The armies of Indonesia and PNG are growing closer, causing turmoil on the border
Thirty years ago a band of Ndani villagers fled the early Abri military campaigns in the Baliem valley and walked through the icy mountains to the relative safety of Papua New Guinea. At about the same time the tribespeople from the border area whose lands stretch almost to Jayapura fled the military occupation and moved to their remaining lands in Bewani on the PNG side, where they established Schotio village and became PNG citizens.
Though poorly armed, these two groups formed the northern command of the OPM or Free Papua Organisation (Organisasi Papua Merdeka). They have been tolerated by the PNG army which until recently has (unofficially at least) put Melanesian solidarity before international pressure from Indonesia.
On May 5 this year a faction of this OPM led by Hans Bomay made an attack on Arso on the Indonesian side of the border. They killed 4 civilians with machetes and took a further 11 people hostage including seven women and four men all civilians. This action was met with outrage from West Papua independence and human rights groups inside Irian Jaya, who accused Hans Bomay of being supplied and sponsored by the Indonesian armed forces (still widely known as Abri despite a name change to TNI recently). The accusation was supported by accounts from the people who delivered the supplies of food and whisky to the gang, as well as by people from Arso who regularly see members of the Bomay gang driving around with Abri. It was also supported by a spokesman for the Bomay faction, Augustus Runtoboi, who admitted to having close ties with the Irian Jaya military commander Major General Sembiring.
The Bomay OPM members don't believe they've been compromised by Abri. Hans Bomay speaks of the Indonesians polluting his Melanesian race and talks of exterminating them all when the time comes. One OPM soldier said: 'The ones who give us supplies are good Koppasus ( Indonesian military elite). They want to be on our side when we have a free West Papua.' Certainly Indonesian whisky is so plentiful in some of these border villages it has become a form of local currency.
So why are Abri supporting these OPM guerrillas? According to West Papuan activists on the Indonesian side of the border, the Bomay gang are a useful propaganda tool. For Abri intelligence the bloody activities of the Bomay gang are a powerful tool in garnering support, both for their ongoing military activities and suppression of dissent within the province. Cenderawasih, the local Abri-controlled newspaper, uses the Bomay gang to justify security clamp-downs on nonviolent activists inside Jayapura. Last year the Bomay gang killed three people in Arso on June 26, just days before the nonviolent (on the part of the protesters at least) July 1 independence rallies throughout the province.
This year things went further. The Bomay gang became the bait to bring in the Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF). On May 29 the PNGDF launched their first joint operation with the Indonesian military, called 'Operation Selamat'. After three days the hostages were freed. Two members of the OPM, Lego Jikwa and Max Tago, were in custody, having volunteered to stay behind with the hostages whilst the others escaped. Max Tago, an OPM noncombatant, had been part of the negotiation team trying to broker the release of the hostages.
On May 31, Major General Singirok, the commander of the PNG armed forces, interrogated 62-year old radio operator Max Tago at Schotio base camp. Singirok then left him in the custody of members of Charlie Company under the command of Captain Oksap. Later that evening the villagers in Schotio heard gunshots. They later found Max Tago's body partially exposed in a shallow grave near the Schotio base camp with several bullet wounds to the head. On the same evening the other OPM member, Lego Jikwa, was taken to the Sandaun Motel in Vanimo, where he claims he was held in room 10 and tortured with a live power cord.
Bob Namah, one of the PNG government negotiators during the hostage crisis, has called for a coronial inquiry into the death of Max Tago. 'If the PNGDF vommander did not give the orders to execute Max Tago, then who did?', he asked in a statement tendered to a PNG court.
The next day, June 1, the officers of the PNGDF as well as two PNG federal ministers and members of the Niugini Intelligence Organisation (NIO) went to Jayapura, where they were given a heroes' welcome by Abri. According to Sandaun Provincial Governor John Tekwie and Aitape MP Eddy Saweni, Abri's hospitality included the provision of 35 prostitutes. Moreover, members of both the PNGDF and Abri say that during the two day visit a high ranking officer in the PNGDF was given a reasonably large amount of cash in US dollars by Abri officials. Major General Singirok and his family were also treated to a holiday on Biak Island by Abri.
Certainly members of the PNGDF are expressing a new loyalty to Abri. In late June I was accused of espionage and interrogated by members of the Niugini Intelligence Organisation in Vanimo. At one point one of my captors shouted: 'We don't trust Australia, we're with Abri now.'
Singirok has now agreed to another joint operation against the border villages, this time in Bewani in the north and Kiunga in the south. Villagers and noncombatants will suffer. The last campaign left Bewani in turmoil, squeezed between two armies. The PNGDF had forced some young men from Schotio to give up the positions of the OPM camps, and the Schotio people were terrified of reprisals from the OPM. Their school was shut as a result of the operation, and they had no access to markets or to medical supplies.
The PNGDF's new love affair with Abri may benefit some of its members. But joint operations against border villages are merely going to further destabilise the area. Bob Namah said: 'This is the first time that a West Papua brother has been killed by his own brother on his brother's land.'
Andrew Kilvert (email@example.com) is a journalist living in Darwin, Australia.