Three Indonesian soldiers were killed in an ambush by separatist militants armed with small-arms and spears/bows in the Nduga district of Indonesia's Papua province on 7 March. The attack was claimed by the Tentara Pembebasan Nasional Papua Barat (TPNBP), or West Papua National Liberation Army, the armed wing of Papuan separatist organization Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM).
The increased tempo of attacks indicates that some Tentara Pembebasan Nasional Papua Barat (TPNBP) components have adopted a more aggressive strategy, most notably the faction led by Ekianus Kogoya, which claimed the December 2018 attack and was blamed by the military for the 7 March 2019 ambush. Various Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM)-affiliated factions have waged a persistent low-level insurgency in Papua since the 1960s against perceived Indonesian occupation and exploitation of the country's mineral wealth; the threat has never previously escalated beyond sporadic guerrilla operations. Notably, IHS Markit recorded 14 separatist attacks in 2018 - more than the previous four years combined - and three to date in 2019. The TPNBP also claimed a 2 December 2018 attack that killed 19 construction workers involved in building the 4,300 km Trans Papua Highway, a high-profile government development initiative linking Sorong in West Papua to Merauke in Papua.
Increased spending on infrastructure and other development projects by Indonesian President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo is not turning the population against the insurgents. In fact, the government's development initiatives and the state's heavy-handed response to separatist activism are already exacerbating local anti-government sentiment. The 2 December 2018 attack, for example, was conducted the day after more than 500 protesters were arrested for participating in pro-independence rallies, and notably, more than 20,000 people were reportedly displaced in the military operation that followed the attack. Projects such as the Trans Papua Highway are also viewed by Papuan activists as an attempt to extend the state's reach into previously inaccessible interior regions. This said, there have been no clear indications that continued popular support for independence or at least self-determination has translated into increased TPNBP recruitment.
The TPNBP's reliance on traditional weapons to supplement a shortfall of military-grade weaponry indicates that the group is unable to properly equip its existing fighters, let alone equip and integrate any substantial intake of new recruits. The TPNBP's claims of several thousand members are likely to be exaggerated; authorities have claimed that Kogoya's faction probably comprises fewer than 50 fighters. This reflects the group's longstanding lack of funding. The majority of funds from diaspora sources are likely still prioritizing political pro-independence activism over insurgent groups. Although low-level extortion has targeted some mining operations in Papua, there are no indications that the group has sought to tax the local population, on which it is reliant, at least for passive, if not rudimentary, logistical and intelligence-gathering support.
The Trans Papua Highway and the Grasberg mine (operated by Freeport Inc.) are the primary commercial targets at risk in the coming months. These two sites are symbolic of Indonesia's perceived exploitation in Papua, and attacks targeting them to date do not indicate an increasing risk to commercial assets more broadly in the country. Given limited capability, the majority of insurgent attacks will still focus on security forces and those being directly deployed in construction work for the highway project given their accessibility. Aviation risk is also elevated for low-flying aircraft in the region because of deliberate targeting or misidentification. Following the ambush on 7 March 2019, military helicopters recovering the bodies of soldiers were engaged by ground fire; no major damage was reported to the helicopters.
Indicators of changing risk environment
- An election win for opposition presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto will indicate the formation of a new government that is more likely to favor a heavy-handed military response against the TPNBP than the current Jokowi administration.
- A heavy-handed state response to TPNBP violence, extended to political pro-independence activism and civilian population, will probably increase popular support for militancy as the most viable method of achieving objectives.
- TPNBP operations increasingly targeting the Trans Papua Highway will probably provoke further military deployments and direct confrontation with insurgents and risk further alienating the local population.
- Prominent pro-autonomy/independence diaspora figures clearly distancing themselves from TPNBP operations and use of violence more generally will probably undermine the group's appeal and local support networks.
- Increasing international pressure on the Indonesian government to limit its military response, particularly from Australia, the European Union, and the United Kingdom, will encourage more development-focused initiatives as a means to further assimilation in Papua.
- The Indonesian state moderating its military operations against the TPNBP, thereby de-escalating the security situation and delegitimizing the TPNBP's use of violence to achieve political objectives, will further deter any recruitment to the TPNBP.
Posted 14 March 2019 by Deepa Kumar, Senior Analyst – Asia-Pacific Country Risk, IHS Markit and
Matthew Henman, Associate Director, Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center (JTIC)