Amid Crackdown, Indonesia Arrests Papuan Independence Leader

Victor Yeimo stands accused of organizing the wave of violent pro-independence protests that hit the region in August 2019.

Victor Yeimo as seen in a photo posted on his Facebook page on December 10, 2020.

Indonesian authorities have arrested a Papuan independence leader for his alleged role in orchestrating a spate of civil unrest in 2019, the latest sign of the central government’s growing crackdown in the eastern region. According to a report by Reuters, Victor Yeimo, 38, was arrested in the provincial capital of Jayapura on Sunday, national police spokesperson Iqbal Alqudusy said.

Polic accuse Yeimo, the international spokesman of the West Papua National Committee, of being the “mastermind” behind the wave of protests that shook Papua for several weeks in August 2019.

Specifically, he is accused of committing treason, inciting violence and social unrest, insulting the Indonesian national flag and anthem, and carrying weapons without a permit – a roll call of charges that suggests he may face a long time in prison.

The arrest of Yeimo, who has been arrested multiple times in the past for his political work, comes amid an intensifying government crackdown in Indonesia’s easternmost province, where Papuan separatists have been fighting for independence from Jakarta since the 1960s.

The crackdown is a blunt response to a recent uptick in attacks by the West Papua National Liberation Army (WPNLA), the military wing of the Free Papua Organization (Organisasi Papua Merdeka, OPM), one of the main pro-independence groups.

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On April 26, insurgents claimed their biggest scalp in years when they ambushed and assassinated Brig. Gen. Gusti Putu Danny Nugraha, the head of Indonesia’s intelligence agency in Papua. The WPNLA/OPM later claimed responsibility for the killing.

President Joko Widodo quickly vowed retribution for the killing, ordering the police and military “to chase and arrest” those responsible. His government has also dispatched to the region 400 elite troops who have earned the sobriquet “Satan’s forces” following their actions combating separatist rebels in East Timor and Aceh.

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A few days after the killing, Indonesia’s chief security minister also formally designated Papuan separatists as “terrorists,” a move that human rights groups and outside analysts say is likely to inflame further the region’s conflict.

Benny Wenda, an exiled Papuan independence leader, said that Yeimo’s arrest was a “sign to the world” that the Indonesian government was using its terrorist designation as a pretext for a widespread crackdown. “Any West Papuans who speak out about injustice – church leaders, local politicians, journalists – are now at risk of being labelled a ‘criminal’ or ‘terrorist’ and arrested or killed,” he told Asia Pacific Report.

Tensions have been on the rise for several years in Papua, which occupies the western half of the island of New Guinea and is formally divided into two provinces, Papua and West Papua.

In December 2018, separatists killed at least 16 workers who were building the 4,300-kilometer Trans-Papua highway, which snakes its way through the region’s hilly interior.

The highway is the subject of “The Road,” a recent book by Australian journalist John Martinkus, which examines how it has become a flashpoint for a number of long-running concerns about Indonesia’s governance of the region, including exploitation by foreign mining companies, environmental destruction, military occupation by Indonesian troops, and the influx of internal “transmigrants” from other parts of Indonesia.

Following the killings on the Trans-Papua highway, Indonesia deployed more troops in the region – more than 21,000 have reportedly arrived in the region over the past three years – and exacted retribution on villages in the vicinity. In the 18 months following the killings, according to Martinkus, the military forced some 45,000 people to flee their homes into the limbo of internal displacement camps.

The August 2019 unrest erupted in Papua after a mob taunted Papuan students in Surabaya with racial epithets, calling them “monkeys” after they were accused of desecrating the Indonesian flag.

Yeimo’s arrest is unlikely to spell the end of local protests against Jakarta’s rule. Indeed, the opposite is more likely true. Veronica Koman, an exiled human rights advocate who focuses on Papua, wrote on Twitter yesterday that popular anger has been building since separatist groups were designated “terrorists” two weeks ago.

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“Indonesia is giving a momentum for West Papuans to take to the streets again,” she wrote. “Several organizations have announced they would mobilize if Victor Yeimo was not released.”