West Papua at a Crossroads

The family of Danny Kogoya, a regional commander in The Free Papua Movement, is fighting the Indonesian government for the right to bring his body back so it can be properly examined and buried.

Kogoya died on Dec. 15 in the northwestern town of Vanimo, where he had been hiding since fleeing the threat of arrest earlier this year. His life is one of thousands that have been lost in the struggle for freedom in West Papua. Since the 1960s, the armed wing of the movement has been fighting against what they perceive as Indonesian colonization.

The cause of Kogoya’s death was reported as liver failure, apparently caused by the presence of "unusual" chemical substances in his body. A Vanimo court has classified his death as murder and called for an autopsy. However, the Indonesian authorities intervened and prevented an autopsy from taking place, raising suspicions of their involvement in the death.

According to Australian ABC News, a spokesman for Kogoya's family, Jeffrey Bomanak, accused the Indonesian Consul-General of personally interfering with plans to carry out an autopsy at Vanimo Hospital. The emergency department registrar at the Hospital, Dr. Kennan Witari, confirmed the Indonesian official was involved, but the details of his involvement are still unknown.

This is not the first time that the Indonesian authorities have been accused of this type of toxicological meddling. Previously, the Indonesian Intelligence Agency (Badan Intelijen Negara, or BIN) was involved in the murder of Said Munir Thalib, an Indonesian human rights activist, who was poisoned with arsenic on a flight to Amsterdam in 2004.

The fate of Kogoya’s body is still unclear. The Papuan human rights activist Matius Murib said negotiations between the family and the government of Indonesia are continuing.

This incident comes in the wake of a markedly violent year for West Papua. In 2013, local level conflict increased by nearly 25 percent from 2012, according to estimates from Indonesian NGOs.

Social Influences The 2013 violence took many different forms and was related to a number of disparate issues. Conflict frequently erupted in relation to land ownership feuds between local communities, or due to the targeting of religious minorities by Sunni Muslim groups. Violence also broke out between the local police and the military.

According to political analysts in the region, a key cause underlying all these different forms of violence is the lack of any meaningful response from the Indonesian government. The main source of violence in West Papua is the persecution of religious minorities by Sunni Muslims. However, the central government is unlikely to directly approach the issue of religious violence because Sunni Muslims are by far the largest religious group in Indonesia, and, as such, represent a hugely important voter base. The government may avoid reprimanding Sunni Muslims in West Papua out of fears that any action may alienate a large number of voters.

But the struggle has not gone unnoticed by the international community. US President Barak Obama has voiced concern about human rights abuses in the province. West Papua made international headlines last month when a citizens' tribunal found that Indonesian security forces tortured and killed unarmed civilians in the island of Biak, during a pro-independence rally that occurred 15 years ago, on July 6 1998.

According to the Guardian, the tribunal found the Indonesian military had coordinated with the police, navy, and local and regional officials to plan a violent rampage against demonstrators for West Papuan independence. The tribunal is demanding that Indonesia undertakes an independent investigation and prosecute those responsible.

Some of Indonesia's closest neighbors are also growing more sympathetic to the West Papuan's plight. The Independent European Daily Express reports that, in April of last year, the West Papua National Coalition for Liberation applied for membership of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, an inter-governmental group comprises the states of Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and the Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) of New Caledonia. It is headquartered in Port Vila, Vanuatu.

The West Papuan coalition was for the first time invited as an official guest to the Melanesian leaders’ summit. During an address to the summit, the West Papuans called on the Melanesian group to support their re-inscription onto the United Nations decolonization list. They also asked the MSG to send a fact-finding mission to their provinces to investigate human rights abuses.

The Indonesian government, obviously unpleased, retaliated by pushing the familiar narrative of having to fight terrorism. Recent headlines from the Jakarta Globe blame the OPM for an attack on a police station in the Kurik district, as well as the shooting of a taxi driver. The human rights group, Imparsial, has raised concerns that these attacks may, in fact, have nothing to do with the OPM, but could be the work of rogue groups trying to disrupt peace in Papua ahead of coming elections.

Strategic Interests Despite their inaction to date, the Indonesian government does have important interests in the area. Specifically, West Papua is rich in natural resources and has particularly well developed lumber and mining industries. In addition, the administration likely desires a higher degree of regional stability before the upcoming legislative and presidential elections, scheduled for April and July respectively.

The government has been increasing investment in the island. On Jan. 6, it was reported that the administration of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono had commissioned a large-scale bridge project for the city of Jayapura that would drastically improve infrastructure in Papua and West Papua. A government official confirmed the report, and added that the president had commissioned a number of other significant development projects for West Papua.

The authorities have also put aside US$31 million to build houses and train and educate hundreds of members of the Free Papua Movement who opt to reconcile with the government and put down their arms. Papua Governor Lukas Enembe said "they are aware that their struggle is fruitless," adding that he expected all people to welcome them back as Indonesian citizens.

These developments indicate that the government may be starting to recognize the need for action to curb the rising social unrest in West Papua.

(The authors are officials with Ethnographic Edge, a crisis forecasting project that uses a combination of Data Analytics technologies and Ethnographic methods in order to anticipate possible developments in international crises in Asia and the Middle East. For information and reports please visit www.ethnographicedge.com)