Scenes of terror and destruction have erupted around the Papua New Guinea’s frontier town of Vanimo, as an unprecedented and contentious PNG military operation against unarmed West Papuan refugees has arrested scores and burned over 30 houses to the ground.
79 people (28 Men, 24 Women and 27 Children) are currently being held in cramped and hot conditions at an interim processing facility outside the Vanimo Police Station, which has been taken over by police from Port Moresby after local police refused to cooperate. Special taskforce Police are refusing to provide meals, which are having to be supplied by the local Vanimo Catholic diocese, although there are no current allegations of mistreatment whilst in custody.
Nine men have been charged with unspecified charges relating to armed activities though refugee advocates have denied that these people are residents of the camps raided. Enquiries by West Papua Media have found none have access to legal representation at this stage.
On January 23 at Blackwater refugee camp outside Vanimo, 19 houses were set on fire by Police and Soldiers from Port Moresby, while residents were rounded up on trucks and taken to Vanimo Police Station. According to a detailed witness report provided by the coordinator of West Papuan refugees living in Vanimo, Barias Jikwa, the operation began at 1:00 am local time when houses were surrounded, and houses began to be razed at 04:00 am. Troops then used spades and guns to destroy the refugees’ food and edible crops.
Border Security Operation
Confusion and official intransigence has surrounded the border security Operation Sunset Merona. by PNG Defence Force (PNGDF), Police, Customs, and Foreign Affairs officials. Troops from PNGDF’s 1st Royal Pacific Islands Regiment (1RPIR) flew in from Port Moresby in January under the command of Joint Forces Commander Jerry Frank together with out of area general police officers from Boroko, Bomana, Gordons, and Waigani.
The elite and often notorious Mobile Brigade were not included in the operation, although human rights sources have drawn attention to the standard operating procedure of house burnings that Mobile Brigade have employed with squatters and landowners affected by mining and forestry.
Sunset Merona was originally announced as a law enforcement exercise to counter the illegal flow of goods across the border from Indonesian military (Tentara Nasional Indonesia or TNI) sources that were hurting indigenous PNG businesses, and to ensure there were no illegal workers within the logging companies from Malaysia and Indonesia operating at the PNG – West Papua border. Most shops in Vanimo are owned by non-Papuans, and all sell goods of non-PNG origin at marked up prices, but still vastly cheaper than PNG produced goods. To date, there is no verifiable information that vendors of illegal goods have been caught up the security dragnet.
According to the West Papuan Refugee Relief Association (WPRRA) in Vanimo, a registered NGO, the raids were carried out “after a week of operation on the legal permits and identities of logging workers from Malaysia and Indonesia who spread across Vanimo, Madang and Wewak and besides logging activities, who also dominate the marketplaces of those provinces right now.”
The offensive, dubbed a politically motivated stunt by dissident members of PNG security forces, descended on remote border camps and villages and made arrests of logging workers and Indonesian military personnel, though it is believed these initial arrestees were released to make way for Refugee arrests after protest from Indonesian diplomatic representatives in Vanimo.
Up to 700 personnel are reportedly involved across PNG, though the joint force in Vanimo currently numbers only 150 personnel.
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The offensive is exposing deep divisions in PNG security personnel, with several local security officers being stood down during the operation for “refusing to work for Indonesian interests”. One security source who wished to remain anonymous said: “This operation is a stunt; a political charade”. He went on to further explain that the sudden change of tactic may have also been created by a hazy early January violent incident between Indonesian and PNGDF soldiers inside Batas, the vast TNI owned shopping complex just metres from the PNG border at Wutung.
After several weeks of rumours and uncertainty surrounding the true purpose of Sunset Merona, the operation has deteriorated into an offensive against Indonesia’s enemies in PNG, the West Papuan people.
“Once again, this stunt operation is deeply suspicious in its timing, with Indonesia currently engaged in a systematic sweep and terror campaign for nonviolent activists from Jayapura to the border. The questions PNG people need to have answered is, are these two offensives working in conjunction with one another, and what kind of Melanesians are we to do the Jakarta’s work?”
In Yako village, 18 houses were burned down, and possessions and food gardens were systematically destroyed by troops. Yako camp housed over 50 families forced out of Blakwara camp by threats from local landowners allegedly in league with Indonesian military linked logging interests.
A spokesperson for the Blakwara community, Yalli Jikwa, 39, said: “The arrest of villagers and burning of houses is a violation of our rights as refugees, and the PNG government must take responsibility for its actions.”
Also under attack were the villages of Dawi, Wara Duanda, Musu, Dasi, Warakarap, Ambas, Bebfsi and Skotchiou. Houses have been confirmed razed at Dawi (4 houses), Bebfsi (3) and Musu (At least 4), with unconfirmed reports of every other village targeted having burnt houses. Local human rights monitors are still attempting to confirm the situation in other villages.
There have been no confirmed reports to date that any person has been shot or any weapons discharged in these operations so far. Some early allegations of severe mistreatment (beatings) in Blakwara and Yako, with over at least ten people still in the Vanimo Hospital currently being treated for their injuries.
Local human rights sources have reported that all villagers and refugees fled to the surrounding jungle prior to the raids, and have not retaliated. Amongst those fleeing were large numbers of guerrillas who have been asked by PNGDF to surrender, but are so far ignoring the request.
The RPNGC commander of Joint Forces for Operation Sunset Merona, Jerry Frank, has described all the arrested people as separatists despite clear information that almost all refugees at the attacked camps had been registered as refugees and/or permissive residents for many years, and many were non-political.
Radio NZ International has reported that PNG authorities have arbitrarily decided that anyone found not be a citizen of PNG will be considered an OPM activist and sent to East Awin refugee camp, which although overflowing, is under the control of the UNHCR and attended closely by Catholic relief agencies.
However, PNG’s acting deputy police commissioner Fred Yakasa acknowledged that they cannot return refugees to Indonesia to face possible arrest or execution . “It would be wrong to send those people back to Papua to an unknown fate,” Yakasa stated. “We respect Indonesia and West Irian as an integral part of Indonesia and that respect is there and we just want to make sure no rebel activity or anything of that nature advances on our side of the border.”
Dissident police officers in Sandaun see it differently. “Far from defending PNGs sovereignty, we are asking `how high’ before the TNI thugs even tell us to jump,” explained a senior security source in Sandaun on condition of anonymity. “It is like somebody fears they lose out on their logging spoils”.
West Papuan refugees spoken with by West Papua Media also paint an entirely different picture to that put forward by Somare’s operation. They have accused the Prime Minister Michael Somare of acceding to clandestine Indonesian demands, and acting to preserve his alleged business interests with the Indonesian military.
“How dare he treat his own wantoks like this for the Indonesians. We are not Indonesians. We are West Papuans, which is why we fled from the brutality of the Indonesian military year after year. Our whole lives have been in limbo in Papua New Guinea, denied education, denied jobs, even when some of us have been welcomed as wantoks by good hearted PNG folk. And now this criminal Somare is treating peaceful refugees like this just so he can please his bosses in Jakarta and safeguard his retirement bilas (trinkets),” said one elderly West Papuan refugee who was too angry to give his name when spoken to by West Papua Media by phone yesterday.
PM Somare recently stood aside pending investigation on corruption and official misconduct charges, but has quietly reinstated himself into the Prime Ministership functions with little protest from PNG political figures, many of whom also have documented involvement with Indonesian military business interests. However this operation has been in planning for several months, with almost K2.5 million budgeted for a six week initial operation, with the possibility of extension.
Local Business Complexities
Refugee spokespeople have alluded to local business interests playing a significant role in the evictions, which local security sources have confirmed. Most refugee camps targeted in this operation are surrounded by extremely valuable timber resources, and logging interests and national power politics are playing a significant part in the recent events.
The MP for Vanimo-Green River, Belden Namah, whose family traditionally provide refuge for both the OPM and refugees, has publicly condoned the harsh operations. As the villages were being razed Namah issued a statement criticising the Sunset Merona personnel, not for their harsh treatment of civilians, but for allegedly encouraging local people to demand logging companies pay for timber they remove from forests.
“This is very, very disgraceful,” Namah said, “It is a national disgrace for landowners to be told by security forces to set road blocks to collect road levies, when such infrastructures are national assets,” he said.
Under the PNG Constitution, Land belongs to the people, and it is not legally a national asset unless a specific act of Parliament has been enacted. Under these provisions, resource companies must legally pay for compensation for land they damage and resources they expropriate. Somare (and Namah) in June rammed through a change to the Environment and Conservation Act, but that is deemed by many in PNG to be unconstitutional.
“If they are targeting foreign workers for work permits, passports and other related documents, that is fine, but why are they encouraging the landowners to engage in actions that causes disruption and are destructive to the smooth operations of companies in the area….. The security forces must concentrate on the core focus of the operation.” Namah explained in his statement that this was to destroy OPM camps on the PNG side of the border.
At this point no allegations have been made to West Papua Media that Namah is influencing the operation, but as the local MP and a member of the Sandaun Provincial Security Committee, Namah is in a unique position to do so. Ironically, Namah came to power on the back of a concerted social movement resisting Indonesian control of logging, helping to create the GVG Moma landowner controlled co-operative ensuring community control and veto over unsustainable logging.
“Men, women and children have suffered for a very long time. The Government has abandoned its responsibility to the people, it seems. We must ensure that the benefits to the people are real and sustainable,” Namah explained in 2006.
Despite this, Namah is heavily involved as both a Forestry Minister, and an owner of major forestry businesses in Sandaun which have allegedly perpetrated serious environmental and social abuses against those opposed to unregulated clearance of old growth Papuan Jungle.
GVG Moma, which has increased its harvest since 2006 of highly valuable kwila/merbau, teak and other tropical hardwoods, are seeking to exploit the high value forest on which the refugee camps stand. According to local security sources, GVG Moma are also currently utilising the same distribution and personnel networks as when the TNI directly controlled Vanimo Forest Products prior to 2006.
The former PNGDF Captain Namah, who was gaoled and pardoned for his leading role in the Sandline mercenary crisis, has attracted significant controversy during his time as Forestry Minster for accruing significant wealth and property across the Pacific.
West Papua analysts have long been concerned about the connection between illegal logging in the area and the Indonesian military business interests having the potential to extend the already serious human rights abuses in West Papua into PNG territory.
Wikileaks recently revealed cables from the US Embassy in Jakarta that accused Indonesian military officers of deep involvement in illegal logging operations on both sides of the border. A 2006 cable details a briefing from a PNG government official reporting the TNI were ”involved in both illegal logging and drug smuggling in PNG”.
Local human rights and security sources are describing the atmosphere across Sandaun province as highly tense following the launch of the offensive. Since before PNG independence, there has long been widespread sympathy and tolerance for given West Papuans forced to flee violence safe refuge in the country. However, PNG also has a strong history of local businesses leaders working closely with Indonesian mercantile interests to clear refugees out of Sandaun, but this is the first time security forces in PNG have acted so blatantly in alliance with Indonesian policy of a military approach to rooting out West Papuan desires for independence.
Rumours are beginning to circulate that many ordinary people supporting West Papuans in Sandaun will take unspecified direct action to protest the treatment of their wantoks.
Local security forces refuse to co-operate.
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Troops from Operations Sunset Merona prior to deployment – Image source The Nation
Reports from security sources on the ground currently in Vanimo have confirmed to West Papua Media that soldiers from the local 2RPIR battalion were sidelined and local units of police were also refusing to cooperate with the operation.
The Provincial Commander of RPNGC in Sandaun Province, Sakuva Kasieng, was suspended by the RPNGC Commissioner for labelling the operation as politically motivated. West Papua Media unsuccessfully attempted to reach Kasieng for comment.
A Memorandum of Understanding was signed in December between Kasieng and the representatives of the Free Papua Movement (OPM – Organisasi Papua Merdeka) based in Sandaun, to allow training of OPM forces in civil resistance techniques. A senior intermediary for OPM units in the area who was responsible for the training, was not available for comment at time of writing, nor to confirm whether the training was offensive and armed, or for nonviolent civil resistance tactics. Regular civil resistance training of refugees by activists and leaders within the nonviolent movement has been conducted for many years in PNG.
However, refugees have categorically denied that any armed struggle or violence training had been conducted in, near, or with any members of the villages that were targeted by operation Sunset Merona. “The accusation that these villages were National Liberation Army training bases is completely false. These villages attacked have no connection at all to the TPN, and Somare knows it,” explained Yalli Jikwa.
Security and local sources familiar with the MoU have alleged that a senior (and elderly) Papuan resistance figure was displeased with the training program, and allegedly provided a copy of the MoU to Indonesian Special Forces agents stationed at the Indonesian Consulate in Vanimo.
The sources described a subsequent surprise inspection by an Indonesian “consultant” to Blakwara camp in mid-December as a catalyst that changed the officially tolerant PNG government attitude to the camps that has been in existence since 1963.
West Papua and security analysts across the Pacific have long feared that cross border “hot pursuit” operations carried by Indonesian troops may draw other countries into a regional conflict. There is suspicion the TNI has pressured the PNGDF to act as its proxy to achieve its military objectives of neutralising the West Papuan resistance, and therefore avoid the potential for border violation. However, both Jakarta and Waigani deny this.
The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs was unable to provide comment prior to deadline.
Uncertainty for Refugees already in Limbo
PNG is home to around 12,000 West Papuan refugees who have fled Indonesian state violence in several major waves since occupation began in 1962. Several hundred refugees accepted facilitated repatriation last year with guarantees of land, cash and non-persecution. However the majority of refugees present say they have a well founded fear of persecution and cannot return. Refugees are deemed by PNG as permissive non-citizens which enables them to work but not to gain any legal certainty in housing, education or as citizens.
The refugee relief NGO WPRRA are demanding that the PNG government are called to account for their “inhuman operations against refugees who took refuge in PNG due to the Indonesian brutalities”, and that the governments of Vanuatu, New Zealand and others assist these displaced West Papuan refugees to seek asylum in a third country. WPRRA have also called on the international community to assist in “ensuring the fundamental rights of West Papuans in PNG are respected and protected according to the international law on refugees and human rights.”
The UNHCR is concerned about the attacks on refugees, and potential for inappropriate actions to escalate. “Our PNG Representative is closely monitoring the situation and in contact with the relevant authorities to ensure the principle of non-refoulement is being respected as the situation becomes clearer,” said Richard Towle, Australia/ PNG Regional Representative for UNHCR.
Nick Chesterfield is a founder and editor of West Papua Media. This breaking news report is available for syndication and republication. Please contact westpapuamedia.info for further information.