The Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) now has its two highest ranking Papua-born officers in charge of the regional commands covering the easternmost provinces of West Papua and Papua, where recent riots have caused widespread damage in the region’s biggest city of Jayapura.

Analysts saw the appointment of Major-General Joppye Onesimus, 57, and Major-General Herman Asaribab, 55, to the Manokwari-based Cassowary (West Papua) and Jayapura-based Cendrawasih (Papua) commands as high-level acknowledgement that the army is part of the troubled territory’s problems.

But it remains to be seen whether the unprecedented appointments will help to mollify Papuan resentment of the long history of Jakarta’s racism, discrimination and rights abuses that lie at the heart of the unrest.

The move was not without confusion, however. Two changes were made on the same day, with one newly promoted general ending up where he started three weeks ago – staying on in Jakarta.

Although the national police are in charge of internal security, hundreds of army reinforcements have poured into the region to quell the worst disturbances in years, which have left at least six people dead.

Police have made scores of arrests in several Papuan cities and with an uneasy calm returning to much of the territory, chief security minister Wiranto has issued warnings banning further demonstrations.

An armed Indonesian policeman stands guard near a burning building in Papua’s Jayapura, August 29, 2019. Photo: AFP/Indra Thamrin Hatta

The unrest was sparked by an incident in the East Java port city of Surabaya on August 19, when police and a mob of civilians shouting racist insults roughed up a group of Papuan students they accused of defiling an Indonesian flag outside their dormitory.

The worst of the riots have raged in Jayapura, with police reporting a trail of burned-out offices, shops, gas stations, restaurants, cars and motorcycles stretching from the city center to the district of Apebura on the Papua New Guinea border.

Sources familiar with the situation fear a volatile confrontation may be looming between indigenous Papuans and ethnic Buginese traders from South Sulawesi who make up the bulk of outside settlers and have suffered the most from the destruction.

A government-imposed Internet blackout remains in force across the region to prevent the spread of inflammatory messages over social media, similar to measures taken following post-election riots in Jakarta in May.

Ombudsmen say because the Information Ministry has failed to enforce the registration of pre-paid cellular numbers, it has been difficult to trace the source of hoaxes and provocative messaging that have contributed to tensions.

Inevitably, many of the protestors have demanded a referendum on independence, similar to the one that saw East Timor separate from Indonesia in 1999, a call the government has consistently refused to countenance.

Papua’s military rotation began last August 14 when TNI headquarters moved Onesimus from Manokwari, where he had served the previous three years, to Jayapura, bringing in Java-born special forces veteran Major-General Santos Gunawan Matondang, 56, to take his place.

Indonesian soldiers with Papua protesters in Jayapura on September 1, 2019. Photo: AFP/Handout /Indonesian Military

But the change of command never took place and on August 30, 11 days after the riots erupted, TNI chief Air Chief Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto moved Matondang to West Kalimantan instead and appointed Asaribab as the new West Papua regional commander.

Hours later, a new order came down transferring Matondang, a 1987 military academy classmate of Tjajanto, back to a staff job at army headquarters and replacing him with Muhammad Nur Rahmad, the region’s existing chief of staff.

The wording in the second directive suggests army commander General Andika Perkasa may have either objected to or otherwise intervened in the appointment of Matondang, whose career record shows little or no Papuan experience.

For analysts with long memories, a single-day change of command has not happened since 1998 when Army Strategic Reserve (Kostrad) chief Lieutenant General Johny Lumintang was abruptly removed from the job only 18 hours after his appointment.

That was in response to protests from senior Muslim officers who complained that a Christian should not be given such a key post; since the birth of the democratic era, a serving Christian officer has never been given a fourth star.

In this case – and under prevailing circumstances – a Papuan heritage appears to have taken on new importance. Onesmus was born on Yapen, an island off the northern coast of West Papua; Asaribab, an infantryman and the father of three children, hails from Jayapura.

Major-General Herman Asaribab (R) was recently appointed to the Jayapura-based Cendrawasih (Papua) command. Photo: Facebook

Indonesian Papua was originally covered by the single Cendrawasih command, known as Kodam XVII, which includes a specially-trained raider infantry battalion, a cavalry unit and three engineering detachments used for road-building in difficult terrain.

Cassowary was added in 2016 with its own raider battalion and a second territorial battalion for security operations across what is usually the more peaceful half of the territory, mostly free of Free Papua Movement (OPM) rebel fighters.

There have been 36 commanders, several destined to become head of the armed forces and the army, since Cendrawasih was established in mid-1963, the year the United Nations Temporary Executive Authority transferred Papua’s administration to Indonesia.

Like Lumintang in the two years before his short-lived promotion, a majority of them have been Christian in keeping with the dominant religion of the two provinces, which voted overwhelmingly for Joko Widodo in last April’s divisive presidential elections.

Six of the last eight commanders going back to 2008 have either been Christian or, in one case, Balinese, but no Papuan officers had ever held the post before Onesmus finally received his second star.

Analysts question how a Papuan general’s approach may be different when he has been brought up in a military culture where separatism and efforts to sew discord are often treated harshly.

But perceptions may be important to the local populace at a time when the government is struggling to put a lid on the unrest, which by chance has been taking place at the same time as the 20th anniversary of East Timor’s bloody separation from Indonesia.