JAKARTA, Indonesia — Unidentified gunmen opened fire on a military convoy traveling along a road leading to the American-owned Freeport-McMoran Gold and Copper mine in Indonesia’s restive West Papua province Wednesday, the latest in a series of shootouts that have rocked the area since July.
Wednesday’s attack comes one day after about 600 additional troops arrived to help a security force already numbering more than 1,000 guard the road connecting the mine to the nearest city, Timika.
A string of violent shootings, all of them targeting Freeport employees in July and August, has killed several people, including one Australian. Wednesday’s shooting was the first to target military personnel. No casualties were reported.
Eight people, including two Freeport employees, had been arrested in connection with the previous attacks, but police said they are still searching for the actual gunmen.
Meanwhile, workers say the atmosphere around the mine remains tense. The company sent almost a thousand workers home for about two weeks following the first attack on July 11, though production was not affected and the workers have since returned. Drivers ferrying employees back and forth are now wearing flak jackets to protect themselves.
So what's going on?
Police have not said what the motives behind the shootings were, but spokesmen from both the military and the government were quick to blame a simmering Papuan separatist movement.
The Freeport mine, called Grasberg, has both the world’s largest reserves of recoverable copper and the world’s largest reserves of gold. For Papuans, most of whom still live in poverty despite the region’s wealth of natural resources, the Grasberg mine has long been a symbol of Jakarta’s centralized control and a natural target for freedom fighters. Human rights workers, however, doubt the Free Papua Movement, as it is known, has anywhere near the capabilities to carry out such attacks and instead blame ongoing feuds between the military and national police.
It’s not the first time shootings like these have occurred on this stretch of road. In 2002, two American schoolteachers and one Indonesian working at the mine were killed by gunmen.
The attack led to an FBI investigation. Ultimately a Papuan separatist, Antonius Wamang, confessed, saying he thought he was shooting at Indonesian soldiers.
But some human rights groups believe Wamang, who is serving life in prison, was set up by the military. They argue that the attack was staged to prolong security payments the mine had been making to the military for years but was, at the time, being pressured to suspend.
In the recent shootings, just as the attack in 2002, ballistics reports revealed that the bullets found at the scene came from the same weapons used by the military and police.
The Free Papua Movement, though having existed for almost 40 years, is not believed to be very well organized and is thought by analysts to have little to no weapons at its disposal. It is unlikely, they say, that anyone within the Free Papua Movement could access the kind of firepower necessary to carry out either the 2002 attacks or the most recent ones.
This time around, they say the shootings are more likely the result of conflicts between the national police, or POLRI, and military personnel, known as the TNI, who are competing for lucrative security arrangements around the mine and other dubious business activities there.
“Timika has become a site where an open war over money between TNI and POLRI is taking place. In 2008, Freeport paid $8 million in support costs to security forces, according to filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission,” said Eben Kirksey, an American anthropologist and expert on Papua, who had previously investigated the 2002 shootings.
Until recently, the Indonesian military had for decades been entangled in business affairs throughout the Indonesian archipelago, a process instigated by former strongman Suharto, who was ousted in 1998. Since the election of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, however, the military has undergone major reforms and many of those business arrangements have since been divested. Security at Freeport, for instance, was officially transferred from the military to the national police in 2007.
“TNI had financial incentive to stage the attack — a disturbance would show that POLRI was doing a poor job at providing security for this national project,” Kirksey added. “At the same time POLRI is now in a situation, much like they were with the 2002 attacks, where it is in their best interest to pursue evidence of TNI involvement. The battle between TNI and POLRI in Timika is a microcosm for a war between these two institutions on a national level.”
A spokesman for the military told The Jakarta Globe that he believed the Free Papua Movement had been trying to instigate a situation where the military would commit human rights abuses, thereby increasing international attention on Papua.
“They would applaud if we took strong action against them,” the spokesman said. “So we must be careful not to get trapped in that scenario.”
Wednesday’s attack on the military convoy, which was carrying at least one district commander, only muddles the case further.
“The jury is still out about who conducted these attacks. Allegations and denials are flying from all possible corners,” said Kirksey. “If investigators identify a marksman, my first questions will be: Where did they get their guns? And who trained them?”