New internal displacement in West Papua as armed clashes intensify throughout March 2023

New armed clashes and attacks by members of the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) against security force personnel and civilians have caused further displacement in Yahukimo, Puncak, and Nduga Regencies. Further displacement is expected in the Puncak Jaya regency, where TPNPB members killed two security force members in the Ilu District on 25 March 2023. The Indonesian government has responded by deploying additional security forces to the conflict hotspots. According to the national media, an additional 2,355 military members were deployed to West Papua from Aceh, West Sumatra, Central Kalimantan, and South Sulawesi throughout March 2023. They will secure infrastructure projects, the PT Freeport Indonesia-owned gold- and copper mine in the Mimika Regency, and Indonesia’s easternmost land border with Papua New Guinea.

In other regencies affected by the armed conflict, security force presence continues to prevent internally displaced persons (IDPs) from returning to their villages. The IDPs fear further raids in villages, often accompanied by arbitrary arrests and torture of civilians. Many IDPs fear that the presence of security forces will provoke further armed clashes between the TPNPB and Indonesian security forces near indigenous villages. More than 60,000 Papuans reportedly remain internally displaced as of December 2022.  

Armed conflict intensifies

The armed conflict has steadily worsened in recent years, and as of March there are no signs of rapprochement between the conflict parties. On the contrary, on 24 March 2023, Mr Bambang Soesatyo, the chairman of the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR), called on the central government and the joint security forces, to increase the number of personnel in the Papuan provinces, and break the supply chain of the TPNPB, which the government officials commonly refer to as ‘armed criminal groups’ or ‘KKB’.

The TPNPB on the other side, appears to be increasing the frequency of attacks against security force members, but also non-Papuans and indigenous Papuans, whom they suspect of collaborating with the Indonesian police or military. A TPNPB group led by TPNPB commander Egianus Kogeya continues to hold New Zealand pilot, Captain Phillip Mark Mehrtens. The TPNPB took Mr Mehrtens hostage on 7 February 2023 at an airstrip in the Paro District, Nduga Regency. The group has refused to negotiate and has repeatedly stated they won’t release him until their demands are met. They have threatened to kill the hostage if Indonesian security force members attempted to free Mr Mehrtens by force.

Military officials have repeatedly claimed in public that they knew the approximate location of the hostage but could not free Captain Mehrtens because the New Zealand government had asked the Indonesian government not to use force. An armed encounter between Egianus Kogeya’s guerrilla unit and joint security forces reportedly took place in the Mugi District, Nduga Regency, on 23 March. The TPNPB confirmed the clash saying one of its fighters was killed and another injured in the firefight. TPNPB spokesperson, Sebby Sambom, condemned the attack insisting that the security forces had put Mehrtens’ life in danger.

The military is proceeding with the central government’s plan to increase social interaction with indigenous Papuans in remote parts of West Papua. Military personnel are targeting schools in particular, where they can make contact with the Papuan youth. Human Rights Monitor received images of such visits in the regencies Yalimo and Tolikara (see photos below, source: independent observers). Human rights defenders (HRDs) strongly criticise the presence of security forces near indigenous villages, health centres, and schools.  They fear that the increased security force presence could lead to the destruction of public facilities or provoke armed attacks by the TPNBP.  

Many Papuans, particularly those living in remote areas, are afraid of the military, which is responsible numerous many human rights violations throughout the past fifty years of the conflict. Many indigenous Papuans in the highlands have been directly affected by military violence or have relatives that experienced torture or killings during the military operations under Indonesia President Suharto.

As of 30 March 2023, HRM documented 29 armed clashes and attacks against civilians related to the armed conflict. This number is significantly higher than in previous years, allowing the conclusion that there will be a further deterioration of the armed conflict in 2023 without de-escalating interventions in the form of seize fires or humanitarian pauses. In 2021, the number of documented armed clashes reached 19 as of 31 March. The number in 2022 was slightly higher, with 21 armed clashes as of 31 March.   

New internal displacements in the Yahukimo Regency

New armed clashes in the Dekai District of Yahukimo Regency erupted after TPNPB fighters killed an Indonesian migrant on 20 February 2023 (see photos below, source: independent HRDs). Multiple attacks against security force members followed.

TPNPB Commander, Elkius Kobak, published a video (see video below) in which he claimed responsibility for the killing of a security force member in the Seredela District on 29 February, the killing of one security force member during an attack on a security post in Dekai on 1 March 2023. Three others were injured during the attack. Two Police Mobile Brigade (Brimob) officers were killed during a raid in Dekai Town on 2 March 2023.

More TPNPB attacks took place on 8 March 2023, costing the lives of two non-Papuans. On 11 March 2023, TPNPB members opened fire at a civilian airplane. TPNPB commander, Elkius Kobak, justified the attack claiming that military members had used the Trigana-owned civil aircraft to come to Dekai. The TPNPB continued launching attacks on public facilities. On 13 March 2023, TPNPB members burnt the Inpres (YPK)  Metayona Dekai Yahukimo Elementary School, and on  16 March, the SMPN 2 Dekai Junior High School to the ground. According to a TPNPB press release, Indonesian education facilities would spread Indonesian state ideology among the Papuan youth, hampering them from developing a political consciousness of Papuan history and culture.

On 16 March 2023, security force members evacuated hundreds of non-Papuan residents from Dekai. The evacuation was likely conducted to prevent civilian fatalities as a result of armed attacks and outbreaks of horizontal mass violence, as it had happened previously in the town of Wamena in response to a security force operation. The military used a Hercules military transportation aircraft to fly the people out of Dekai (see photos below, source: independent HRDs).

Following the attacks, joint members of the Police Mobile Brigade (Brimob) and the 1715 Yahukimo Military command conducted raids in the district of Dekai and the surrounding area (see photos below, source: independent HRDs). The raids were accompanied by 22 arbitrary arrests of indigenous Papuans. According to information received, joint security forces arrested eight Papuans inside a residential house at Statistik Street between kilometers four and six on 11 March 2023.

Six persons were again arrested in residential houses on 12 March 2023, and four further suspects on 15 March 2023. As of 17 March 2023, the police released nineteen arrestees, while three remained in police detention (see table and photos below, source Kingmi Papua Church). It is currently not known whether the police will press charges against them. Human rights defenders said that the security force members carried out arrests and searched residential houses without showing warrants as required under the Indonesian Criminal Procedure Code (KUHAP) and international human rights treaties.

NoNameAgeDate of arrestAdditional information
1Mr Er Heluka20 years11.03.2023Remained in custody as of 17 March 2023
2Mr Natan Sigap30 years11.03.2023Was released on 13 March 2023, 1 pm
3Mr Tinus Sigap25 years11.03.2023Was released on 13 March 2023, 1 pm
4Mr Menase Senik30 years11.03.2023Was released on 13 March 2023, 1 pm
5Mr Menius Heluka26 years11.03.2023Was released on 13 March 2023, 1 pm
6Mr Naptalis Sigap22 years11.03.2023Was released on 13 March 2023, 1 pm
7Mr Daud Matuan50 years11.03.2023Was released on 13 March 2023, 1 pm
8Mr Antonius Heluka19 years11.03.2023Was released on 13 March 2023, 1 pm
9Mr Bonius Payage21 years12.03.2023Was released on 13 March 2023, 1 pm
10Mr Aminus Payage22 years12.03.2023Was released on 13 March 2023, 1 pm
11Erinus Senik15 years12.03.2023Was released on 13 March 2023, 1 pm
12Yemese Heluka17 years12.03.2023Was released on 13 March 2023, 1 pm
13Mr Eliaser Heluka30 years12.03.2023Was released on 13 March 2023, 1 pm
14Mr Pius Heluka23 years12.03.2023Was released on 13 March 2023, 1 pm
15Mr Edison Giban23 years12.03.2023Remained in custody as of 17 March 2023
16Natan PayageN/A12.03.2023Remained in custody as of 17 March 2023
17Mr Antois GibanN/A12.03.2023Member of the West Papua National Committee (KNPB), was released on 13 March 2023, 1 pm
18Mr Salos BalinggaN/A12.03.2023Member of the West Papua National Committee (KNPB), was released on 13 March 2023, 1 pm
19Mr Riwanto Heluka40 years15.03.2023Released on 17 March 2023, 1 pm
20Mr Habel Payage30 years15.03.2023Released on 17 March 2021, 1 pm
21Mr Yakobus29 years15.03.2023Released on 17 March 2021, 1 pm
22Panuel Heluka8 years15.03.2023Released on 17 March 2021, 1 pm
Table of arrestees during security force raids in Dekai

On 2 March 2023, Papuans living near Gunung Street in Dekai reportedly fled their homes. According to information collected by human rights defenders, at least 469 indigenous Papuans fled their houses, fearing security force violence and arbitrary arrest. Some temporarily moved to relatives living in neighbouring areas, while others fled into the forest. According to information received, security force members damaged and seized people’s personal belongings, including traditional weapons, tools, motorcycles, and money. One-hundred-twenty-six houses were abandoned. Over 50 domesticated animals, such as pigs and chickens, were left behind. HRDs documented six houses damaged during the armed clash and the subsequent raid (see photos below, source: independent HRDs).

Forced displacement of indigenous Papuans in Puncak Regency

Human rights defenders have reported the forced displacement of several hundreds of indigenous peoples from the districts Mage’abume and Yugumuak to the Sinak District in response to a security force raid in the village of Pamebut on 3 March 2023 (see photo to this article, source: independent HRDs). Security forces allegedly shot dead an indigenous woman during the raid. Eight other villagers, among them four minors, were injured by bullets.

According to information received from human rights defenders on the ground, the security forces forced the villagers to leave their homes without providing shelter or food. The IDPs sought refuge in villages scattered across the nearby Sinak District, Puncak Regency. The IDPs remain in their shelters without support from the local Government. The IDPs called upon the regent, the local parliament, and the Central Government to provide humanitarian support to the IDPs (see video below, source: independent HRDs).

Two indigenous leaders criticizing the lack of commitment and support from the Central Government as well as the local Government and parliament in Puncak for the situation of IDPs in the Sinak District

Papuans from Koroptak District in Nduga Regency flee their homes in fear of more armed clashes

An armed clash between the TPNPB group under Egianus Kogeya and Indonesian security forces on 23 March 2023 has caused further displacements in nearby areas. Following the incident, 52 indigenous Papuans from the Koroptak District left their homes and walked for four days to seek shelter in the Nduga’s largest town of Kenyam. They fled their homes, fearing an escalation of armed violence between the TPNPB and Indonesian security forces near their villages.

IDPs in Maybrat Regency refuse to return to their homes due to heavy security force presence

Government officials have repeatedly made public statements about the security situation in the Maybrat regency and have attempted to persuade the IDPs to return to their villages. The Maybrat interim Regent, Mr Bernard Rondonuwu, has reportedly attempted to re-settle IDPs to their home villages against their will by the end of  2022. The Commissioner of the Election Supervisory Body (Bawaslu) in the provinces Papua Barat and Papua Barat Daya, Mr Muhamad Nazil Hilmi, visited four villages in the Aifat Selatan District. After his visit, Mr Hilmi declared in an interview that he would ensure that all IDPs will return to their villages before the general election in 2024.

These statements contradict the information received from human rights defenders in the Maybrat Regency. Most IDPs in Maybrat are still reluctant to return to their villages due to the heavy security force presence. The security forces continue raiding villages and IDP shelters in Maybrat. Some IDPs have to survive in shelters in the forest, where they cannot access adequate food, public healthcare, and education services.

For the first time, Human Rights Monitor (HRM) received visual proof of a school and an office of village administration occupied by security force members. In the village of Faan Kahrio, Aifat Timur Tengah District, military members established a security checkpoint inside the YPPK Kahrio school (see photos below, source: independent HRDs). All cars passing the village must stop at the checkpoint to check their identity and report to the security force members. All school activities have stopped in Faan Kahrio since the attack on the military post in Kisor in September 2021. Another military checkpoint was established inside a village administrative office in the Sorry Village, Aifat Selatan District (see photos below, source: independent HRDs).

Many people in the IDP shelters face health issues due to poor hygiene, lack of proper nutrition, and absence of disease prevention. In contrast to most other conflict areas, the Maybrat Regency is located in the hot and swampy Papuan lowlands, which promote the spreading of Malaria. HRM received credible information about the death of internally displaced Mrs Yulce Kamat, 31. She passed away in March 2023 inside the Sorong General Hospital (see photos below: independent HRDs) after getting sick shortly after being displaced in September 2021. Mrs Kamat stayed in a forest shelter for more than one year. She went to the town of Kumurkek because her health condition continuously decreased in the forest shelter. She finally moved with relatives to Sorong because the medical treatment at the health centre in Kumurkek did not bring about any improvement.