Indonesian military apologies fail to mask the harassment, gagging of Papuan leaders

How Al Jazeera reported the global reaction to the viral video of Indonesian military torture
How Al Jazeera reported the global reaction to the viral video of Indonesian military torture of a Papuan man and the arrest of 13 soldiers this week. Image: Al Jazeera screenshot APR

COMMENTARY: By Ronny Kareni

Since the atrocious footage of the suffering of an indigenous Papuan man reverberates in the heart of Puncak by the brute force of Indonesia’s army in early February, shocking tactics deployed by those in power to silence critics has been unfolding.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the plight of the leaders of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP), Markus Haluk and Menase Tabuni. Their unwavering resolve in condemning the situation has faced targeted harassment and discrimination.

The leaders of the ULMWP have become targets of a state campaign aimed at silencing them.

Menase Tabuni, serving as the executive council president of the ULMWP, along with Markus Haluk, the executive secretary, have recently taken on the responsibility of leading political discourse directly from within West Papua.

This decision follows the ULMWP’s second high-level summit in Port Vila in August 2023, where the movement reaffirmed its commitment to advocating for the rights and freedoms of the people of West Papua.

On March 23, the ULMWP leadership released a media statement in which Tabuni condemned the abhorrent racist slurs and torture depicted in the video of a fellow Papuan at the hands of Indonesia’s security forces.

Tabuni called for an immediate international investigation to be conducted by the UN Commissioner of the Human Rights Office.

Harassment not protection
However, the response from Indonesian authorities was not one of protection, but rather a chilling escalation of harassment facilitated by the Criminal Code and Information and Electronic Transactions Law, known as UU ITE.

Since UU ITE took effect in November 2016, it has been viewed as the state’s weapon against critics, as shown during the widespread anti-racism protests across West Papua in mid-August of 2019.

Harassment and intimidation . . . ULMWP leaders
Harassment and intimidation . . . ULMWP leaders (from left) Menase Tabuni (executive council president), Markus Haluk (executive council secretary), Apolos Sroyer (judicial council chairperson), and Willem Rumase (legislative council chairperson). Image: ULMWP

The website SemuaBisaKena, dedicated to documenting UU ITE cases, recorded 768 cases in West Papua between 2016 and 2020.

The limited information on laws to protect individuals exercising their freedom of speech, including human rights defenders, political activist leaders, journalists, and civil society representatives, makes the situation worse.

For example, Victor Mambor, a senior journalist and founder of the Jubi news media group, in spite of being praised as a humanitarian and rights activist by the UN Human Rights Council in September 2021, continues to face frequent acts of violence and intimidation for his truth-telling defiance.

Threats and hate speech on his social media accounts are frequent. His Twitter account was hacked and deleted in 2022 after he posted a video showing Indonesian security forces abusing a disabled civilian.

Systematic intimidation
The systematic nature of this intimidation in West Papua cannot be understated.

It is a well-coordinated effort designed to suffocate dissent and silence the voice of resistance.

The barrage of messages and missed calls to both Tabuni and Haluk creates a psychological warfare waged with callous indifference, leaving scars that run deep. It creates an atmosphere of perpetual unease, leaving wondering when the next onslaught will happen.

The inundation of their phones with messages filled with discriminatory slurs in Bahasa serves as crude reminders of the lengths to which state entities will go in abuse of the law.

Translated into English, these insults such as “Hey asshole I stale you” or “You smell like shit” not only denigrate the ULMWP political leaders but also serve as threats, such as “We are not afraid” or “What do you want”, which underscore calculated malice behind the attacks.

This incident highlights a systemic issue, laying bare the fragility of democratic ideals in the face of entrenched power and exposing the hollowness of promises made by those who claim to uphold the rule of law.

Disinformation grandstanding
In the wake of the Indonesian government’s response to the video footage, which may outwardly appear as a willingness to address the issue publicly, there is a stark contrast in the treatment of Papuan political leaders and activists behind closed doors.

While an apology from the Indonesian military commander in Papua through a media conference earlier this week may seem like a step in the right direction, it merely scratches the surface of a deeper issue.

Firstly, the government’s call for firm action against individual soldiers depicted in the video, which has proven to be military personnel, cannot be served as a distraction from addressing broader systemic human rights abuses in West Papua.

A thorough and impartial investigation into all reports of harassment, intimidation and reprisals against human rights defenders ensures that all perpetrators are brought to justice, and if convicted, punished with penalties commensurate with the seriousness of the offence.

However, by focusing solely on potential disciplinary measures against a handful of soldiers, the government fails to acknowledge the larger pattern of abuse and oppression prevailing in the region.

Also the statement from the Presidential Staff Office could be viewed as a performative gesture aimed at neutralising international critics rather than instigating genuine reforms.

Without concrete efforts to address the root causes of human rights abuses in West Papua, such statements risk being perceived as empty rhetoric that fails to bring about tangible change for the Papuan people.

Enduring struggle
Historically, West Papua has been marked by a long-standing struggle for independence and self-determination, always met with resistance from Indonesian authorities.

Activists advocating for West Papua’s rights and freedoms become targets of threats and harassment as they challenge entrenched power structures and seek to bring international attention to their cause.

The lack of accountability and impunity enjoyed by the state and its security forces of such acts further emboldens those who seek to silence dissent through intimidation and coercion. Thus, the threats and harassment experienced by the ULMWP leaders and West Papua activists are not only a reflection of the struggle for self-determination but also symptomatic of broader systemic injustices.

In navigating the turbulent waters ahead, let us draw strength from the unwavering resolve of Markus Haluk, Menase Tabuni and many Papuans who refuse to be silenced.

The leaders of the ULMWP and all those who stand alongside them in the fight for justice and freedom serve as a testament to the enduring power of the human spirit.

It is incumbent upon us all to stand in solidarity with those who face intimidation and harassment, to lend our voices to their cause and to shine a light on the darkness that seeks to envelop them.

For in the end, it is only through collective action and unwavering resolve that we can overcome the forces of tyranny and usher in a future where freedom reigns freely.

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