The West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB), the armed wing of the separatist Free Papua Movement (OPM), now appears to be specifically targeting the construction of the Trans-Papua Highway, one of President Joko Widodo’s flagship infrastructure projects.

In the latest incident last week, rebels killed three government soldiers, all members of the elite Indonesian Special Forces (Kopassus), in a firefight that went on for more than five hours in Papua’s Central Highlands district of Nduga.

Military spokesmen claimed seven to 10 rebels also died in the attack on a 25-man patrol, but only one body was reportedly recovered. Local TNPB commander Egianus Kogoya insisted on the movement’s website that his 50-strong force suffered no losses.

The March 7 shooting took place not far from the bridge where TPNPB fighters massacred 19 road workers last December in the bloodiest single incident since the controversial United Nations-administered 1969 Act of Free Choice made the former Dutch-controlled territory part of Indonesia.

The government has responded by sending in 600 troops from a South Sulawesi-based infantry battalion and a combat engineering unit which it says will take over construction of 20 bridges that have still to be built between Nduga and Wamena, the quasi highland capital.

The West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) has ramped up attacks on the Trans-Papua Highway project. Photo: Facebook

The rebels first signaled their intentions when they killed a road worker in December 2017. Three months later, four workers died in an attack on a section of the highway in Nduga’s neighboring district of Puncak Jaya, 120 kilometers northwest of Wamena.

Pin-prick attacks continued through June 2018 local elections, when gunmen also opened fire on a small transport plane which had brought Police Mobile Brigade reinforcements into the Nduga district capital of Kenyam to guard ballot boxes.

The way the poorly armed rebels were able to sustain the latest contact for so long suggests they have either found a new source of ammunition or, as is more likely, they have developed a better appreciation of fire discipline.

But it also shows that they are determined to slow construction of the road on its path from the coastal city of Sorong in the western Bird’s Head region across the rugged mountain chain to Merauke on the southeast coast bordering Papua New Guinea.

The targeting of the highway is reminiscent of the efforts by Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) insurgents to stop construction on a border road in northern Nan province in the 1970s which threatened to cut off infiltration routes from neighboring Laos.

More than 200 soldiers and road workers died before the work was finished in 1981, about the same time as the CPT started to fall apart as a result of internal disputes and a falling out between the communist parties of China and Vietnam.

A section of the still under construction Trans-Papua Highway. Photo: Ministry of Public Works
Construction on the yet-to-be-completed Trans-Papua Highway. Photo: Ministry of Public Works Indonesia

The 4,320-kilometer Trans-Papua Highway promises to bring important economic benefits, including lower costs for basic necessities, but Papuan leaders have long worried about the social impact of a project that will open up the Central Highlands for the first time to new settlers.

They say nothing has prepared the tribes for an influx of migrants from Sulawesi and other parts of eastern Indonesia who now outnumber indigenous Papuans by as much as 60-40 across the once-roadless territory.

More importantly, the rebels are well aware that the road will allow security forces easier access to areas that once could only be reached by helicopter or after days of slogging through difficult mountainous terrain.

While the TPNPB is only a shadow of the CPT and will never enjoy any level of outside support, it can tie up government security forces by making use of its local knowledge of the terrain and focusing its armed struggle on a single objective.

Previously, that objective had been Freeport McMoRan’s giant Grasberg copper and gold mine, 130 kilometers to the southwest, which still experiences pin-prick attacks despite being guarded by a police and military task force since the late 1990s.

The government has sought to play down the recent attacks, but presidential chief of staff General Moeldoko, a former armed forces commander, has objected to the TPNPB being referred to in official statements as an “armed criminal group.”

Indonesian President Joko Widodo posing with his motorbike as he embarks with a delegation to get a first hand look at the proposed Trans-Papua highway, from Wamena in the insurgency-hit region of Papua. Photo: AFP/Indonesian Presidential Palace Handout
Indonesian President Joko Widodo poses with a motorbike before embarking on a ride on the Trans-Papua Highway. Photo: AFP/ Handout

Moeldoko said last week that the rebels should be called separatists, a term that justifies military involvement, and not likened to a protection racket at Jakarta’s Tanah Abang textile market, which falls under the purview of the national police.

In TPNPB propaganda videos, the fighters appear to confine themselves to only one or two shots a minute, something they only can do by picking the time and place of their engagements.

Younger and more militant, Kogoya’s followers are part of a faction previously led by former OPM military commander Kelly Kwalik, who was killed in 2009 by the Detachment 88 counterterrorism unit then led by Tito Karnavian, the current national police chief.

It is believed the 200-strong group is armed with an assortment of 50 military-grade assault rifles, an estimate largely based on the number of weapons lost by the military and police in engagements over the past few years.

But their ammunition is still extremely limited, judging by recent engagements, and without external support they will likely never pose a serious military threat beyond stalling road construction projects designed to open their once-safe remote sanctuaries