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Papuan Rebels Succumb to Kremlin War Propaganda

Supporters of independence for West Papua at a rally in Jakarta on December 1, 2021, marking the 60th anniversary of the failed efforts by Papuan tribal chiefs to declare independence from Dutch colonial rule in 1961. (Tatan Syuflana/Associated Press)
Sebby Sambom

Sebby Sambom

TPNPB-OPM spokesman

“Russia's attack on Ukraine is natural and reasonable because the Ukrainian government, through its military and police forces, carried out genocide against indigenous Ukrainians in two regions that wanted their own independence.”


On March 2, separatist militants in Indonesia’s Papua province killed eight technicians fixing a telecom tower in the remote village of Beoga.

The attack, the bloodiest since 2018, was carried out by the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB), the armed wing of the Free Papua Movement (OPM).

The same day, militants attacked a military post in the same district, wounding a soldier.

Papua, the western portion of the Melanesian island of New Guinea, is under Indonesian control. But Papua is split into two provinces — Papua and West Papua. Rebels in West Papua have been fighting for independence for decades.

A spokesman for the rebel group, Sebby Sambom, took credit for the attacks, telling the Associated Press that Indonesians working on government projects in rebel-claimed areas would be viewed as being part of security forces.

On March 5, Sambom weighed in on another conflict – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He criticized Indonesia for joining 140 other countries in condemning Russia and demanding that Russian forces in Ukraine immediately withdraw.

Sambom also rebuked Indonesia for joining the United States in criticizing Russia’s invasion while “hiding the crimes” of Indonesia against indigenous Papuans. He said both Indonesia and Ukraine are “evil countries” and “stooges of American capitalists.”

“Russia's attack on Ukraine is natural and reasonable because the Ukrainian government, through its military and police forces, carried genocide against indigenous Ukrainians in two regions that wanted their own independence,” Sambom said.

“So basically, the Russian government supports Ukrainian separatist groups. And Russia has to do that in order to side with and help the weak Ukrainian separatist groups, who are people of the same family as Russia.”

Sambom’s reading of the situation in Ukraine is based on false narratives put out by Russia to justify its unprovoked attack on Ukraine. Chinese media, which has a growing media presence in Indonesia, have amplified those narratives.

On February 16, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price accurately assessed that allegations of genocide, including reports of “unmarked mass graves of civilians allegedly killed by Ukrainian armed forces,” and allegations that the United States or Ukraine is developing biological or chemical weapons, “are false narratives that Russia is developing for use as a pretext for military action against Ukraine.”

A State Department fact sheet released in January said there were “no credible reports” of ethnic Russians or Russian speakers being under threat from the Ukrainian government. It noted, however, that ethnic Ukrainians in Russian-occupied Crimea and the Donbas had faced “suppression of their culture and national identity.”

While 14,000 people were killed during eight years of Russia-fomented conflict in eastern Ukraine prior to Russia’s February 24 invasion, loss of life occurred on both sides.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reported last October that at least 3,393 civilians had been killed in the Ukraine conflict from April 2014 to September 2021, including 298 civilians killed when Russia-backed fighters shot down Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 in July 2014.

Since February 24, the number of casualties has drastically increased. As previously reported, the OHCHR found almost as many civilians were killed during the first five days of Russia's invasion than in the prior four years of war in the Donbas region.

The OHCHR now estimates 691 Ukrainians have been killed since February 24, when Russia launched its invasion, many as a result of indiscriminate shelling, missile and air strikes. The OHCHR believes the actual death toll is much higher.

Ukrainian authorities in the besieged city of Mariupol claim Russia's assault has already killed 2,500 people. Photos have shown mass graves in Mariupol.

In July 2021, the OHCHR condemned human rights violations by Russian-backed forces and Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine, including arbitrary detention and torture. The OHCHR reported that arbitrary detentions had drastically declined in Ukrainian government-controlled territory, but not in separatist-backed areas.

Ukrainian service members stand on the front line near the city of Novoluhanske in the Donetsk region on February 22, 2022.
Ukrainian service members stand on the front line near the city of Novoluhanske in the Donetsk region on February 22, 2022.

None of these actions rises to the level of genocide, which, according to the United Nations, requires “proven intent on the part of perpetrators to physically destroy a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”

The U.N. notes that “cultural destruction does not suffice, nor does an intention to simply disperse a group.”

Human rights groups have expressed concern over a Ukrainian language law that makes Ukrainian “the only official state language.” It requires that publications in some languages be accompanied by a Ukrainian equivalent.

English is an exception; Russian is not.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said that while Ukraine’s government “has every right to promote its state language and strengthen its national identity,” it should “ensure a balance in its language policy, to avoid discrimination against linguistic minorities.”

Still, there is no systematic persecution of Russian-speakers in Ukraine, and the Russian language is widely used throughout the country. The country’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is a native Russian speaker.

By contrast, there is evidence the Ukrainian language is being suppressed in the Russian-backed breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics.”

Meantime, the views expressed by Papuan rebel spokesman Sebby Sambom reflect a broader trend throughout Indonesia.

The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported that some Indonesian Chinese had been receptive to Chinese-language messages on social media supporting Russia’s talking points on Ukraine.

That has been traced to aggressive messaging from Beijing denying it was the source of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kezia Dewi, an Indonesian doctoral student at the Belgian university KU Leuven, told the South China Morning Post that many Indonesian Chinese had gone on the defensive against what they perceived as U.S. bullying of China and the Chinese over the COVID-19 origin issue.

Keiza said existing anti-U.S. sentiment and empathy for China had extended to support for Russia –– a fellow U.S. rival.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also found support from some within Western New Guinea’s Muslim minority, fueled by a perception that “Putin is more pro-Islam” than the United States.

Radityo Dharmaputra, a lecturer at Indonesia’s Airlangga University, wrote that Russia’s state-funded media and social media have been used “to improve public perceptions of the country, and portray Russia as non-communist and pro-Islam.”

Anti-American attitudes over its war on terror, and perceived Western hypocrisy, especially over the rush to aid Ukrainians but not Palestinians, are also contributing to support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Still, the indigenous population of Western New Guinea, also known as Papua or Indonesian New Guinea, are neither ethnically Chinese nor Muslim. More than 84 percent have identified as Christian, and less than 1 percent as Muslim.

In 1963, Indonesia gained control over Papua in what some have called an invasion, although that framing is disputed. The United Nations referendum that led to Papua’s incorporation into Indonesia in 1969 is largely viewed as a sham. Papuan rebels have been fighting a low-level insurgency in Indonesia since the 1960s.

On March 1, the U.N. said the security situation in the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua had “dramatically deteriorated” since rebels killed a high-ranking Indonesian military officer in West Papua on April 26, 2021.

The recent attacks came shortly after U.N. human rights experts reported “shocking abuses” by Indonesian security forces against indigenous Papuans in the provinces of Papua and West Papua, “including child killings, disappearances, torture and mass displacement of people.”

They estimated that 60,000 to 100,000 people have been displaced since December 2018.

On March 7, the militants carried out two other attacks on workers in Papua province, killing one and injuring three.

Clarification: This fact check has been edited to clarify that whether Indonesia "invaded" Papua in 1963 is a matter of dispute.