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Jokowi Administration Designates Papuan Group a Terrorist Organization

The Joko Widodo (Jokowi) administration designated the Papua separatist group - namely the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) - the Free Papua Organization (OPM) - as a terrorist group following an incident in which intelligence officials were killed in Papua. What is the strategic importance of this decision?

By Alfin Zulfikar Rizky

When asked about terrorist groups or organizations, almost all individuals agree that these groups need to be eradicated because they are considered to have used violence to achieve their ideological goals. Thus many have become casualties of terrorist attacks. 

Terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and Daesh – also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – have no small number of followers and strengths. These groups have an international network that connects them with groups operating in many regions, such as the Abu Sayyaf group operating in the Southeast Asia region.

These groups have not only spread terror but have also troubled the traditional powers known as states. The Abu Sayyaf group, for example, often kidnaps and holds Indonesian fishermen hostage – especially those who go to sea in the southern Philippines.

Not to mention, the Indonesian government must also face terrorist networks at home. Several bomb incidents, such as in Surabaya (2018) and Makassar (2021), for example, were carried out by groups such as Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD).

Recently, the Indonesian government added one more group in the list of terrorist groups, namely the West Papua National Liberation Army-Free Papua Organization (TPNPB-OPM), which the government has branded as the Papua Armed Criminal Group (KKB). 

The decision announced by the Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs Mahfud MD could be regarded as reasonable. This is because terrorism expert Sidney Jones herself has long questioned the government’s attitude that tends to differentiate between the Papuan KKB and terrorist groups such as JAD.

According to Jones, both Papuan separatist groups and jihadist groups have committed crimes that spread terror in society. However, this policy has changed under the Joko Widodo (Jokowi) administration. Moreover, some time ago, the Indonesian government sent more than 400 troops to Papua to carry out operations against the Papuan separatists.

Although this policy received some positive responses, not a few elements of society criticized it. Several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working on the issue of human rights (HAM) are worried that there will be more human rights violations in the easternmost island of Indonesia.

If this policy is controversial, why does the Jokowi administration insist on implementing it? Could there be a strategic reason behind the designation of the KKB Papua as terrorists? 

Learning from Turkey?

The policy to designate the KKB Papua as a terrorist group could have strategic implications. Amid geopolitical competition between the United States (US) and China, the Indonesian government might feel that this determination is the right solution. 

Perhaps, the strategic goals that the Jokowi administration wants to achieve are in line with what the Turkish government is doing. According to André Barrinha’s writing entitled The Political Importance of Labeling, the Turkish government wants to achieve certain political goals in its policy of giving terrorist status to a separatist group known as the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Barrinha also uses the concept of discursive structure introduced by Ole Wæver, a professor of International Relations who comes from the Copenhagen school of thought group. Barrinha said that the Turkish government’s labeling the PKK as terrorist has certain political consequences as a result of a process known as securitization – an attempt to create new security threats.

The label “terrorist” itself has a negative connotation discursively. This label portrays a group as one that commits violence without clear legitimacy. This label also depicts the group as engaged in the most extreme form of radical politics.

The Turkish government’s application of a terrorist status to the PKK, for example, ultimately creates a certain political structure – which can lead to the normalization of the labeling along with the policies it deems necessary. Over time, this labeling is considered more reasonable so that policies that initially were considered ‘special’ have become common in the eyes of the public. 

Of course, the PKK’s labeling of terrorists also has international political consequences. The changing political structure does not only cover domestic politics, but also international politics. 

This can be seen from how the US government – both Donald Trump’s administration and his successor, Joe Biden – came under pressure from the Recep Tayyip Erdoğan government in Turkey regarding the US attitude towards the PKK. At least, Erdoğan can now present a basis for demanding that the Biden government take a tough stance against the Kurdish separatist group.

If Turkey is finally able to change the political discourse by labeling the PKK as terrorist, then what about the Jokowi administration against the Papuan separatists? Is the Indonesian government undertaking a similar securitization step? Then, why is this step important? 

A Strategic Reason

Jokowi probably has an important strategic reason for assigning a terrorist label to the Papuan separatists. Moreover, with the return of US presence on the international political stage under the Biden administration, Papuan issues could become an obstacle to Jokowi’s efforts at balancing US and Chinese power. 

This assumption is in line with what has been explained by John J. Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, USA, in his article entitled Bound to Fail. In this article, the political professor stated that the US has long been building a liberal world order that seeks to disseminate the principles of democracy and human rights to other countries.

Indonesia will probably not escape the attention of Biden who wants to restore the principles of human rights and democracy after the US was regarded as absent from the world stage under the Trump administration. Moreover, the report by the US State Department has cited issues of human rights violations in Indonesia – including Papua and West Papua – as a concern that needs to be highlighted.

Therefore, it would be a tactical step if the Jokowi administration changed the discursive structure on human rights issues that loom over the Papuan problem. That way, the Indonesian government can claim legitimacy for actions that are regarded as a human rights issue by the US. 

These international political consequences could also be in line with the Turkish-style strategy against the PKK. It should be noted that the US contributed to the PKK’s presence in Iraq and Turkey – considering that the organization was an important ally in defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or Daesh, in particular, during the Obama administration.

However, with the collapse of Daesh in Iraq and Syria, the PKK began to lose its strategic position so that the Erdoğan government could again push the US to follow up on this PKK “threat.” Strangely, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken agreed to declare the PKK a threat.

This may also apply to the Papuan independence movement. The reason is, this movement is starting to gain political momentum by internationalizing the Papua issue. 

The internationalization of this issue is said to be increasingly volatile amid the rising power of the People’s Republic of China – particularly its influence in the South Pacific region. It is no longer an open secret that countries in the region – such as Vanuatu – have become very active in voicing the Papuan independence movement in international forums. 

The boldness of these island nations in the South Pacific is thought to be due to the loss of Australian and New Zealand influence in the face of China’s presence in the region. Moreover, in a piece written by Marinus Mesak A. Yaung, Yanyan M. Yani, and Windy Dermawan entitled Chinese Involvement in Vanuatu and Solomon Island Foreign Policy Against the Papua Issue, this Papua issue could become an important leverage in China’s foreign policy towards Indonesia.

China could use this as leverage if it sought greater access to Papua’s natural resources. This is because, until now, Western countries such as the US and Australia are still the dominant foreign powers controlling Papua’s resources. 

The internationalization of the Papua issue has also begun to involve China. There have been bandwagoningefforts from several Papuan separatist movement actors – such as Benny Wenda, who has been trying to attract attention and seeking help from the Chinese Communist Party. 

Apart from the dynamics of foreign policy affecting the Papua issue, the action of labeling the Papuan separatist group as a terrorist organization is a gambit by the Jokowi administration. Much depends on the response of the Biden administration to the many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that advocate human rights and are opposed to Jokowi’s policies. Let us wait and see how this gambit will play out.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of PinterPolitik.

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