The Free Papua Movement's (OPM) armed struggle against the Indonesian government appears to have entered a dangerous new phase after rebel fighters killed 20 construction workers and a soldier in the worst single incident in the country's troubled easternmost province on record.
Authorities blamed the December 1 massacre in the Central Highlands mountain district of Nguda on the National Liberation Army of West Papua (TPNPB), the OPM's armed wing, which follows a series of attacks dating back to local mid-year elections.
Given a long history of government over-reaction, human rights groups are now worried about the police and military launching a major sweep in search of the rebels who are armed with only a few firearms, machetes and bows and arrows.
The highest known death toll in a previous incident in Papua was in 1996, when a disturbed special forces lieutenant armed with an automatic rifle cut down 16 people, including 11 fellow soldiers, in an airport hangar in Timika, the largest town on the south coast.
Employed by state-owned construction company Istaka Karya, the workers were deployed to build a bridge where the 4,325-kilometer Trans-Papua Highway passes through Nduga, a known OPM hotspot that lies northeast of Freeport Indonesia's giant Grasberg mining operation.
Undated photo of the National Liberation Army of West Papua. Photo: Facebook
Early reports say the killings were triggered by one of the workers filming a pro-independence flag-raising ceremony, an activity banned by the Indonesian government and which has often led to mass arrests and violent security crackdowns.
But the OPM is also opposed to the road-building that will open up highland tribal areas for the first time via a path from the coastal city of Sorong in the western Bird's Head region across the Central Highlands to Merauke on the southeast coast.
National police chief Gen Tito Karnavian, who once headed the Papua regional command, confirmed the 21 death toll, which had earlier been put at between 24 and 31. But police and other independent sources differed on what exactly transpired.
According to one social media account, the workers were rounded up at gunpoint at PT Istaka Karya's construction camp, had their hands bound and were then frog-marched to the Karunggame River where they were summarily executed.
In a separate incident on December 3, one soldier died when the separatists attacked a nearby territorial battalion security post, forcing the small unit there to withdraw until the arrival of reinforcements.
Indonesian soldiers prepare to board a helicopter from Wamena in Papua province on December 5, 2018 to retrieve the bodies of the construction workers killed in Nduga. Photo: AFP/Anyong
Nduga and neighboring Puncak Jaya were the scene of a series of TPNPB attacks during the local elections last June, including two incidents where gunmen opened fire on aircraft waiting on the runway at Kenyam, the district capital. Two pilots were wounded in the attacks.
Papuan leaders have long worried about the social impact of the Trans-Papua road, saying nothing has prepared the tribes for the influx of migrants who now outnumber indigenous Papuans by as much as 60-40 across the once-roadless territory.
The combined population of Papua and West Papua provinces is estimated at 3.6 million, with 1.7 million listed as indigenous Papuans from 250 different tribal groups, the majority of whom live in about 10 of the territory's 26 districts.
As many as 750,000 outsiders settled in mostly western Papua under president Suharto regime's now-moribund transmigration program, but more recent arrivals have come on their own accord looking for new economic opportunities.
Until now, the migrants - mostly from the islands of Sulawesi and Java -have favored lowland areas, especially in West Papua's coastal towns, the Papua province capital of Jayapura, and around Timika, which also serves as Freeport's logistics base.
A Map of the envisioned Trans-Papua Highway. Image: Facebook
Papuan community leaders raised the highway issue to the top of their agenda when central government representatives and Papuan provincial and community leaders met for a first round of new sectoral dialogue last year.
Initiated by the Papuans, it was designed to move the conversation away from difficult political issues that have stalled peace-making talks so far and focus instead on health, education and the environment.
During a meeting with President Joko Widodo, 14 Papuan leaders said a different tack was needed to get around suspicions among bureaucrats and other conservative elements in Jakarta that the talks would lead to independence.
Widodo has visited Papua at least six times since taking office in 2014, more than any other president. He was pictured earlier this year touring part of the Trans-Papua road, but has so far failed to follow through on his commitment to peace talks.
With former military commander Gen Moeldoko taking over as the president's chief of staff last January, even the limited dialogue has gone nowhere, failing to overcome the mistrust felt among defense and home affairs officials. The latest incident will do nothing to change that.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo travels on the proposed Trans-Papua highway, May 10, 2017. Photo: AFP/Indonesian Presidential Palace Handout
The slain employees were working on one of 35 planned bridges on the 270-kilometer section of the road linking Wamena, Jayawijaya district's quasi-highland capital in the Baliem Valley, to Kenyam and the neighboring town of Mumuga to the south.
If and when the Trans-Papua highway is finally completed at the end of next year, it is expected to bring a sharp reduction in the cost of fuel and other daily necessities to Papua's interior, where cement alone is vastly more expensive than anywhere else in Indonesia.
But it will also bring with it the threat of religious and ethnic conflicts, similar to the one which broke out in 2015 in Tolikara, another district straddling the road, after local church leaders sought to forbid Muslims from celebrating the end of the Ramadan fasting month.
Social tensions have not been helped by better-educated migrants getting most of the senior positions in the creation of new administrative regions, a process known as pemakaran which is more common in Papua than anywhere else in Indonesia.
Since 2000, the number of kabupaten, or districts, has grown from nine to 29 in Papua province and from three to 13 in West Papua, all done more to satisfy local political demands and gain access to funding than to improve the quality of administration.