INDONESIA. Papua: Officials claim that separatists in Papua, an Indonesian province where a New Zealand pilot was taken hostage in February, have been using government aid money to buy weapons on the illicit market for a deadly guerrilla conflict.
President Joko Widodo introduced the “Dana Desa” village fund in 2015, and it was valued at $4.7 billion this year. It has long been condemned for being prone to corruption.
Papuan separatists have been fighting for independence more than 3,000 kilometres (1,800 miles) from Jakarta since the area, which is rich in copper, gold, nickel, and natural gas, was annexed by Indonesia after a vote in 1969.
Lawyers and court records claim that the rising insurgency is occurring at the same time as a rise in the illegal weapon trade in the area, with the village fund serving as a major source of funding.
In 2015, only one instance of the illegal trade in firearms and ammunition was documented in Papua, according to court records and reports. By 2021, the number had climbed to 14.
In Nduga, where Susi Air pilot Phillip Mehrtens has been kept hostage for over three months, police are so concerned that the village fund is being used to purchase guns that they have requested that the central administration withhold the $14 million allocated to the area this year.
According to a Papua police spokesperson, if the police don’t stop it, the village fund will flow to the village and the rebels may continue to solicit for money to buy food or weapons.
A spokesman for the Nduga district government, Otomi Djiwangge, said that Dana Desa was “not supported by the right monitoring” and that the local government lacked the power to oversee it.
Djiwangge told the media that it is reasonable if the village fund is used loosely and anyone can do whatever they want with it.
He did not make any remark on the claim that the fund is used by rebels, as it was merely a presumption, according to media reports. It is not clear how much of the $337 million in village grants designated for the Papua area in 2023 is being used for armaments.
However, Faizal Ramadhani, the head of the Cartenz Peace Operations unit that is in charge of Papua’s security, said that approximately 40% of the illicit arms cases he looked into contained money from the Dana Desa project. He declined to give more information.
While denying the claim that Papuan separatists have been embezzling money, the finance ministry, which is in charge of distributing Dana Desa, claimed that procedures were in place to ensure the funds were used as intended, as per reports.
The fund was linked to 154 cases of alleged corruption in 2021, the most of any government spending, according to the NGO Indonesia Corruption Watch.
Sebby Sambom, a spokesman for the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB), the armed wing of the Free Papua Movement, denied that rebels had used village funds but acknowledged that the state had unintentionally funded the organisation in part.
“We have a rich land, so we do it our way. We can make money through gold mining and timber, as well as many government payments. We have a right to use that money,” he said.
Dana Desa, which was designed to promote economic growth, has more than tripled in size since 2015, yet others in Papua claim that little has changed as a result.
A tourist official in Intan Jaya, stated that he had “never seen a project funded by the village fund, not at all.” Instead, he claimed, fatal clashes that were once restricted to the wilderness now take place in the centre of the city.
Recent images made public show the increased firepower of Papua’s separatists, coupled with a threat to shoot Mehrtens if independence discussions don’t start within two months.
Deka Anwar of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) said that the rebels in Nduga were armed with a grenade launcher, several machine guns, and 18 assault rifles, including ones made by the government’s Pindad arms manufacturer.
He claimed that the days of Papuan rebels saving ammunition were over. He went on to say that they may now shoot for days. He stated that in the highlands of Papua, local revenues are used as a “revolutionary tax,” taken either through threats and coercion or voluntarily by pro-independence activists.
In the Papuan highlands, village heads frequently distribute the funds in cash after depositing them directly into village bank accounts.
Rebels in Papua have a lot of money, so buying guns is easy, according to another director of the Democracy Alliance for Papua (AIDP) and an attorney who handles cases involving illegal weapons purchases.
According to her, to make matters worse, rebels are largely buying weapons from unscrupulous military and police officers.