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Worries in West Papua: Will Apache Attack Helicopters Sold to Indonesia Destroy Calls for Independence?

The pending sale is cause for concern for the people of West Papua, a region targeted by Indonesia for its rich resources and because of concerns over national unity.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Master Sgt. John Nimmo, Sr. / US Air Force

 
 
 
 

There has been talk of an arms deal between the United States and Indonesia. Reportedly on the table are eight Boeing AH-64 Apache helicopters. These are top-of-the-line attack machines, the best in their class.

The exact status of the deal is unclear, but all indications are that both Boeing and Indonesia have pushed things as far as they can and that the ball on whether to move forward with discussions is somewhere in the US government's court.

For American officials, the presumable cause for concern is the political fallout that could arise from permitting this kind of exchange with Indonesia, as its military is infamous for atrocities committed against the country's own people.

But the Americans must also be weighing the benefits the deal would bring. Not only would Indonesia upgrade its aging arsenal and Boeing make up for business it is losing as the US cuts defense spending, but President Obama would come that much closer to fulfilling his pledge to double exports by 2015.

For the black Melanesian people of West Papua, too, the deal would seem to matter greatly. The region, Indonesia's easternmost, is one of the most militarized places in the world [1]. Since the 1960s, Indonesia has maintained a continuous security presence there, ostensibly to counter a low-level separatist insurgency. It has also carried out a number of full-scale military campaigns, for the same reason. Indonesia is a land of incredible natural diversity, with hundreds of ethnic groups and languages spread across thousands of islands, and since it became independent in 1945, a fracturing of the unitary state has been what the country's nationalist leaders, the vast majority of whom are Javanese, fear most.

Since Indonesia annexed it in 1969, resource-rich West Papua has always been at odds with the central government. The region is unique in that it is the only place in the country subject to a virtual media blackout, with foreign journalists effectively barred from working there [2]. Despite the restrictions, however, reports of human rights abuses by the security forces filter out frequently.

Last winter, the Army and police concluded Operation Annihilate Matoa [3], a massive joint offensive in the remote central highlands. According to reports by West Papua Media, an independent outlet headquartered in Australia that draws from a network of trained West Papuan journalists, Indonesian troops in search of Free Papua Movement (OPM) commander Jhon Yogi forcibly evacuated more than 130 villages, torched countless homes and killed dozens of civilians.

The operation also involved crude helicopter attacks. Using commercial helicopters borrowed from an Australian gold mining company, troops perched in the sky threw tear gas and grenades, poured fuel onto the hamlets below, and strafed them with machine-gun fire. [3a]

Clean Sweep

The Apache deal first came to light in February when Indonesia's state news agency, Antara, reported that the parties only still needed to hammer out a purchase plan. The article, titled "Indonesia to buy Apache helicopters from US," sourced the Deputy Defense Minister, Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin [4a]. It gave the impression that the transaction was all but a certainty.

If so, it was only Boeing's latest Indonesian score. Last November, the plane maker secured the largest deal in its history when Indonesia's Lion Air, a private carrier, agreed to pay $21.7 billion for 230 Boeing Dreamliner jets. To win the contract, Boeing had fended off Europe's Airbus, its main rival in the commercial aircraft sector. It was a big victory and not just for Boeing, but also for Obama, who has worked hard to make US firms more competitive internationally in order to boost jobs at home.

 
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