Conflict watchdog warns Jakarta is fuelling tension in Papua over virus

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Jayapura airport closure
A sign reads "In anticipation of the spread of the Covid-19 virus, the Sentani Jayapura Airport is not serving passengers for now and is closed to the public". Image: IPAC

Pacific Media Watch

The Covid-19 coronavirus is “exacerbating tensions” in Indonesia’s West Papua region and exposing the “shortcomings” of Jakarta government policy, warns a conflict watchdog group.

The Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) says President Joko Widodo’s government needs to urgently appoint a senior official to “focus exclusively on Papua” province to ensure that immediate humanitarian needs and longer term issues are effectively addressed.

It has appealed for greater transparency and more support for the local Papuan administrations in coping with the spread of the virus.

READ MORE: Al Jazeera coronavirus live updates – New York state virus death toll surpasses 10,000

In a policy briefing released last night, IPAC said:

“The virus arrived in Papua as tensions left over from deadly communal violence in August-September 2019 remained high, and pro-independence guerrillas from the Free Papua Organisation (Organisasi Papua Merdeka, OPM) were intensifying attacks in the central highlands.


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“Papua’s major faultlines – indigenous vs migrant, central control vs local autonomy, independence movement vs the state – affected both how Papuans interpreted the pandemic and the central government’s response.”

The pandemic has also added new complications to the already formidable obstacles to addressing the virus in Indonesia’s most remote province, says IPAC.

‘Hostility and suspicion’
“Many Papuans already are portraying the virus as being brought in by non-Papuan migrants and the military, adding to accumulated hostility and suspicion toward both,” says the briefing report.

“Papua is supposed to enjoy ‘special autonomy’ but Jakarta’s attempt to overrule a provincial ban on travel into the province in the wake of the virus showed the limitations of that status.

“It also convinced many Papuans that the central government had little concern for their welfare.

“All this was taking place as the OPM was stepping up its low-intensity conflict with the Indonesian state in the area around the giant Freeport mine.

“Thousands of additional security forces sent to Papua in 2018 and 2019 have not made any visible dent in OPM’s activities or provided effective protection for the Freeport mine that has become the OPM’s main target.”

The report says that the Jakarta government may be “underestimating the security threat” from the guerrillas, whom it has traditionally seen as less dangerous than the non-armed political movement for independence and its foreign supporters.

‘OPM appears stronger’
“There is certainly no acknowledgment that the OPM appears to have grown stronger during the Jokowi’s government’s tenure.

“The OPM attacks and the added police and military presence have produced more displacement in poor conditions, creating new vulnerabilities to contagion in a province that already has the country’s highest poverty, worst health care and most poorly educated populace.”

IPAC says the reported Covid-19 cases are now concentrated in Papua’s major cities – “but when the virus hits remote areas of the highlands and spreads like wildfire, few will ever know its true impact.”

The report says that in the short-term the Jakarta government needs to ensure that the handling of the pandemic in Papua does the conflicts.

IPAC’s recommendations include:

    • Supporting the provincial government in its lockdown efforts, while ensuring unimpeded delivery of humanitarian supplies;
    • Assisting provincial and kabupaten (local) goverments in developing better procedures for documenting the spread of the virus;
    • Ensuring that every deployment of security forces on short-term rotations is thoroughly tested before leaving for Papua and before returning to the rest of Indonesia to ensure that security forces do not become a vector of transmission;
    • Urgently finding ways to improve the conditions of the displaced, with the goal of trying to return them to their home communities as soon as possible; and
    • Ensuring full transparency in covering the response to Covid-19, including equipment and medical personnel made available, funds allocated and security forces deployed or reassigned.
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