Indonesia facing upsurge in separatist violence from independence fighters in Papua

Indonesia facing upsurge in separatist violence from independence fighters in Papua

Indonesian authorities are scrambling to deal with an outbreak of separatist violence on one of Australia’s nearest neighbouring islands.

At least 19 people are dead – including a number of construction workers – after armed freedom fighters struck in Papua, the state bordering Papua New Guinea.

Although many Australians would be unaware of the conflict on our doorstep, violence and protests have been marring the relationship between Indonesia and Papua for decades. 

Indonesian soldiers prepare coffins

Indonesian soldiers prepare coffins

After the Dutch left the region, Papua became a part of Indonesia in 1969, in a UN-backed vote that was widely considered to be engineered in favour of integration.

Earlier this month pro-independence Papuans clashed with counter protesters in Surabaya, Indonesia. The protests were organised by the Papua Students’ Alliance, which demanded a referendum for independence.

Commemorating the day is prohibited in Indonesia, yet many Papuans commemorate it with ceremonies and protests.

Protesters in Indonesia

Protesters in Indonesia

Since coming to power in 2014, President Joko Widodo has pledged to hasten development and open up access to the resource-rich province, including the Trans Papua road project to link remote areas.

This latest attack occurred when gunmen stormed a bridge construction site in the mountainous Nduga district, opening fire on the construction workers.

Indonesia officials say the workers were civilians employed by state construction firm, PT Istaka Karya, which is building bridges for the Trans Papua highway.

A soldier was also among those killed when survivors reached a nearby military post, leading to a shootout. The separatist group were armed with military grade weapons, as well as spears and arrows

A spokesperson for the Papua police told the Associated Press that it was “the worst attack launched by the armed criminal group recently amid intensified development by the government”.

Soldiers speak to families

Soldiers speak to families

Security forces have tried to recover the bodies from the region, however gunman have separated and guarded them. Indonesian soldiers are currently on the hunt for individuals responsible for the attack.

Local police say the attack was triggered when locals Papuans witnessed a construction worker taking photos of a ceremony on December 1, a date many Papuans consider to be the anniversary of their would-be independence.

“The 1st December anniversary usually coincides with heightened pro-independence activities,” said Lowy Institute Non-Resident Fellow Matthew Busch.

“According to domestic press reports, the 1st of December saw a large number of arrests of pro-independence protesters.”

Mr Busch said Australians should be concerned about tension in Indonesia, however separatist groups are largely unstructured, and there is no significant political movement yet.

As foreign media access is heavily restricted in the region, there is still confusion over the exact timeline of events.

“It would certainly be in Australia’s interests to encourage the Indonesian government to make good on President Widodo’s 2015 commitment to fully lift a ban on foreign media travelling to and reporting on the provinces,” said Mr Busch.

© Nine Digital Pty Ltd 2018