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Indonesian sports fests risk becoming national tragedies

Two major sporting events in restive Papua are being seen as inviting targets by separatist rebels

Indonesian sports fests risk becoming national tragedies
Indonesian soldiers carry the coffins of comrades who were killed by rebels in Indonesia's breakaway region of Papua on their arrival at Sultan Hasanuddin Airport in Makassar, South Sulawesi, on Sept. 3. (Photo: AFP)

Tensions have escalated in Papua in recent weeks with more Indonesian soldiers and civilians killed in clashes with separatist rebels.
 
It has triggered further military retaliation which many people fear could prompt reprisals threatening the security of the country’s biggest national sports fest — the 20th National Sports Week — that will take place in the restive region next month.
 
The multi-sports event, held every four years, will be held for the first time in Papua and run from Oct. 2-15. It will be followed by Indonesia’s 16th Paralympic Games in November.
 
The West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB), the armed wing of the Free Papua Movement, claimed responsibility for the killing of four soldiers on Sept. 2. The group’s leader said it was not just revenge for the capture of several rebel fighters several days earlier but the precursor of more attacks.
 
Since being labeled a terrorist outfit early this year, the TPNPB has increased attacks against security forces. The group’s leaders claim that they are not afraid of Indonesian forces and that they are prepared to orchestrate more attacks.
 
The group is accordingly looking for potential targets to make their stamp at the national and international level. The October and November sporting events, therefore, offer the rebels a perfect opportunity to cause chaos.

Disrupting the sporting events could be a perfect opportunity for the rebels to demonstrate their capabilities and promote their cause for independence

To be held mainly in Jayapura, the capital of Papua province, and in neighboring districts, the two events will attract more than 7,000 athletes from 34 provinces who will participate in 37 sports. About 25,000 volunteers will also officiate at the events.
 
This year’s sporting festivals, initially planned for 2020 but suspended due to the pandemic, are crucial for the Indonesian government as they will help showcase to the public major development efforts in Papua and divert attention away from military-rebel tensions.

The main stadium where many events will be held is one of the government’s successful projects in the region.
 
Named after Papua governor Lukas Enembe, the government has spent more than US$270 million to build the 40,000-seat venue.

It’s the country’s second-biggest stadium after Jakarta’s Bung Karno Sports Stadium and took three years to build.
 
Disrupting the sporting events could be a perfect opportunity for the rebels to demonstrate their capabilities and promote their cause for independence that they have been pursuing for half a century.
 
A low-level insurgency has been simmering in Papua since the former Dutch colony became part of Indonesia following a controversial United Nations-sponsored referendum in 1969.
 
Dividing the region into two provinces — Papua and West Papua — in 1999 and extending the region’s autonomy status last month have not helped matters.
 
The last year has seen an upsurge in violence. Attacks have escalated, killing dozens of rebels, security forces and civilians.

The situation worsened when the militants killed the head of the Papuan intelligence service, Brig. Gen. Putu Danny Nugraha Karya, during a shootout in April.

It prompted the government to designate Papuan separatist groups as terrorists to enable further punitive action against them and triggered extensive military operations.
 
Early this month, the police arrested four suspected separatists accused of involvement in the murder of two construction workers last month, and a suspected financier of the rebel movement.

In retaliation, a group of armed men attacked a military post in West Papua, killing four soldiers and seriously injuring two others.

It is also believed many Islamic terrorists are hiding in Papua who could also pose a threat to the sporting events

Many see this and the accompanying threat as a precursor to an attack on one of the upcoming sporting events. How they would go about carrying this out has everyone guessing.

They have become masters of guerrilla warfare, staging ambushes in remote areas with firearms and primitive weapons, but attacking a heavily guarded event is a different matter.
 
No one really knows how potent the Papuan militants have become, and one should not underestimate the possibility they could be cooperating with seasoned Islamic terrorists with bomb-making expertise.

It is also believed many Islamic terrorists are hiding in Papua who could also pose a threat to the sporting events or use them as a diversion to attack Christian targets.
 
The foiling by an anti-terror squad in May of a plot by members of the Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) terror group to attack Papuan churches in Merauke Archdiocese and a Catholic archbishop has heightened this fear.
 
Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs Mahfud MD has played down any threats and assured people the upcoming sporting events in Papua will run smoothly and security will be tight, with more than 6,000 police and soldiers deployed for the sports week next month and its lead-up with the arrival of participants starting from Sept. 20.
 
He failed, however, to allay concerns over possible religious targets. Hence, it’s important for police and soldiers to not only focus on security at the sports venues but also church facilities.
 
At the same time, authorities must ensure the participation of local people and nurture a sense of belonging so that the events are not seen as a government propaganda program but a community event that makes Papuans feel special again after years of discrimination and oppression.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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