Outlawing OPM: A Right Step in Ensuring Lasting Peace in Papua

Indonesia remains steadfast in ensuring peace in Papua. Officially labelling OPM as a terrorist group creates opportunities to achieve this. Credit: KOMPAS.com


On April 29, 2021, the Indonesian government has labelled the Free Papua Movement (OPM) as a terrorist group. Such labelling is based on this rebel group conducting a series of violent attacks on unarmed, innocent civilians in recent years. The most notable indiscriminate attack by OPM was the brutal mass killing of 31 workers from PT Istaka Karya, who were building the Trans Papua project in Kali Yigi and Kali Aurak in Yigi sub-district, Nduga district on December 2, 2018. This article discusses the consequences of this labelling while proposing solutions for the government to counter this terrorist threat in Papua.

Legal, Political and Security Consequences of Government Labelling

Legal Consequences

This labelling has serious legal consequences for OPM’s leaders, recruiters, members and supporters both in Indonesia and overseas. This means that group members and supporters are punishable by Law Number 5 of 2018 in Amendments to Law Number 15 of 2003 on Stipulation of Government Regulations in Lieu of Law Number 1 of 2002 on the Eradication of Criminal Acts of Terrorism. Articles 12-16 authorize their arrests by the Indonesian police and prosecutions, potentially facing three to 15 years imprisonment. Such arrests and prosecutions are meted not only to perpetrators of terrorism but also to its members, those providing financial support to the group, and those abetting the group’s members in conducting their attacks. Consequently, activists who carry out OPM’s propaganda under the pretence of human rights are now deemed as terrorists. Similarly, all financial donors to this group have violated Article 4 of the Law Number of 2013 on the Prevention and Eradication of Criminal Acts of Terrorism Financing.

Political Consequences

This labelling will create tensions between Indonesia and OPM’s state backers. The Indonesian government now has a legal basis to seek the repatriation of OPM members and supporters from countries harbouring them. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that these countries will accede to repatriations while erroneously citing security concerns for OPM’s members. Confounding the situation is the domestic repercussions of failing to secure repatriations which may stem from Indonesia’s lack of bargaining power. Domestically, such failure would become fodder for opposition parties to paint the Indonesian government as weak and unable to uphold Indonesia’s pride internationally.

Simultaneously, this labelling may empower OPM members and supporters at home to attack the government politically by casting it as the “real terrorist” and “violators of human rights.” It is, thus, unsurprising if OPM was to covertly or openly work with opposition activists to disseminate government’s alleged human rights violations in Papua.

Security Consequences

Increasing clashes between OPM and government forces are expected in the coming months. OPM would likely increase attacks on military and civilian targets in Papua to express their anger at their new label. To protect its civilians and military, the government will respond to these attacks with counter terrorism operations.

Multi-Pronged Approaches to Ensure Peace in Papua

OPM terrorism is a complex issue that requires multi-pronged approaches to ensure lasting peace in Papua. These approaches entail addressing the security, legal and human rights, economic and political aspects of this issue.

Security Approach

The government needs to launch a joint and measured counter terrorism operation targeting OPM members and supporters across Indonesia akin to the current Madago Raya Operation. The Madago Raya Operation which targets the Mujahidin of Eastern Indonesia (MIT) members and supporters in Central Sulawesi is a concerted effort involving the police (Polri), the military (TNI) and the state intelligence agency (BIN). The operation against OPM should be also based on solid intelligence to ensure the prevention of unintended casualties. This can be achieved by the police anti-terror unit, Detachment 88, TNI’s anti-terror units and BIN working closely together to conduct pre-emptive arrests of OPM members and supporters. Simultaneously, police attachés in Indonesian embassies overseas need to work with the police in their host countries to apprehend OPM members and supporters.

More importantly, the government needs to iterate and reinforce that this counter terrorism operation is to mitigate the OPM threat and not an attack on Papuans in general. This is to give a sense of security to Papuans residing outside Papua by preventing them from being wrongly stigmatized as terrorists. In other words, not all Papuans are terrorists and have equal rights to thrive in Indonesia.

Legal and Human Rights Approach

To ensure that the counter terrorism operation does not violate human rights, the government needs to remain steadfast in investigating and prosecuting unlawful killings and tortures committed by any Indonesian security personnel and all indiscriminate attacks on innocent civilians committed by OPM. To maintain transparency of the counter terrorism operation and to avoid the excessive use of security forces, the government also needs to allow human rights observers from the National Commission of Human Rights (KOMNAS HAM) to monitor and to advise the government in avoiding human rights violation. Additionally, the government needs to employ police investigators, public prosecutors and judges who understand the human rights aspect of OPM terrorism. This is to ensure a fair and legal prosecution of OPM members that also respects their human rights.

In anticipation of large-scale massive arrests of OPM members and supporters, the government needs to build new detention centres and prisons to house them. To also ensure that senior members do not rebuild their networks and organize attacks from inside the prison, the government needs to place them in maximum-security prisons.

Economic Approach

An unfortunate, unavoidable impact of this counter terrorism operation is on Papuan’s livelihoods despite the government’s efforts to minimize it. For instance, houses and businesses could be damaged due to clashes between OPM members and the security forces. The government needs to financially compensate those affected by OPM terrorism and the government’s counter terrorism efforts. This is particularly important as the government strives to win the people’s hearts and minds.

Political Approach

The government needs to conduct an assertive international diplomacy by persuading OPM state backers to abandon their support for OPM and repatriate OPM members to Indonesia, forcefully if required. Refusal to do so can lead to economic ramifications by the Indonesian government. For instance, embargoing the import of their products to Indonesia and their conduct of businesses in Indonesia. The government should not be concerned with potential backlash of such assertive diplomacy due to its strong and close relationships with major international economic powers such as Singapore, China, Japan and Hongkong. With their understanding and continued support of the government’s decision on OPM through their continued investment in Indonesia, Indonesia’s economy would remain relatively unaffected. However, the Indonesian government should endeavour in its efforts to diplomatically persuade these state backers before resorting to such measures.

Simultaneously, the government needs to consider establishing a new desk within the Coordinating Ministry for Political, Legal and Security Affairs to manage the complexities surrounding OPM terrorism. The desk chief will manage the counter terrorism operation and other law enforcements in Papua under the supervision of the Coordinating Minister of Political, Legal and Security Affairs.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD.

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  • Dr. Budi Pramono is a senior lecturer at the Indonesian Defence University. He is an active writer with his latest publication entitled, "Without Weapons: Concepts and Applications of Military Operations Other than War in Indonesia" (Unhan Press, 2021).

  • Prof. Anak Agung Banyu Perwita is a Professor of International Relations at the Indonesian Defence University. He is also an active panellist at Indonesia's National Resilience Council, National Resilience Institute (LEMHANAS), Coordinating Ministry for Political, Legal and Security, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Ministry of Defence.

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