By: Ainur Rohmah

Racist slurs hurled against Papuan students in Surabaya have led to a series of violent protests in Indonesia’s easternmost province, awakening calls for Papuan independence and leading Jakarta to send troops into the troubled province in a bid to maintain its grip on the mineral-rich region.

The unrest is the latest incident in years of rebelliousness against rule from Jakarta. It began at a dormitory in the East Java city of Surabaya on August 17, Indonesia’s Independence Day. Videos that went viral showed soldiers, police, and members of mass organizations calling the students “monkeys” and “dogs” for allegedly desecrating the country’s national flag – incidents that may never have happened.

The police have named Tri Susanti, the field coordinator of a mass organization, and a government official named Saiful Arifin as responsible for mobilizing the masses and provoking racial tensions. The authorities have also suspended five personnel of the East Java Military Command for allegedly violating military discipline.

Although the Surabaya episode is still being investigated, it has triggered longstanding grievances on the part of the Papuans, who are Melanesians, ethnically and culturally distinct from much of Indonesia, and who have long chafed under the Indonesian government’s administration and exploitation of natural resources including the Grasberg mine, the gold and second-largest copper mine in the world.

Resentment has exploded into a series of protests in several cities and districts in Papua and West Papua, including protests in Deiyai on August 28 which ended in chaos. The Catholic Church of the Diocese of Timika reported that eight civilians and an army member had been killed although the government’s official toll was four civilians and one soldier. The police have named at least 57 suspects related to the unrest.

There is reason for concern. Indonesia is loosely cobbled together on more than 17,000 islands that are the home of more than 300 recognized ethnic groups. The largest is the Javanese, who make up about 40 percent of the population. East Timor, now known as Timor Leste, staged a 23-year battle for independence that resulted in as many as 200,000 conflict-related deaths before Jakarta finally gave up in 1998 and granted self-determination.

Immediately after the demonstrations began to spread, the government deployed thousands of additional troops to deal with the escalating situation. After four Australians were deported for participating in demonstrations, Jakarta also restricted foreigners from entering the province, which is famed for attractive marine tourism.

Dozens of Papuan students then staged a protest in Jakarta, raising the banned Morning Star flag in front of the state palace and calling for a referendum. Five students were arrested on treason charges, one of them reportedly detained in isolation with loudspeakers that continued to play the Indonesian national anthem, although the police denied it.

Amid growing self-determination demands, the police have named a human rights lawyer and well-known West Papua advocate, Veronica Koman, a suspect for allegedly provoking protests and riots in Papua and West Papua via her twitter account. Koman widely tweeted the situation although it was downplayed by the majority of Indonesia’s media outlets.

Indonesia is now collaborating with Interpol to hunt down Koman, who is thought to have fled abroad. She has continued to tweet in her account @VeronicaKoman, actively updating information about Papua. 

Amnesty International Indonesia’s Executive Director, Usman Hamid, accused the police of going after Koman for her efforts in revealing human rights violations in Papua through social media.

“The East Java Regional Police must immediately stop the case and revoke the status of the suspect Veronica Koman,” Usman said in a statement. “The Indonesian police must ensure that all its ranks respect freedom of speech in public and also on social media and do not easily conduct investigations to any reports regarding freedom of expression in the future,”

But the police said they had considered carefully before establishing Koman as a suspect. “Based on the evidence and the results of the examination of witnesses totaling six people – three witnesses and three experts – finally Veronica Koman was named a suspect,” said East Java Regional Police Chief Inspector General Luki Hermawan.

The Root of the Papua Problem

Aisah Putri Budiatri, a member of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences Papua Study Team, said research conducted by her institution in 2009 found at least four major problems in Papua that the government should have resolved, but which haven’t been settled. First, she said, is discrimination and racism towards indigenous Papuans as exemplified by the incident in Surabaya.

Second, she said, the government avoids debate about the status and political history of Papua, a former Dutch colony in the western part of New Guinea. Many Papuans regard Indonesian control over its territory as illegitimate and the result of an illegal annexation. A UN-sponsored ballot in August 1969 was allegedly replete with fraud in which 1,025 West Papuans were hand-picked and coerced – including being threatened at gunpoint – to vote in favor of Indonesian control.

Since then, a low-level insurgency from a separatist movement has called for self-determination. Indonesia insists that Papua, which hosts one of the world’s largest tropical rainforests in addition to rich natural resources, is inseparable from the rest of the country. Narratives about Papua are controlled by Jakarta since journalists’ access to the region is very limited.

Third, the government has not kept its promise to resolve cases of gross human rights violations that such as cases in Wasior (2001), Wamena (2003), and Paniai (2014). In all three cases, the police and army allegedly used torture, murder, and disappearances to overcome the problems that arose at that time. “The promise has not been fulfilled, but human rights violations continue to occur until now,” said Aisah.

Fourth, the government is considered to have failed to carry out development, even though the implementation of special autonomy –with trillions of rupiah distributed annually – has been going on for almost 20 years. The institution found that poverty is actually increasing.

The Indonesian government granted Papua special status in 2001 and since then the welfare approach has become a priority. During his first five years in office, President Joko Widodo tried to win hearts by building physical infrastructure to reduce economic inequality. He has also visited Papua and West Papua at least two or three times a year, more than any other previous president, in an effort to build trust.

In dealing with the latest problems, Jokowi stressed that he would continue to focus on dialogue and prosperity. The government will allocate up to Rp13 trillion (US$922.2 million) for special autonomy and development funds in Papua and West Papua in 2020. “The approach taken by the government remains the same, namely the dialogical approach, by building trust in the Papuan people,” Jokowi said.

However, for some Papuans that has instead become a justification for Jakarta to increasingly establish its power. “Special autonomy is not a solution. This does not lift the dignity of indigenous Papuans,” said priest Santon Tekege, Pr from the Diocese of Timika as quoted by local media suarapapua.com.

“Papua is granted special autonomy, but the destruction and slaughter of indigenous Papuans is increasing, poverty is widespread, and injustice is happening everywhere,” he said.

Freedom Movement Behind Unrest?

Although the incident on Java triggered the unrest and was carried out by non-Papuans through racist speech, the Indonesian government believes the pro-referendum movement is behind the unrest in the region over the past few weeks. 

National Police Chief Gen. Tito Karnavian said the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) and its founder, Benny Wenda, and the West Papua National Committee (KNPB) were behind the anarchist demonstrations that took place inside and outside Papua and West Papua. Protest by the Papuan Student Alliance (AMP) in several cities were also driven by those groups, he said. “What happened in Papua was designed by the group with the aim to create chaos,” Karnavian added, saying the police cyber directorate had been monitoring these groups.

The issue of riots and violence during the demonstrations is expected to be brought to international forums, including the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva on September 9 and the UN General Assembly on September 23 and 24.

Wenda, who lives in exile in the United Kingdom, tweeted that Papuan efforts to fight for self-determination were only through peaceful struggle. 

“As Indonesia deliberately tries to create ethnic conflict in West Papua with militia, I must stress that for West Papuans, our enemy is not the Indonesian people. Our enemy is only the system of colonialism. We will not be provoked. Our peaceful struggle is for a referendum,” Wenda said in his Twitter account @BennyWenda.

In some of his tweets, Wenda said he expects the United Nations to step in to help coordinate a referendum. “Our aspiration is for the UN referendum we were promised –and which Indonesia has denied us– to put an end to colonization and human rights abuse,” said Wenda.