Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Putting Indonesian Papua’s tensions in context

Tensions are high. But when in the history of Indonesian Papua have they not?

The Grasberg mining complex in 2009 (Photo: Richard Jones/Flickr)
The Grasberg mining complex in 2009 (Photo: Richard Jones/Flickr)
Published 28 Nov 2017 

Since August, numerous civilians and security staff have been killed or wounded in the Tembagapura area in Indonesian Papua, host of Freeport McMoRan's vast Grasberg mining complex. The violence is almost entirely ascribed to the armed wing of the Free Papua Organization (Organisasi Papua Merdeka or OPM*). Two police have been killed and seven wounded. In the absence of specific demands from the OPM faction, led by Sabinus Waker, Freeport has not halted mining operations, though they did temporarily close the road.

According to the police, Waker's OPM faction 'took hostage' roughly 1300 people in the villages of Banti and Kimbely. A joint military-police security force entered the villages on 18 November, with no casualties on either side. Around 350 people in the area opted to be evacuated, but the vast majority did not.

This latest incarnation of unrest is characterised by the media and activists as 'increasing tensions', a view that supposes some catalytic moment will one day be reached, with Papua as a pressure cooker destined to explode. But viewed across a longer timeline, it's clear that the absence of any such violence would be more unusual.

Between 2009 and 2015, at least 20 people were killed and 59 wounded in the vicinity of Tembagapura. The previous decades saw a number of other violent incidents, including the 2002 killing of Tembagapura international school teachers allegedly ambushed by OPM while picnicking (a case that has never been satisfactorily closed), and the 1996 kidnapping of dozens of foreign and Indonesian scientific researchers. Two hostages were killed in a rescue attempt, followed by an army-led counterinsurgency campaign.

Put into context, the latest violence in Mimika is thus both less unusual and more opaque than as described by the Indonesian government and by numerous media outlets. It's worth unpacking a few aspects of this fight in order to highlight a muddled network of relationships.

The location

Tembagapura's Banti and Kimbely villages are mostly inhabited by migrants from other areas of Papua, but also from as far away as Sumatra and Java. They are artisanal gold miners, searching the mine tailings that contaminate the Utikini River. Since mining operations started in Ertsberg and later in Grasberg, Freeport has served to draw unemployed youth from across the entire archipelago. Any who don't end up employed by the mine or its numerous service providers and contractors try their luck mining these tailings.

The security actors

The police and military are heavily involved in such gold trades, either by charging protection fees to miners, acting as buyers, or running their own operations. These activities aren't limited to Mimika regency, where Grasberg is located. Gold mining in nearby Intan Jaya and further afield in Buru Island provides significant off-budget income.

Security actors must generate some income, as those hoping for promotion must generate rents to transmit up the chain of command. 'Protecting' forestry operations and plantations are popular activities. But security actors don't only seek profit – they often need the resources to do their jobs. National operational funding transfers for police are generally gone before they reach the sub-district level. Justifications aside, in non-state contexts such payments constitute organised crime.

The 'separatists'

OPM is only bound within a hierarchical structure on paper. In rural Papua, those who describe themselves as 'OPM' are often local, lightly armed gangs that express vague separatist ideologies while occasionally committing extortion. There are exceptions – Waker's faction is more active, but not as much as the previous Kwalik faction. Other nearby exceptions include Goliat Tabuni's OPM in Puncak Jaya and Purom Wenda's faction in Lanny Jaya. Tabuni and Purom have warred against one another seemingly as much as they have targeted the state.

Waker's OPM faction only targets the police – there have, so far, been no military casualties. The military and police describe a united front in current security operations, but this is hardly the norm in Indonesia.

Cooperation between security actors and separatists over natural resource extraction operations is also common, the largest and richest of these in Indonesia being Freeport. Previous research demonstrated collusion between OPM and the military in Mimika in a likely effort to increase 'security' contributions from the company. Freeport disclosed that such contributions totalled US$5.6 million in 2002. In 2003, the US Sarbanes-Oxley Act made reporting obligations to the US government for such payments more specific, which may have hampered the ability of local security actors to demand them successfully. But it's unlikely Freeport has managed to avoid such payments entirely, especially amongst its plethora of contractors – if they did, they would be extremely unusual among such companies in Indonesia.

The company

Freeport's 51% share divestment looms. Before that can occur, the company's asset valuation must be agreed between the company and the government. Against standard practice, Indonesia seeks to exclude mineral reserves from the valuation, even though such assets are only accessible by means of the infrastructure Freeport has constructed.

The latest Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict report notes 'a high probability of continued tensions as different parties within Indonesia contend for huge economic stakes', noting that 'any violence in the Freeport area can involve multiple actors with multiple interests. Even if the OPM is blamed, Papuans will be asking who else was involved'.

The 'hostages'

There weren't any. OPM established a roadblock to impede access to the area. If such actions are hostage-taking, then every day in Papua communities are being held hostage. Across the province, temporary roadblocks are the means by which gangs tax passers-by and communities express grievances and seek redress (in the case of communities, roadblocks often serve as invitations to negotiations). Military and police, especially those on short-term assignments, use them to shake down passing traffic.

The hostage claim originates with the police, and was reported without question by most Indonesian media (Tabloid Jubi and a few others excepted). Mimika Police Chief Viktor Mackbon later contradicted the claim, as did the provincial government. The roadblock, and the hostage claim, are likely parries in a negotiation that predates both.

The current conflict may not be a continuation of historical trends per se, but there are numerous precedents for it. It illustrates the paucity of the state across rural and highland Papua. In its easternmost province, Indonesia does not yet meet the minimalist Weberian definition of the state as an entity that has the monopoly on organised violence within a claimed territory.

Instead, Indonesia's presence in Papua resembles a variant of the early states described by the late Charles Tilly: violence-wielding organisations operating in partnership with early modern capitalists to extract resources and rents from areas whose populations are otherwise ignored, so long as they do not threaten the state. The wealth Jakarta extracts from Papua is immense, and yet Papuans are the poorest Indonesians: they are the least educated, the least healthy, and the quickest to die. The government doesn't even know with certainty how many Papuans there are: Papuans themselves experience neglect, humiliation, and a steady stream of human rights violations.

To paraphrase many a media outlet, tensions are high. But when in the history of Indonesian Papua have they not been high? And what do those high tensions lead to, other than a slight lull before the next round of tensions?

What is described as tension is really fear.

* Author's note: The Liberation Army of West Papua (Tentara Pembebasan Nasional) is the armed wing of the Organisasi Papua Merdeka or Free Papua Organization, but within Papua 'OPM' is used to refer to the armed wing as well as the political wing.

You may also be interested in