire to enhance bilateral military-to-military activities and work together on maritime security.”

The statement also said that Esper “communicated the importance of upholding human rights, the rule of law and professionalization as the two countries expand their engagement”. These admirable words might have carried more weight had they not been addressed to a man discharged from the Indonesian military for his involvement in the kidnapping of pro-democracy activists.

Esper’s meeting with Prabowo was another example of something the US has done too often in its relations with Indonesia: paying lip service to human rights while turning a blind eye to flagrant and continuous abuses, particularly in Papua, in order to gain Jakarta’s loyalties in the growing regional competition with China.

Of course, nothing more could have been expected from the current US administration led by a man who had casually tweeted out “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” during mass protests against racism and lavished praise on autocrats and dictators while purportedly serving as the leader of the free world. President Donald Trump has never demonstrated interest in upholding human rights in his own country, let alone addressing human rights violations and abuses elsewhere.

His successor, however, has promised change. “We lead not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example […] With a love of country – and a thirst for justice – let us be the nation that we know we can be,” President-elect Joe Biden said in his election victory speech on November 7.

Such a nation should not put weapons into the hands of foreign soldiers who will use them against civilians and activists. Such a nation should not stay silent when an ally deploys an increasing number of security forces to a region where military and police officers have been implicated in numerous crimes against the local population.

It is high time that the US lead by the power of its example by speaking out against flagrant human rights violations, including in Papua and West Papua, and guaranteeing that no military aid will be used to prolong the suffering of the Papuan people.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.



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