Five West Papuans were killed when Indonesian military and police personnel shot into a protesting crowd on Monday, local media reported. Reports say the protesters were not separatist rebels, but community members angered by the alleged assault on a group of adolescents who had clashed with soldiers the previous night.
The violent reaction by security forces is a bad sign for President Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo's promised new start in West Papua.
On the campaign trail, Jokowi visited West Papua twice and spoke positively about opening access to the province for foreign journalists. Currently, visas to report from West Papua are near impossible to come by, and those who try to report while on other types of visa tend to be arrested and deported. Aside from promising to allow greater international attention, Jokowi as president-elect made plans for regular national-level dialogue with West Papuan leaders and even suggested the construction of a presidential palace to symbolise the central government's commitment to a new approach in the province. But this week's violence signals a slow departure from the old approach.
Doubts were already cast on Jokowi's promises for West Papua when he appointed retired General Ryamizard Ryacudu as defence minister in October. The appointment was met with strong opposition by human rights advocates, who objected to Ryamizard on the basis of his past role in operations against separatists in Aceh and Papua. Ryamizard is a close associate of Megawati Sukarnoputri, the leader of Jokowi's party. Under Megawati's presidency, Ryamizard led military operations against the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), reportedly taking the approach that even children could be targets of execution if they opposed the implementation of martial law in the province. In fact, it was reported that anyone who opposed the military's actions was considered an anti-government rebel and therefore a target.
There were certainly echoes of this approach in reports of the recent shooting in West Papua. According to reports, the conflict began when a group of children setting up Christmas decorations for a local church told off some passing soldiers for not turning on the headlights of their SUV while driving at night. The soldiers continued to their command post before returning with additional support and reportedly assaulting the children. This was the incident under protest on Monday, in which protesters are said to have set fire to the soldiers' SUV before being dispersed under gunfire from security forces.
Just last week, Ryamizard publicly argued for greater military involvement in public life. He urged a return to the military's community service program, once used as a tool of gathering support for and repressing resistance to Suharto's authoritarian rule. He also advocated a reshuffling of the security forces to bring the police force under the command of the Home Ministry rather than the president, and a return of greater domestic security powers to the military.
There's no indication that Jokowi has taken heed of Ryamizard's suggestions for the dismantling of national security reforms, but the retired general's words do resonate among the ranks of the armed forces. Aside from his ties to Megawati, Ryamizard's influence in the military is said to be one of the main reasons for his appointment as a member of Jokowi's cabinet. The question now is whether that influence will be used to fulfill the pre-election promise of a more humane approach to West Papua.