Racist taunts may have ignited unrest in Indonesia’s volatile Papua region this week, but pro-separatist protests that turned violent exposed deep roots of the local population’s discontent over being ruled for decades by Jakarta, Papuans and experts said.
Posters declaring “we are not monkeys” were a common sight during the protests in Papua and West Papua provinces that often disintegrated into violence. The unrest flared up after Indonesian police allegedly used racial slurs, including “monkeys” and “dogs,” against Papuan students as officers confronted them during a street demonstration in East Java last week.
“Papuans don’t usually respond excessively to perceived racism. But this time there was an explosion of anger. That means there are underlying issues that remain unresolved,” Adriana Elisabeth, a researcher at the Indonesia Institute of Sciences (LIPI) who specializes in the far-eastern Papua region, told BenarNews.
“There needs to be a dialogue to address the root of the problems, but right now emotions are high so it will take time,” she said.
A book on Papua published by LIPI a decade ago listed marginalization, discrimination and unresolved cases of human rights violations as issues that underpinned a prolonged conflict in the impoverished region, where a separatist rebellion has simmered since the 1960s.
Papuans, who are Melanesian, said they were accustomed to being discriminated against by other Indonesians based on their appearance.
“Racism is nothing new to Papuans, but this time it was out in the open, thanks to social media, and security personnel were involved,” said Freni Tabuni, a Papuan student attending Pakuan University in Bogor, a regency in West Java province near Jakarta.
“This has made us think twice about being part of Indonesia,” he told BenarNews. “We don’t trust the government.”
Ligia Giay, a Papuan postgraduate student at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, echoed Tabuni’s sentiment.
“This is another example of how the government responds to any Papuan expression of political aspirations,” Giay said.
“There is a general agreement that this is the culmination of decades-long racism,” she told BenarNews.
In an article published this week on the Indonesian news website Tirto.co, Giay wrote that Papuans had grown used to stereotypes that labeled them as drunkards, backwards, and trouble makers, among other things.
“In the coming days, I suspect we will hear stories about how development is a solution to this racism,” she wrote in the article. “Development will elevate Papuans to a level where we will not be equated with monkeys.”
The violence began on Monday, 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. A market in West Papua’s Fakfak regency was torched during a protest on Wednesday.
The protesters were venting their anger against racism, while calling for a referendum on independence for their region.
On Friday, police in the Papua province city of Wamena killed a suspected insurgent after officers came under fire from a group of five armed men, local police chief Tonny Ananda said.
A policeman was injured in the gunfight, while the other four gunmen escaped, he said.
“We tried to persuade them to surrender but they opened fire,” he told reporters.
There were no reports of protests in Papua and West Papua, but an internet blackout announced by the government on Wednesday remained in place on Friday.
Indonesia’s Ministry of Communication and Information Technology had said that the blackout would last “until the situation in Tanah Papua returns to normal.” Tanah Papua is the local name for Papua and West Papua.
The Papua region, which makes up the Indonesian half of New Guinea island, 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 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.
“The government has provided education and development, but never asked what the Papuans need. It has not tried to see things the way the Papuans see them,” Adriana Elisabeth, the researcher at LIPI, told BenarNews.
The government has denied that Papuans are being discriminated against.
On Thursday, Security Affairs Minister Wiranto described Papua as “a golden child” and noted that the central government had spent more than 100 trillion rupiah (U.S. $7.3 million) in autonomy funds for Papua and West Papua.
“We still remember, the president during his visits there [had] asked for roads to be built and that prices should be the same there as they are on Java, and those things have been done,” Wiranto told reporters.
Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, meanwhile, has made building infrastructure in the Papua region a priority.
The killings of the construction workers in December and violence that followed had only strengthened the government’s resolve to develop Papua, Jokowi said.
He was widely criticized after urging angry Papuans “to forgive” their abusers after violence broke out on Monday, and without addressing allegations of heavy-handed treatment of the Papuan students by police officers.
On Thursday, however, the president ordered police to take “firm legal action” against those involved in what he called ethnic and racial discrimination.
He announced then that he would invite Papuan tribal and religious leaders to the presidential palace next week to discuss how to “speed up prosperity” in the Papua region. Government officials and a presidential spokesman on Friday did not immediately respond to requests from BenarNews seeking comment.
But for Papuans like Tabuni, the president’s words sounded all too familiar.
“We’ve heard them many times. We don’t trust the government, almost 100 percent,” said the student in Bogor.
“The government isn’t serious,” he told BenarNews. “The solution we want is self-determination.”
Yuliana Lantipo in Jayapura, Indonesia contributed to this report.