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“Don’t Abandon Us”: Preventing Mass Atrocities in Papua, Indonesia

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Title: “Don’t Abandon Us”: Preventing Mass Atrocities in Papua, Indonesia

Author: Made Supriatma

Publication: July 2022

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Indonesia is increasingly populous, wealthy, and politically influential, despite its history of mass atrocities. The country's two easternmost provinces, Papua and Papua Barat, are the only regions in the country that continue to experience significant armed conflict and political instability. In recent years, violence between Indigenous Papuan supporters of Papua’s longstanding independence movement and the Indonesian government has intensified. Though large-scale violence against civilians is not taking place today, early warning signs are visible and warrant our attention.

“Don’t Abandon Us”: Preventing Mass Atrocities in Papua, Indonesia explains the factors behind two high-risk scenarios, identifies potential triggering events that could lead to violence against civilians, and proposes recommendations for how to mitigate the risk. 

In studying genocide and mass atrocities, we have learned that they are never spontaneous. They are always preceded by a range of early warning signs. If these signs are detected, their causes can be addressed, preventing the potential for catastrophic progression.  

This report is one of the components of the Early Warning Project, which includes both quantitative and qualitative assessments of atrocity risk. It is the fifth in a series of deep-dive qualitative assessments designed to assist policymakers, NGOs, and members of civil society in understanding the atrocity dynamics particular to the country in question and recommending preventative actions.

Executive Summary

This report assesses the risk of mass atrocities (large-scale, systematic violence against civilian populations) in Papua, Indonesia, over the next 12–18 months. Since its integration into Indonesia in 1969, Papua has seen ongoing political resistance and armed rebellion in favor of independence, and government repression in response. The region is home to Indigenous Papuans and a growing population of migrants from other parts of Indonesia, layering intercommunal tensions on top of the conflict over the region’s governance. An upward trend in the frequency of violent incidents prompted this analysis of the potential for mass atrocities. This report is based on field research in Indonesia, including in Papua, from March to August 2021, as well as on expert consultations and a literature review. The report’s conceptual framework and research questions draw from the atrocity assessment framework developed by the US government.

Structural Risk Factors

Five structural factors are at the root of mass atrocity risks in Papua:

  1. Indonesia has an extensive history of mass atrocities.
  2. Indigenous Papuans have been excluded from political decision making; efforts by the state to address their grievances have failed.
  3. The Indonesian state’s and multinational companies’ exploitation of natural resources has contributed to conflicts over land, Indigenous Papuan antipathy toward the state, and tensions between Indigenous Papuans and Indonesian migrants.
  4. Indonesia’s security forces in the region have been implicated in human rights abuses, but have not been held accountable, feeding Indigenous Papuans’ resentment against the state.
  5. Indigenous Papuans and Indonesian migrants residing in Papua often find themselves in conflict over economic, political, religious, and ideological issues.

Precipitating Factors

In the context of these structural factors, which are longstanding and difficult to change, three precipitating factors are increasing risks in the near term:

  1. Protests, riots, and communal mobilization: mutual fears between Indigenous Papuans and Indonesian migrants are spurring group mobilization in a dangerous spiral.
  2. Increasing divisions among Indigenous Papuans: these divisions could increase the vulnerability of pro-independence civilians to attacks and/or lead pro-independence groups to contemplate extreme measures—such as inciting attacks on vulnerable migrants—in an effort to foster greater unity.
  3. Escalating armed conflict between Indigenous Papuan rebels and Indonesian security forces: increasing activity by armed groups has already provoked brutal responses by Indonesian security forces and could spur even harsher crackdowns, in turn increasing Papuan antipathy toward the state and the popularity of pro-independence movements.

Plausible Mass Atrocity Scenarios

We identify two plausible mass atrocity scenarios in Papua. These are “worst-case scenarios,” not inevitable or even most likely outcomes. In both, atrocities would be committed by militia, with tacit support or acquiescence from Indonesian security forces, in response to increasing protests and/or rebel attacks by Indigenous Papuans demanding independence from Indonesia.

Although it is difficult to forecast the size and durability of a protest movement, we believe a combination of factors—increasing rebel attacks, better coordination and organization of pro-independence civilian organizations, and the ease of communication—makes it plausible that pro-independence protests could reach a new level in the next 12–18 months. 

If political and social unrest persist, and if it were to spread across the region, it is possible that the Indonesian government could determine that the scale or persistence of the protests would justify a more severe response, which could lead to large-scale killing of civilians.

It should be underscored that peaceful demonstrations are protected under both international and domestic law. This report and the scenarios discussed should not be interpreted as discouraging any individual or group from exercising their rights to assemble peacefully and freely express their opinions. The Indonesian government is responsible for protecting these fundamental rights.   

  • Scenario A describes mass atrocities committed by pro-Indonesia Indigenous Papuan militia, with the support of the military and police, against pro-independence Indigenous Papuans. This scenario depends on Indigenous Papuan groups remaining divided.
  • Alternatively, if Indigenous Papuans become more cohesive and better coordinated, that may lead to Scenario B, in which Indonesian migrants and Indonesian security forces commit atrocities against Indigenous Papuans (perceived collectively as in opposition to the Indonesian state and threatening migrant interests).

Mitigating Factors and Uncertainties

Several sources of resilience dampen the risk in Papua, including women’s groups, local Papuan press, and non-political civil society organizations. In addition, we highlight a number of important uncertainties that should be monitored closely, including the tactics of security forces and pro-independence demonstrators, the evolving capability of pro-independence armed groups, and possible shifts in Indonesian military policy.

Recommendations

We conclude with recommendations to the Indonesian government, regional and local government, civil society, pro-independence activists, multinational corporations, and Indonesia’s international partners to help prevent mass atrocities. The specific recommendations are organized around five lines of effort:

  1. Improving freedom of information and monitoring atrocity risks in the Papua region.
  2. Managing conflicts in Papua through nonviolent means.
  3. Addressing Papuan grievances and drivers of conflict.
  4. Addressing potential flashpoints.
  5. Supporting justice and accountability efforts.