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Prabowo Subianto’s potential electoral triumph raises concerns for West Papua’s future

Prabowo’s likely presidency raises concerns for West Papua due to his past military involvement and contentious human rights record.



INDONESIA: The likely electoral victory for Indonesian military strongman Prabowo Subianto has sparked concerns about what his presidency might mean for West Papua.

With a contentious past marked by allegations of rights abuses and war crimes, Prabowo’s return to the political scene has stirred apprehension, particularly regarding his stance on the long-standing issues in the restive region of West Papua.

At the onset of the nomination process, presidential and vice-presidential candidates Prabowo-Gibran did not extensively address the issue of Papua in their vision and mission documents.

The mention of “Papua” was scant, with only a single reference found in Prabowo’s profile highlighting his involvement in the rescue of an expedition team held hostage by the Free Papua Movement (OPM) in 1996.

During the first Presidential Debate of 2024 at the General Elections Commission (KPU) complex in Jakarta on 12 December, Prabowo referenced separatist movements and terrorism.

He emphasized the need to protect Papuan citizens from armed terrorist groups, asserting his commitment to bolstering security forces if elected president.

However, a Senator from West Papua, Filep Wamafma, expressed dismay over Prabowo’s characterization of Papuans as terrorists, highlighting the danger of stigmatization.

Wamafma emphasized the importance of addressing human rights violations and achieving peace and development in the region, regardless of the president’s identity.

The labelling of Papuans as terrorists by Prabowo drew sharp criticism from various quarters, with concerns raised about the negative impact on Papuan communities’ perceptions of the president-elect.

Dr Filep, a graduate of Hasanuddin State University, stressed the sensitivity of such statements and their potential repercussions on the ground.

Prabowo’s military background intertwines with the complex history of Papua, notably his involvement in a crucial military operation in the region during his tenure as Commander of the Special Forces Corps (Kopassus).

Despite controversy surrounding his actions, his role in the hostage rescue operation in 1996 remains a significant part of Papua’s history.

The incident, which occurred on 8 January 1996, involved the abduction of 24 members of the Lorentz 95 Expedition conducting biological research in Mapenduma Village, Jayawijaya.

Led by separatist leader Daniel Yudas Kogoya, the OPM initially showed a willingness to negotiate but later escalated the situation, demanding independence for Papua.

In response, Prabowo proposed a military operation to secure the hostages’ release, a strategy eventually approved by military officials in Jakarta.

The operation concluded on 15 May 1996, with the liberation of the hostages, although two individuals lost their lives during the rescue mission.

Prabowo’s electoral victory marks a significant moment in Indonesian politics, with his controversial past and military ties stirring debate about the country’s democratic trajectory.

Critics highlight his troubling human rights record, including allegations of abduction and torture of democracy activists during the Suharto regime’s final years.

The 72-year-old’s human rights record, deemed shocking by both local and international observers, is primarily marked by allegations of commanding a unit involved in the abduction and torture of several democracy activists during the final years of the Suharto regime in the late 1990s.

Among the 23 victims, some survived, one perished, and 13 remain missing.

Consequently, he was discharged from the army and sought refuge in Jordan during the 2000s. However, he later returned to Indonesia, where he accumulated wealth in palm oil and mining before entering politics.

Some argue that he felt entitled to this sphere due to his political lineage, being born into an influential family deeply entrenched in Indonesian politics.


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