Violence Follows Pro-Independence Protests In Indonesia's Papua Region

Aug 28, 2019
Originally published on September 4, 2019 9:22 am

Pro-independence protests in Indonesia's restive Papua and West Papua provinces have resulted in violence for a second week, according to activists and reports from the area, where most Internet access has been shut down since Aug. 21.

Conflicting reports of deaths, injuries and arrests have emerged from the region. On Wednesday, police said two protesters and one police officer had been killed after shooting broke out during a demonstration in the easternmost province of Papua. A pro-independence spokesperson in the province, Victor Yeimo, told NPR that six protesters were shot dead by police during Wednesday's demonstration. Speaking by phone from Jayapura, the capital of Papua province, Yeimo said the number of injured was unconfirmed.

A police spokesman in Jakarta told the Associated Press that one soldier and five police officers were injured in Wednesday's protest.

Wednesday's violence follows days of similar turmoil that saw one demonstrator killed last Friday and others injured and detained over the weekend. Police confirmed the protester's death but denied that any others were injured that day.

"It's not going to stop"

The current tensions erupted after the government on Aug. 17 detained dozens of Papuan university students in East Java for allegedly holding a pro-independence rally.

Protesters gather under the banned Papuan flag in the West Papua city of Fakfak on Aug. 21.
STR / AFP/Getty Images

Two days later, in response to the students' arrests and reports that nationalist groups had verbally abused them — allegedly calling them "pigs" and "monkeys" — protesters took the streets across the country. In West Papua, some torched a parliament building, prompting the Indonesian government to send over 1,000 troops and hundreds of police to an already heavily militarized area.

Last Wednesday, Indonesia's government shut down cellular and cable-based Internet in Papua and West Papua, two of Indonesia's most resource-rich but least-developed provinces. They share an island with the country of Papua New Guinea and have a combined population of some 3.5 million.

Rights activists say the Internet shutdown is a new tactic to quell pro-independence unrest, which has roiled the region for decades.

A Papuan student with his face painted with the colors of the separatist flag holds up a poster during a rally near the presidential palace in Jakarta on Wednesday. Protests began last week after reports that Papuan students had been arrested and targeted with verbal abuse, including being called "monkeys" and "pigs."
Tatan Syuflana / AP

Indonesian President Joko Widodo called the shutdown "a matter of national security," but human rights groups both in and outside Indonesia have criticized the move, accusing authorities of trying to cover up abuses against protesters.

Journalists and activists tell NPR that a few private WiFi networks and the landline Internet in some government buildings and hotels remain functional. Information that has come out in recent days shows that the protests have grown in size and scope.

Indonesian freelance journalist Febriana Firdaus, based in Jakarta, says the demonstrations have swept from the Papua region's coastal areas into the highlands.

"It's not going to stop," she says. "I think it's getting bigger and bigger and bigger."

"West Papuan people think there is no hope"

Yeimo, the international spokesperson for the West Papua National Committee, an arm of the region's pro-independence campaign, tells NPR that the mood of demonstrators is "anger." Separatists want a referendum on Papuan independence from what they call Indonesian "occupation," a goal they've supported since the Netherlands relinquished the region to Indonesia in 1962.

Papuan students rally near the presidential palace in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Wednesday. A group of West Papuan students in Indonesia's capital staged the protest against racism and called for independence for their region.
Tatan Syuflana / AP

Indigenous Papuans are ethnically distinct from many other Indonesians and often experience discrimination, Yeimo says. In "every sector of life in West Papua, there is racism," he says. Since the region became part of Indonesia, people from other parts of the country have migrated in and have come to dominate the provincial economy, Yeimo says.

Starting 50 years ago with the Act of Free Choice, which made the Papua region a territory of Indonesia, rights activists say decades of on-and-off violence between government forces and supporters of the umbrella independence campaign known as the Free Papua Movement, which includes Yeimo's group, has killed and displaced thousands of Papuans.

Earlier this month, the Pacific Islands Forum, an intergovernmental organization of Pacific nations, noted "the reported escalation in violence and continued allegations of human rights abuses" in the Papua region and urged peaceful resolution of the conflict, an issue that has been on the forum agenda since 2000.

"I think that West Papuan people think there is no hope in Indonesia because many West Papuan[s] have been killed, arrested and have no freedom of expression," says journalist Victor Mambor, who grew up in West Papua and is the senior editor the province's Jubi Daily.

Human rights groups over the years have documented multiple incidents of suppression of freedom of speech, unlawful killings, rape and torture by government security forces — leading some observers and experts to accuse the Indonesian government of running a police state in the region.

A new solution to an old problem?

While Indonesia has previously limited access to certain social media and messaging apps, the government's Internet shutdown in the Papua region is unprecedented, activists say. "The government says they are doing it to prevent hoaxes," says Damar Juniarto, executive director of SAFENET Voice, an Indonesian nonprofit that focuses on digital rights in Southeast Asia. But ordinary Papuans are the ones getting hurt, he says.

"It is impacting not only freedom of expression. It's also affecting the economy ... access to public services, and aspects of education where students cannot use the Internet," he says.

"Given the track record of the Indonesian state security forces against the West Papuan people, this is a very emergency situation," says Veronica Koman, a Jakarta-based human rights lawyer who works on West Papua issues. "However, it has a different tone of sense of urgency because West Papua has no press freedom and heavy presence of security forces."

The 2019 World Press Freedom Index notes Indonesia's "serious media freedom violations, including drastic restrictions on media access in West Papua" and growing violence towards local journalists.

Koman has co-written an urgent appeal to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, claiming that the Internet shutdown in Papua and West Papua is illegal.

"It definitely has breached international law," Koman says. "It also violates Indonesian constitution because under our constitution, we citizens have the right to access information and also freedom of expression and it has violated not just West Papuans' rights but even Indonesian people outside West Papua."

Indonesia follows in the footsteps of other Asian countries, India and Myanmar, in blockading the Internet in restive areas under their control. India-controlled Kashmir has not had Internet for over three weeks, since India revoked the contested region's special status on Aug. 5. In Myanmar, Internet service has been shut down in that country's restive Rakhine State for over two months, amid tensions between the military and a Buddhist insurgency.

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Indonesia is cracking down on a movement in the far eastern part of that country. More than 1,000 soldiers and police have deployed to the Papuan region to quell protests. Dozens have been arrested and at least one soldier and two demonstrators are dead since the demonstrations turned violent more than a week ago. The government has also shut down the Internet in that region in an effort to stop the spread of what it calls fake news. Here's NPR's Ashley Westerman.

ASHLEY WESTERMAN, BYLINE: The Indonesian government first slowed the Internet. Then on August 21, it blocked all cellular and cable Internet in Papua and West Papua provinces. It was a response to demonstrations sparked by videos of Papuan students in another part of the country being racially insulted by Indonesian nationalist groups. Since the unrest began, demonstrators have torched buildings and clashed with police.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Singing in foreign language).

WESTERMAN: This video from Twitter shows protesters in West Papua marching and singing separatist songs. Victor Yeimo is spokesperson for the pro-Papuan independence movement.

VICTOR YEIMO: This is the first time that Indonesia block the Internet in whole West Papua.

WESTERMAN: Speaking on a landline from an area where the Internet's out, Yeimo says these protests are Papuans' response to 50 years of racism by people he calls outsiders.

YEIMO: People very angry about this situation. What they are thinking today is they need to be free from Indonesia colonialism.

WESTERMAN: Indonesian colonialism - that's what many indigenous Papuans say they have been fighting since the '60s when the Dutch relinquished the territory to Indonesia.

GREG POLING: There was a - what many would consider a sham referendum in 1969.

WESTERMAN: Greg Poling is with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

POLING: And ever since then, there has been demands that the Papuan people be given the chance to really vote for their status. So these protests are part of a regular cycle, although these are the largest and most sustained we've seen in some years.

WESTERMAN: Over the decades, global human rights groups have documented alleged violations by state security forces stationed in the region, one of Indonesia's poorest. The abuses ranged from censorship to rape and torture. Human rights lawyer Veronica Koman says the Internet shutdown is alarming because it makes it hard to monitor for abuses.

VERONICA KOMAN: And given the track record of the state security forces against West Papuan people, this is a very emergency situation.

WESTERMAN: Jakarta continues to defend its decision to shut down the Internet while calling for calm in the region. They won't say when the block will be lifted. Still, photos and videos of demonstrations are getting through...


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in foreign language).

WESTERMAN: ...Like this one, which shows men, women and children marching in the streets, waving flags and chanting pro-independence slogans.

Ashley Westerman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.