Trouble in the Highlands


A humanitarian crisis is emerging in the Punjak Jaya region of West Papua. Local human rights workers report that thousands of people fled the regions of Tingginabbut, Yamu, Illu and Mulia Ambat in mid-December and have gone into the jungle. No figures are available at this stage, but it is believed thousands of people have been displaced.

Since 24 December large numbers of Indonesian armed forces, intelligence operatives and police have been deployed in the mountainous Punjak Jaya region. The personnel are drawn form TNI Battalion 756 from Wamena, TNI Battalion 753 from Nabire, Kopassus (Indonesian army commandos), Brimob (Police Mobile Brigade), Polres (Local Police) and Intelligence agencies BIN and BAIS.

On 9 December, two Indonesian military personnel were killed near Mulia while they were apparently undertaking some form of negotiation with the Goliat Tabuni group of the Free Papua Movement (OPM/TPN). Two more Indonesian military personnel were killed on 25/26 December near to the Yami River.

Sources near Mulia report that on 5 Janurary, five Kopassus and one OPM/TPN fighter were killed in a military operation at Kimibak Mountain near Mulia. The Military Commander of Battalion 1705 was said to be monitoring operations in the same area on that day. The OPM/TPN had previously held a flag raising campaign in the area.

Conflict between the Indonesian army, Brimob and the OPM/TPN was also reported in the Muliabur area on 3 January.

The Indonesian military and police have now occupied and are living in the vacated villages in the regions of Tingginabbut, Yamu, Illu and Mulia Ambat.

The people displaced by the conflict are said to be travelling across the mountains east and north to the Sinak, Illaga, Kwiwyaga and Bioga Districts. It is currently the wet season in this area and the very rugged mountains are between 2000 and 4000 metres above sea level.

The people have left behind their pigs and gardens. There is concern for their health and wellbeing as they will have little access to food and no medicine.

The life of traditional rural communities in Punjak Jaya is based on subsistence farming of sweet potato and pigs in very remote mountain valleys. Their first contact with the Western world was as recent as the mid-1950s, when Christian missionaries arrived.

Between 2003 and 2005, similar conflicts and subsequent military operations in the region seriously affected the local community. In 2003, 10 civilians were killed and 60 reportedly died from starvation as a result of the operations. In 2004 and 2005, over 6000 people were displaced. Hundreds of homes, churches, clinics and schools were burned to the ground.

Indonesian Soldiers hold up the body of West Papuan leader, Yustinus Murib

Traditional OPM/TPN warriors, who are armed with bows and arrows, spears and a few firearms, continue to engage the Indonesian military and police personnel in the Punjak Jaya region. Local human rights workers say that the Indonesian military and police justify their presence and repressive actions by manipulating and promoting conflict with these warriors.

In a statement this week, Reverend Socratez Yoman, President of the Communion of Baptist Churches in West Papua, also described the presence of a ‘fake’ OPM in Punjak Jaya.

Most of the people trained by the Indonesian military as fake OPM do not have enough education. Thus, these people were used by the Indonesian military to achieve their political goals in West Papua. The fake OPM was created, protected and was allowed to do Indonesian military and the Indonesian Police projects.

There is a sense among the Highland people that their communities will be swamped by Indonesia in the next few years. The culture and population of these mountain people is being destroyed by direct Government action such as military offensives and conversely by a lack of Government action in critical areas, such as control of AIDS/HIV and the provision of basic health services for other communicable diseases such as cholera.

The international community must ask Indonesia what is happening in the Punjak Jaya region and prepare parliamentary and diplomatic delegations. A major humanitarian tragedy is unfolding and the presence of an overseas delegation is probably the only thing that will force Indonesia to restrain its military forces in the region.

In another development during the festive season, two clergy from the Indigenous Church in West Papua, Reverend Benny Giay and Reverend Noakh Nawipa, have been belatedly accused by Indonesian police of co-operating in an armed attack that occurred close to the Freeport mine in August 2002, and resulted in the brutal slaying of two American and one Indonesian teacher. Both Giay and Nawipa strongly deny this allegation.

Just before the New Year, Indonesian police forcibly occupied the Synod office in Jayapura for nearly 24 hours, injuring Nawipa and Reverend Seblum Karubaba in the process, but it is understood that no charges have been laid.

Giay believes these actions are a strategy by Indonesian intelligence and security forces, in collaboration with the Jakarta-based churches, to intimidate the Church ¾ known as Gereja Kingmi ¾ because it maintains an independent Synod in West Papua. The Church has long been an advocate of the human rights of the people of West Papua, and its independence has repeatedly upset the Indonesian authorities.

In West Papua there is a history of military sponsored assassination and violence against outspoken Papuan community leaders. Ongoing concerns are held for the safety of these and other Church leaders.

Australia has a security treaty with Indonesia which explicitly states that Australia will not become involved in the self-determination struggle in West Papua. This treaty has given the Indonesian military and police the green light for a new round of repression of the West Papuan people. But there is evidence that genocide has and is occurring in West Papua and on these grounds Australia has a legal obligation under international law to take action.

Reverend Yoman says the treaty is a direct threat to the Papuan people and has appealed for the involvement of the international community in resolving the problems of West Papua.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.