From KKB back to OPM: The Negative Consequences on Conflict Handling and Humanitarian Situation in Papua

The Commander of the Indonesian National Armed Forces (TNI) officially and unilaterally changes the terminology of the Armed Criminal Group (KKB) in Papua to the Free Papua Movement (OPM). This decision was made in conjunction with the issuance of Commander of the TNI Decree Number STR/41/2024 dated April 5, 2024. The letter states that the Commander of the TNI ordered the XVII/Cendrawasih Regional Military Command and the XVIII/Kasuari Regional Military Command to revert to using the term OPM.

According to the press statement by the Commander of the TNI, the change in nomenclature to OPM is based on the armed group’s stance in Papua, which calls itself the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB), which is interpreted to be synonymous with the OPM. Meanwhile, through the TNI Chief of Information (Kapuspen), the term OPM is used due to the history of violence perpetrated by the group in the Land of Papua, thus the name change is a form of commitment by the TNI leadership to protect soldiers in the field.

We assess that this change in name will certainly have several consequences both nationally and internationally. This change directly acknowledges the independence struggle activities that have been carried out by the OPM. Furthermore, the Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence (KontraS), as a civil society organization deeply concerned with the situation of violence and human rights violations in Papua, has several views regarding the TNI Commander’s step. Our notes are as follows:

First, changing the name of KKB to a separatist organization potentially leads to military dominance in handling the conflict situation in Papua. This was even directly asserted by the TNI Chief of Information, who urged soldiers in the field not to hesitate to take firm action against OPM members. Indeed, the military is permitted to counter armed separatist movements as regulated in Article 7 paragraph (2) letter b number 1 of Law No. 34 of 2004 concerning the TNI. Thus, the approach built will shift from a law enforcement-based approach to the use of military force. This consequently means that the military will be deployed on a larger scale to conflict areas in Papua. This also signifies that the TNI will employ significant military force in confronting armed groups. However, militaristic approaches like this have been proven ineffective and have significant implications for improving the humanitarian situation in Papua. Military involvement on various occasions has even led to human rights violations such as extrajudicial killings, torture, and enforced disappearances.

Second, this change in nomenclature has the potential to increase the intensity of clashes between the TNI-Polri forces and the TPNPB, and it is not unlikely that civilians may also be targeted. These concerns are quite valid, as the approach taken will centralize the military as the frontline force directly engaging with armed groups in Papua. Thus far, armed conflicts in Papua have not only resulted in casualties from the conflicting parties but also from civilians. We note that in the past three months alone, from January to March 2024, at least 8 civilians have become victims of violence and gunfire in Papua. Most recently, two children were again shot in Sugapa, Intan Jaya, Central Papua. This incident is not the first; in October 2021, two children, Nopelinus Sondegau (2 years old) and Yoakim Mazau (6 years old), also fell victim to gunfire in Intan Jaya. Unfortunately, no perpetrators have been successfully prosecuted and sanctioned for the shooting of these two children. The change made by the Commander of the TNI is not accompanied by assurances of civilian protection from potentially escalating gunfire activities. Referring to the principles of international humanitarian law, in non-international armed conflicts, civilians must be fully guaranteed their rights to be free from armed activities.

Third, the unilateral designation of KKB to OPM by the Commander of the TNI constitutes an arbitrary action. Through media monitoring, we have not found any legal regulations referenced by the Commander of the TNI in making this name change. The Commander of the TNI should not be hasty in taking this step, as name changes in an operation should involve various institutional elements and be based on public accountability. This is stipulated, for example, in Article 5 of the TNI Law which states that the TNI, in carrying out its duties, must do so based on the policies and political decisions of the state. Furthermore, the policies and political decisions of the state referred to are the political policies of the government together with the DPR formulated through the working relationship mechanism between the government and the DPR, such as consultation meetings and work meetings in accordance with statutory regulations. The designation by the Commander of the TNI regarding the OPM certainly has not gone through these legislative procedures, thus this step can be said to be legally flawed.

Fourthly, labeling with the name OPM emphasizes a stigmatizing and dangerous approach to civil liberties. For years, the government has continued to perpetuate stigma against pro-independence groups in Papua. In addition to KKB, the government has also changed the name of armed groups to the Separatist Terrorist Group (KST). Such stigmatizing approaches have been proven ineffective and have failed to garner sympathy from both the Papuan and international communities. This step once again confirms that the Indonesian government has not addressed the root causes in finding a way out of the conflict in Papua. Furthermore, this OPM stigma could also have negative implications for those who express their opinions peacefully. Thus, the change in nomenclature from KKB to OPM could worsen the situation of civil liberties in Papua. Excessive restrictions will be imposed on critical groups of society expressing their opinions. Moreover, those with differing views will be more easily stigmatized as separatists and deemed ‘fair game’ for suppression.

Fifth, the ambiguity of operations can trigger rivalry between the TNI and Polri in handling the conflict in Papua. The designation of OPM by the Commander of the TNI actually seems poorly coordinated, especially with the Indonesian National Police (Polri). This is evident from the position of the Polri, which still uses the terminology of armed criminal groups. This also indicates that the operational status in Papua has not yet been clarified. This phenomenon appears to be a competition for claims as to which entity is most responsible for addressing the conflict in Papua. Polri always uses the term KKB because it claims to prioritize a law enforcement approach with a basis in the criminal justice system. Meanwhile, the intention of the TNI to establish the name OPM is, of course, to lead the operation with the goal of suppressing armed separatist groups. This difference not only causes confusion but also reinforces the perception of rivalry between the two security institutions. We are concerned that this rivalry will lead to friction between the TNI and Polri. Referring to the most recent events, clashes in Sorong, West Papua between the TNI and Polri even occurred over very trivial issues. Friction between the two institutions on the ground will undoubtedly not occur if the President has a clear vision for handling and resolving the conflict in Papua.

Sixth, security policies in Papua are misguided and lack evaluation. We see that changing the name multiple times to address armed groups in Papua has not had a significant impact so far. Territorial command operations, Nemangkawi Operations, and Peace Cartenz Operations still use similar patterns, namely security.