Indonesian military accused of using chemical weapons against West Papuan separatists


Screenshot of a YouTube video about a reported bombing in Nduga district of West Papua.

The Indonesian military has been accused of using chemical weapons against West Papuan separatists, following an escalation in the longstanding conflict between Indonesia and the province.

Indonesia intensified military operations following the deaths of around 31 Indonesian road workers earlier this month in the Nduga region. The West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) accepted responsibility but claimed the workers were in fact soldiers. The TPNPB is part of the broad resistance Free Papua Movement or Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM).

West Papua is a province of Indonesia. It is also the name used by separatists for all Papua territory ruled by the Netherlands until 1962. The area that became Irian Jaya was ceded to Indonesian control subject to an independence referendum in 1969. It was annexed following the so-called ‘Act of Free Choice’, which was rejected by local independence groups. In contrast to the TPNPB, the Free West Papua Campaign advocates peaceful self-determination.

In early 2018, TPNPB issued terms of war against Indonesia through its website. In 2015, the OPM had declared open war against Indonesia, including not only the Indonesian government and its military but all non-Papuan civilians and private interests.

Following the deaths of the 31 individuals, the Indonesian House of Representatives (DPR) rallied the government to petition the UN to declare the OPM a terrorist group.

Reports of chemical weapon attacks

Australian independent weekly, The Saturday Paper, reported on December 22, 2018 that Indonesian airstrikes on targets in West Papua were “suspected to include the banned chemical weapon white phosphorus”.

TPNPB-OPM is the last defense of West Papuan peoples

Screenshot from YouTube video about the attack on the Nduga district of West Papua published on Jul 26, 2018.

Denial by the Indonesian government

The Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs swiftly denied possessing or using any chemical weapons, tweeting that:

Some Twitter users had different opinions:

Indonesian user B Arifrn warned that the situation was still unsafe:

According the evacuation team in Nduga District: The people are still taking refuge.

BBC journalist Rebecca Henschke reported that:

An activist based in Central Java who requested anonymity confirmed that many locals in Nduga took refuge in the mountains. The activist told Global Voices that following the attack by TPNPB, there has been a crackdown on activists in many Indonesian cities where there are many Papuan students. The activist was forced to go into hiding out of fear of further repercussions from the authorities.

Another source in Jakarta also told Global Voices that news is scarcer than ever, as though the Indonesian government is trying to hide something.

Neighbours react

There was considerable interest on social media in nearby countries. An indigenous Australian tweeted:

But much of the mainstream media in Australia was either slow to pick up or failed to cover the story:

There were also demands that other countries speak out against the alleged atrocity:

With Australia was singled out by some for its perceived inaction:

Maire Leadbeater explored the chemical weapon claims and its ramifications on New Zealand’s The Daily Blog:

GUEST BLOG: Maire Leadbeater – December Violence in West Papua should be a wake-up call

Experts who have seen the images believe it is possible that these wounds resulted from the use of some kind of chemical agent, possibly white phosphorous. Independent verification is impossible in the absence of independent observers or journalists.

Leadbeater argued that economic and military ties have prevented many Western countries, including New Zealand, from taking up the West Papua cause, but ended on a note of hope:

Vanuatu is leading the way in promoting a peaceful diplomatic solution for West Papua and plans to take a resolution to the UN General Assembly next year calling for the West Papua to be restored to the UN list of nations still to be decolonised. New Zealand could be a game changer by ending military ties and instead opting to support Vanuatu’s principled diplomacy. There isn’t much time to waste.

Continuing resistance

On December 20, the Free West Papua (FWP) campaign tweeted about mass arrests at rallies on the 57th anniversary of its annexation by Indonesia:

FWP founder Benny Wenda has called for negotiations:

The Saturday Paper story was posted Reddit, receiving over 800 comments in four days. This one from beanzamillion21 expressed a widespread concern online about the lack of news about West Papua: “I had no idea. This is hardly covered in America.”

Meanwhile, the governor of West Papua, Lukas Enembe, has called for an end to hostilities and asked the Indonesian President Joko Widodo to withdraw troops from Nduga.

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