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On Saturday, a report was released from the Saturday Paper alleging that on December 15th a village in the Nduga district was attacked by Indonesian Security Forces utilising white phosphorous chemical weapons. This claim comes after approximately 30 construction workers were shot and killed by separatist rebels during the building of a road in Nduga earlier this month, an event which has been labelled the deadliest incident of violence to occur in the region in years. As a result, the Indonesian Military (TNI) has increased its presence in the province in an attempt to bolster security and re-gain control.
Following the attack, security forces were sent to the area in order to investigate, resulting in the death of a soldier according to Al Jazeera. Accusations of the employment of chemical weapons in retaliation to the recent events have been met with strong denial by Indonesian officials, labelling the claims as ridiculous. Unfortunately, due to the remote location and lack of any international observers or correspondents to report on the incident, information has been rudimentary, limited mainly to photos and testimony of locals.
White phosphorus munitions can be utilised in smoke, incendiary and tracer munitions, though their use as an incendiary weapon was banned as part of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons Protocol III in 1980. TNI spokesperson Colonel Mumahammad Aidi claimed that, “If the TNI was using phosphorous bombs, the Nduga District would have been wiped out. All human beings and animals there would have been wiped out.” Meanwhile however, the Saturday paper reports that a military source identified the wounds seen in some of the photos that have surfaced as “incendiary or white phosphorus… even the smallest specks burn through clothing, skin, down to the bone.”
Certainly, if the use of such agents in this circumstance were to be confirmed it would cause an international outcry, especially considering the fierce reactions Syrian Leader Bashar Al-Assad has faced throughout the Syrian Civil War. With reference to the attacks that took place in Syria in April 2017 and the vivid images that followed, the use of chemical weapons even to a small extent is sure to draw attention to the troubled region, as well as to the Indonesian authorities and their military conduct.
These most recent events are new escalations in the violence that has dominated the impoverished region since the New York Agreement and Act of Free Choice in the 1960s. Since Indonesia assumed control, the Free Papua movement has served as an important vehicle for the Papuan people in the promotion of freedom of expression and vouching for independence.
500,000 Papuans have died as a result of the ongoing violence and, due to the restrictions on foreign journalists and international observers, the conflict rarely makes headlines and accurate information can be difficult to obtain through channels not within the Indonesian Government. For now, due to the remoteness of the area and the restrictions on foreign access, it is difficult to confirm the use and extent of the damage of the incident. What is more certain is that this was probably part of the Indonesian crackdown on the area following the killing of the 30 road workers, with no end in sight for the wider conflict.