Papuan rebels have upped the tempo of their resistance to Jakarta. Image: Facebook

JAKARTA – Papua’s troubled Central Highlands region is bracing for another harsh military crackdown after unidentified gunmen killed the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) provincial intelligence chief in what appears to have been a planned assassination.

Brigadier General Putu Danny Nugraha Karya, 50, a veteran Balinese special forces officer, is the first general to die from hostile fire in the Free Papua Movement’s (OPM) long struggle against Indonesian rule, or in any conflict since Indonesia became a republic.

Karya, who was appointed National Intelligence Agency (BIN) Papua chief in November 2019, was shot in the head as he rode a motorcycle to the scene of a school burned by self-styled separatists several days before in Beoga, a sub-district of Puncak regency.

A second one-star general, the head of a local military task force and another special forces veteran, escaped the ambush on a narrow gravel road, along with 11 other companions who were also on motorcycles and apparently traveling without armed escort. 

In Jakarta, President Joko Widodo, flanked by Vice President Ma’ruf Amin and the commanders of the military and the police, made it clear what lay ahead in ordering a manhunt for the general’s killers.

“I emphasize there is no place for armed criminal groups in Papua and in all corners of the country,” he said in a televised statement, a day after delivering a solemn message of sympathy over the deaths of 53 sailors in the sinking of the submarine KRI Nanggala off Bali.

Informed sources say Karya had been in the area for more than a week gathering intelligence on Dani clan leader Lekagak Telenggen, a close follower of Goliat Tabuni, the aging former head of the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB), the OPM’s armed wing. 

Now in his mid-40s, the ruthless Telenggen was Tabuni’s right-man man through the early 2000s, transferring his expertise with the bow and arrow to a reputed skill as a marksman with an assault rifle.

TPNPB’s Goliat Tabuni (left) and Lekagak Telenggeng (right) in an undated photo. Image: Facebook/KOMNAS-TNPB

Before the general’s killing, his 50-strong group had also murdered two teachers around a village that up to recently had been largely free of the bloodshed that plagues Puncak and the neighboring regencies of Intan Jaya and Nduga.

Puncak lies directly north of Freeport’s giant Grasberg copper and gold mine, the scene of past sniping incidents on the precipitous road used to truck explosives and other crucial equipment to the high-altitude Tembagapura mining camp.

Telenggen has also been blamed for past armed incidents around the Grasberg and recently entered into an alliance with Sabinus Waker, another Dani clan leader who controls much of the lucrative illegal mining of residual gold in Freeport’s rock waste.

The attack near the Grasberg, the world’s second-largest copper mine, comes as global copper prices hit their highest level since August 2011 at US$9,885 per ton on the London Metal Exchange. The surge to date has been driven by post-pandemic global economic recovery hopes.

Without a coherent chain of command, disparate groups tenuously linked to the OPM often resort to violence, extortion and other means to finance their activities and have increasingly armed themselves with automatic weapons, many of them seized from government soldiers.

“There’s no ideology involved,” one analyst says of Telenggen, an illiterate, brutal figure who is now the prime suspect in the general’s death. “It’s all about money. They really are a criminal group. He and his followers are right out of the dark ages.”

The last military crackdown came in late 2018 and early 2019 after rebels claiming allegiance to the OPM slaughtered 19 workers building the Nduga section of the 4,320-kilometer Trans-Papua Highway across the Central Highlands.

It was the bloodiest single incident in Papua since the controversial UN-administered 1969 Act of Free Choice made the former Dutch-controlled territory a formal part of Indonesia, sparking the ongoing war for independence.

The road is seen as a legitimate target because it burnishes the purported political credentials of the rebel groups in preventing outsiders from settling in the heart of OPM territory.

Free Papua Movement (OPM) rebels display the outlawed “Morning Star” flag in the jungle of the eastern Papua province. Photo: AFP/Banjir Ambarita

Opening up the interior also brings with it an increased military presence and what environmentalists and separatists alike fear will be wholesale logging and other natural degradation.

Three months later after the bridge massacre, the same band of tribal fighters killed three special forces operators in a scattered firefight that went on for more than five hours after a 25-man patrol was ambushed in the same area.

Human rights groups subsequently accused the military of bombing villages and other indiscriminate acts, driving hundreds of villagers from their mountain homes in scenes that have been repeated often after rebel attacks.

Local sources say more recent violence in Intan Jaya has arisen from social and political tensions between the majority 50,000-strong Moni population and the Dani, the dominant tribe spread across most of Papua’s central mountain spine.

Open hostilities broke out in 2015, triggered by the sale of a large expanse of Moni ancestral land to a Chinese plantation company engineered by Dani district chief Natalis Tabuni, whose elections in 2012 and 2017 were marred by fraud allegations.

Papua’s ethnic Dani governor, Lukas Enembe, accused of playing an influential role in that exercise, took Tabuni on a trip to Shanghai in late 2019 to explore Chinese interest in a 300-megawatt hydroelectric project to supply electricity to Freeport.

But that has gone nowhere since and the mining company is now in the process of adding 112-MW to its 195-MW of installed coal-fired capacity needed to power an extensive electric railway for its newly-expanded underground operation.

Another potential flashpoint is the 4-5 million ounce Wabu gold deposit, which has attracted increasing attention from miners now that an access road is nearing completion from Enarotali to Bilogai, Intan Jaya’s ramshackle administrative seat.

Two years ago, in what underscores the complexity of Papua’s inter-tribal relations, the killing of a local policeman led to a face-off between the Moni and the Mee, another tribe who live along the western border with neighboring Paniai regency.

Tribal conflicts and lawlessness apart, the influx of settlers from Sulawesi and other islands looking for commercial opportunities has made the central government less inclined than ever to engage in dialogue with rebellious native Papuans.

A worker walks in an underground mine, part of the Grasberg copper and gold mine operated by an Indonesian subsidiary of Freeport-McMoRan Inc, near Timika, Papua province February 14, 2015 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. REUTERS/M Agung Rajasa/Antara Foto
A worker walks in an underground mine part of the Grasberg copper and gold mine in Papua. Photo: Antara Foto

Now in the minority and mostly grouped in the Central Highlands, they are regarded by the generals and hard-line nationalists in Jakarta as separatists who should be dealt with harshly for disturbing the country’s national unity.

Jakarta’s elite still has to learn a lesson from East Timor, the former Portuguese territory it invaded in 1975 and then was forced to relinquish in a United Nations-sanctioned referendum in November 1999 after 25 years of often brutal rule.

Indonesians always complained about the large amounts of money spent on the impoverished province now known as the independent state of Timor-Leste, without understanding that what was needed was a concerted campaign to win over the hearts and minds of the 873,000 Timorese.

The current mood in the capital was best captured by Jakarta-born Bambang Soesatyo, chairman of the People’s Consultative Assembly in urging an all-out campaign to crush the rebels. “Destroy them first,” he declared. “We will discuss human rights matters later.”