Updated at 3:39 p.m. ET on 2019-08-29
Protesters set fire to buildings and attacked a prison in the capital of Indonesia’s Papua province on Thursday, as unrest sparked by perceived racist treatment of Papuans showed no signs of ending.
The rally involving thousands of people in Jayapura came after clashes between security forces and protesters in Deiyai regency in the same province left a soldier and two civilians dead on Wednesday.
“Several public facilities and property in Jayapura were vandalized and burned by rioters,” national police spokesman Dedi Prasetyo said. “We are trying to put the situation under control with the help of community leaders.”
The chairman of the Papuan People's Assembly, Timotius Murib, said that protesters were not only venting their anger at racism, but also at a communications blackout imposed by the government since last week.
“We are already in a dire situation. It’s not just the issue of racism but the lack of internet and communications. This is also violence,” he told BenarNews.
Murib said protesters were also demanding for a vote on self-determination.
“This is because Papuans have been subjected to violence, so they are asking to be independent from the Republic of Indonesia,” he said.
Crowds set fire to a building belonging to the state telecom company PT Telekomunikasi Indonesia, the Papuan People’s Assembly of tribal leaders, the post office and a shopping center, witnesses said.
Protesters also attacked the city’s Abepura prison and set the facility’s workshop on fire, prompting some inmates to escape, CNN Indonesia television reported.
Thick columns of smoke were seen billowing from the buildings.
Some protesters also attacked security personnel with rocks and wooden sticks, prompting police to fire tear gas.
Some officers were injured but there were no reports of fatalities, police said.
The violence left the city paralyzed, with shops, schools and offices closing early.
‘They must not use live ammunition’
Some Jayapura residents said they were unable to make phone calls and send text messages, while electricity was out in parts of the city.
The minister for political, legal and security affairs, Wiranto, urged security personnel to exercise restraint.
“The security forces have been instructed not to take repressive measures,” he told reporters in Jakarta on Thursday. “Their action must be persuasive and measured and they must not use live ammunition.”
Meanwhile, Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo warned protesters not to engage in “anarchic acts” and urged security forces to take firm action.
“We all lose if public facilities that we have built together are damaged,” the president said on television.
“The government remains committed to improving welfare in Papua, so that our fellow citizens and the children of Papua can achieve progress and prosperity,” he added.
On Wednesday, a group of about 150 peaceful protesters outside the government office of Deiyai regency were joined by some 1,000 people armed with traditional weapons who attacked security personnel, police said.
A soldier was fatally wounded by an arrow in the clashes and two protesters who grabbed firearms from security forces were killed, according to the military and police.
The rallies were part of widespread protests that have been held in Papua and West Papua provinces in the past week against perceived heavy-handed and racist treatment of Papuan students on Indonesia’s most populous island, Java.
“These protests are totally unprecedented,” said Veronica Koman, a human rights lawyer who has advocated for Papuan dissidents for years. “Because Papuans are also protesting across the country.”
The chant “Free Papua!” has been a common rallying cry at these protests, a sign of general discontent with Jakarta’s rule in the resource-rich far-eastern region, which enjoys a degree of autonomy as part of the central government’s attempts to mollify desires for independence.
The region, which makes up the Indonesian half of New Guinea island, has been the scene of a low-level separatist insurgency since the 1960s.
On August 17, heavily-armed riot police forced their way into a Papuan student dormitory in Surabaya, Indonesia's second-largest city, and briefly detained 43 students after accusing them of disrespecting an Indonesian flag by throwing it into a sewer.
Papuan activists said racist taunts including “monkeys” and “pigs” were hurled at them by security personnel.
Unrest began on Aug. 19, when crowds of anti-Jakarta protestors set fire to government buildings in West Papua towns, prompting the Indonesian government to send hundreds of additional police and soldiers to the region and impose an internet blackout in the days that followed.
No to referendum
Wiranto said the government was heeding the protesters’ demand for action against those who humiliated Papuans, but he warned that the government would not entertain their demand for a referendum on self-determination.
“The unitary state of Indonesia is final and it’s non-negotiable, including Papua and West Papua,” he said.
“I don’t believe such demands should be made,” he added.
The speaker of the House of Representatives, Bambang Soesatyo, said the government should consider sending a commando unit to quell the unrest.
“We have a special operations command unit which was recently formed and we can deploy them,” he told reporters.
The Papua region was formally incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 following a U.N.-administered ballot known as the Act of Free Choice.
Many Papuans and rights groups said the vote was a sham because it only involved 1,000 people.
The Free Papua Movement (OPM) launched a fight for an independent state for the region in 1965, three years after Dutch colonizers ceded sovereignty over the territory to Indonesia. OPM has since waged a low-level separatist insurgency against Jakarta’s rule.
The Indonesian military has been accused of gross human rights violations during decades of anti-insurgency campaigns, and rights activists have said that impunity for violators is the norm.
Violence has risen in Papua since December 2018, when separatist rebels allegedly killed 19 members of a crew working on a government highway project and a soldier in Nduga regency.