Soldiers in classrooms a lasting legacy in West Papua

Indonesian military officer addresses a school class in West Papua, September 2021 Photo: Supplied

Church leaders warn the presence of Indonesian soldiers in classrooms in West Papua is proving traumatic for children in a region mired in conflict.

Similarly, Indonesian military (TNI) are working on the health front-line, which feeds into mistrust among some Papuan communities, making them reluctant to seek treatment for disease or get vaccinated against Covid-19.

Military involvement on the front-line of basic services in Papua is a concern to local church leaders during a time of crisis due to the pandemic, state crackdown on freedom of expression as well as ongoing armed conflict between West Papuan pro-independence fighters and Indonesian security forces.

Violence flared again this month in West Papua’s Maybrat regency where four Indonesian soldiers were killed in an ambush on a military post for which a faction of the West Papua Liberation Army claimed responsibility for. Amid the ensuing military response, thousands of local villagers have been displaced.

Pancasila role

Indonesia’s military serves a function of spreading Pancasila, the national ideology, where it is considered lacking, such as in Papua region.

While there are teacher shortages in Papua – particularly in several conflict-affected highlands regencies – it is not unusual for military personnel to deploy to affected districts to step into these roles.

The military has been active in education in Papua and other frontier parts of the republic for several years, according to Indonesian researcher, Hipo Wangge, a PhD student at the Australian National University who has studied the wide-ranging impacts of displacement due to conflict in Papua’s central highlands.

“In 2013, the Papuan provincial education agency signed a memorandum of understanding with the Papua provincial command to assign the soldiers to teach in remote areas, particularly highland and mountainous areas,” he said.

West Papuan villagers flee their homes due to armed conflict in Maybrat regency, September 2021. Photo: Supplied

Wangge said that the TNI’s teaching role was not confined to the central highlands.

Some schools, such as in lowland areas, were relatively supportive of having soldiers in their classrooms, particularly in areas that haven’t experienced conflict, he said.

But Wangge observed that in his experience talking to teachers posted to the highlands, students in this region were badly affected.

“Students are cautious in conflict areas, such as Nduga, Puncak, and Yahukimo, and they were traumatic and feared to see the soldiers coming to their schools.”

For communities caught in the middle of a conflict, their students can be compromised by the military function in the school system, while the type of education they receive is open to question.

“Teaching is part of a territorial operation, in which the military is involved in non-military primary duties, trying to get support from the locals, garner intelligence information, and absorb national ideology, such as the country’s archipelagic concept to people, including the Papuans,” Wangge explained.

The military says it is working with regents to help displaced communities be assured of safety and normal services in areas where the Liberation Army has launched attacks. It is also building roads and bridges, more of the infrastructure work which provided a flashpoint for escalation of the highlands conflict three years ago.

Militarisation of Papua in itself may only be adding to the cycle of disruption in education and health services.

The President of the Fellowship of Baptist Churches of West Papua, Reverend Socratez Sofyan Yoman, alleges it is by design.

“The military itself creates conflict and teachers run away from their work places and schools without teachers and are replaced by members of the Indonesian army,” he said.

“The negative impacts on education and health are dire in the short, medium and long term.”

Access via health

Indonesia’s military are also on the front-line of healthcare in Papua, deployed ostensibly to help local staff treat patients and in these Covid-19 times, to boost vaccination

Not just in the rural areas, but also Papua’s cities such as Jayapura, Manokwari, Wamena, and Merauke, the TNI provides a key logistical link in distributing vaccine supplies and medical equipment.

Before the pandemic, military was already involved in medical treatment of Papuans, which is a concern to locals like Reverend Bernadus Bovitwoss Baru, the director of the Augustinian Justice & Peace Office in West Papua.

“Some of the medical personnel are the members of the state and military intelligence services,” he said, adding that TNI participation in health service programmes was increasing.

“Indonesia military is using this moment of conflicts to take care the refugees to help them for health service.”

Reverend Bernadus claimed the military role in services was aimed at projecting an image, and getting access to Papuan communities.

“By this method, they can able to identification some of TPNPB-OPM (The West Papua Liberation Army) members as well as them families.”

Indonesia’s military have been working in health services at sub-district and village levels in West Papua, including for Covid-19 response. September 2021. Photo: TNI

An Indonesian military commander in Papua, Brigadier General Djoko Andoko, Kasdam XVIII/Kasuari, said soldiers were working hard at village and sub-district levels to deliver better health outcomes for local communities. This included helping local health authorities respond to the pandemic.

Military personnel from a range of positions were working to assist health workers in order to accelerate the rollout of vaccination against Covid-19, he said in West Papua last week.

Indonesian health authorities have achieved a far higher level of vaccination against Covid-19 in West Papua than their counterparts in neighbouring Papua New Guinea.

But given the history of Indonesian military operations in West Papua, many grassroots communities there are against vaccination expressly because they are wary of the TNI involvement in the rollout, which complicates public health efforts to protect Papua from Covid.

“The locals treat their ills in their community, not at the hospital or health clinic, particularly in the central highlands,” Wangge said.

“Statistically speaking, the Papuans living in the central highlands have limited access to health services, partly because they are suspicious of government-run health facilities. Some indigenous Papuans still believe that the Indonesian health staff would make their condition worse if they go to the hospital.”

The sense of suspicion tracks right back to generations of Papuan kids in the classroom, where Reverend Bernadus said the military was embedded with the aim of indoctrinating Indonesian nationalism

However he said it resulted in trauma for children, having the effect of “creating the feeling of hate and revenge among the children to the Indonesia military, and “creating the sentiment of Papua’s nationalism”.

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