Indonesian Government labels Papuan armed separatist groups as terrorists

On 29 April 2021, the Indonesian Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs, Prof. Mahfud MD announced during a press conference (see photo) that the armed separatist groups in West Papua will from now on be categorised as terrorists. The decision comes only four days after President Joko Widodo gave the order to Indonesian Military (TNI) commander, Hadi Tjahjanto, and National Police chief, Listyo Sigit Prabowo, to find and arrest all members of armed separatist groups in West Papua. Both statements were released in response to the killing of the Papuan intelligence chief, I Gusti Putu Danny, on 25 April 2021 by members of the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPN PB). In Jakarta, Bambang Soesatyo, Speaker of the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR), urged the government to deploy forces at full strength. He was quoted in the media saying, "Destroy them first. We will discuss human rights matters later". Human rights organisations criticised his statement.

Usman Hamid, Director of Amnesty International Indonesia, said that Soesatyo's statement has the potential to encourage an escalation of violence in Papua and West Papua."Human rights are constitutional obligations, so they must be a priority in every state policy. Putting aside human rights is not only against international law but also unconstitutional," he said. The Australian West Papua Association's Joe Collins says these sorts of statements have the potential to cause an escalation of violence, leading to the security forces conducting military sweeps in the area. The human rights watchdog Setara Institute deemed the politician's statement would only trigger a spiral of violence and add to the complexity of the Papua conflict, resulting in more casualties.

So far, representatives of the government, military or police commonly referred to the TPN PB as an armed criminal group (Bahasa Indonesia: Kelompok kriminal bersenjata or KKB). By labelling the TPN PB and its associated organisations and persons as terrorists, the government has taken a further political step to justify its security force operations against the TPN PB in the central highlands.

The government represents the view that the organisations and the people in Papua committing massive violence are to be categorised as terrorists. He emphasised that this categorisation of the TPN PB was following definitions under Law No. 5/2018 regarding amendments to Law No 15/2003 concerning Stipulation of Government Regulation in Lieu of Law No 1/2002 on Eradication of Criminal Acts of Terrorism in Law. A terrorist is anyone who plans, mobilises and organises terrorism. Terrorism is the use or threat of violence causing an atmosphere of widespread terror or fear causing many victims and destruction of strategic or public facilities or the environment based on the motivation of an ideology, politic and security, said Mahfud.

The Papuan Governor, Lukas Enembe, reacted promptly to the press conference through a statement. He condemned the crimes committed by the TPN PB but called upon the central government to reassess the decision labelling the TPN PB and its affiliated organisations as terrorist groups. He suggested the military and police conduct a comprehensive mapping of the TPN PB to identify the distribution, troop strength and organisational structure of the TPN PB. The mapping was essential to avoid arbitrary arrests and killings of civilians. In addition, the terrorist label may have psycho-social consequences for and add to the stigmatisation of ethnic Papuans living in other islands of Indonesia. The Governor recommended the central government discuss the labelling of the TPN PB with the UN Security Council.

Human rights groups reacted critically to the terrorist label for the TPN PB. The vice-coordinator of Jakarta-based NGO KontraS, Rivanlee Anandar, called the labelling an attempt to silence the voices of those demanding justice in West Papua. The decision will inevitably deteriorate the conflict situation in West Papua and lead to more human rights violations. By labelling the TPN PB as a terrorist group, the government limits its understanding of the long-lasting conflict to a matter of security, leaving aside other root causes, such as unresolved human rights cases and the marginalisation of ethnic Papuans. The terrorist label will only serve the government as justification for the massive deployment of additional troops to West Papua.