Communal Violence, Fire Kill 18 in Indonesia’s West Papua Province

Ronna Nirmala
Communal Violence, Fire Kill 18 in Indonesia’s West Papua Province A fire burns at a nightclub set alight by a mob during communal violence that left 18 dead, in Sorong, in Indonesia’s West Papua province, Jan. 25, 2022.

At least 18 people died in communal violence in Indonesia’s West Papua province Tuesday, including 17 burned alive in a nightclub set on fire during fighting between ethnic groups from the neighboring Maluku Islands, police said.

The incident began Tuesday before dawn when members of the Pelauw tribe attacked and killed a 20-year-old ethnic Kei man in Sorong, a coastal city of a quarter million people on West Papua’s northwestern tip, local officials said.

“Friends of the victim immediately chased the perpetrators, to retaliate,” said the city’s police chief, Ary Nyoto Setiawan, adding that the chase ended in the vicinity of a karaoke club.

“Clashes broke out. The mob burned down the karaoke place, and two vehicles,” Ary said, confirming that the two groups were not ethnic Papuans.

Security forces evacuated the burning building and believed they had emptied it, Ary said, but firemen later found 17 burned bodies on the second floor. The victims – likely nightclub patrons and workers – had apparently hidden there fearing the violence outside, he added.

The bodies were taken to a nearby hospital to be identified, Ary said.

About half the present population of Papua and West Papua provinces are people who moved there from other islands, according to estimates. The Maluku chain lies directly west of West Papua, and the provincial capital, Ambon, is a little over an hour by ferry from Sorong.  

Tensions between the groups flared on Saturday, Ary said.

“We already brought together the tribal chiefs to resolve the issue so it wouldn’t fester. Patrols were put on alert … But evidently the conflict was still going on,” he said.

As of Tuesday evening, police had not yet named any suspects. In Jakarta, a national police spokesman said West Papua police were still investigating the case.

“[The] investigation into this case is still ongoing to identify the perpetrators, including the masterminds from the two warring groups … the most important thing is for regional police to get the situation under control first,” Brig. Gen. Ahmad Ramadhan told a press conference.

Police will convene another meeting with religious figures and community leaders to try to prevent further clashes, he added.

“We’re asking for trust in the police to enforce the law in this case until it is resolved. Members of the public are asked to refrain from retaliating,” he said.

Soldiers from a military base in Sorong had joined police patrols in key areas, according to local media reports.

In 2019, Indonesian authorities identified the easternmost provinces of Papua and West Papua as areas of the nation most prone to conflict due to tensions among ethnic and religious groups and the presence of armed separatist groups.

Earlier this month, inter-ethnic fighting in Jayawijaya, a regency in the mountainous interior of Papua province, left two dead and 22 wounded, and 34 homes burned to the ground.

Ethnic Nduga people and members of another ethnic group from neighboring Lanny Jaya regency had clashed, police said. Two Nduga men were killed on Jan. 8, including one who was shot with an arrow.

In a statement posted on a police portal on Jan. 16, Jayawijaya police chief Muh Safei said the two sides had settled their dispute.

“No more hurting each other, and when problems arise, we are ready to open the door for resolution, mediation and communication,” the statement quoted him as saying.

As part of the settlement, the regent of Lanny Jaya, Befa Jigibalom, had agreed to compensate families of the Nduga victims with a total of 2.5 billion rupiah (U.S. $174,207) in cash, and twenty pigs, it said.


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