Two civilians and a government soldier were killed Wednesday during clashes between protesters and security forces after a rally turned violent in Indonesia’s Papua province, security officials said.
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, prompting officers to fire tear gas and warning shots, Papua police chief Rudolf Rodja said. Deiyai is a highland regency in central Papua, about 70 kilometers northwest of Timika city.
A soldier was fatally wounded by an arrow in the clashes and two protesters who grabbed firearms from security forces were killed, Rudolf said.
"Security forces fired back at the crowd who took firearms," he said in a text message.
"Two people from the crowd died," he said, denying an earlier report by a local news website that six civilians were killed.
Four policemen were injured, he added.
Photos released by the Papua police showed at least two policemen with an arrow stuck in their neck and leg.
Papua military spokesman Eko Daryanto said three soldiers were injured.
“Since 4 pm the situation in Deiyai has been brought under control,” Eko told BenarNews.
The rally in Deiyai was 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.
The chant “Free Papua!” has been a common rallying cry at these protests, an indication of general discontent with Jakarta’s rule in the resource-rich 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.
A Papuan news website, Suarapapua.com, had said six protesters were killed by security forces during the rally in Deiyai.
The protesters were marching toward the government office when security personnel fired shots, the site quoted Agus Mote, a spokesman for the National Committee for West Papua (KNPB), as saying.
KNPB seeks a referendum on independence for Papua.
Street protests have also been held by Papuans across the country in the past week.
About 300 Papuans rallied in front of the Indonesian army headquarters and the nearby presidential palace in Jakarta on Wednesday, some flying the banned separatist Morning Star flags.
"The government must abolish racism and repression against Papuans. They must understand what it means to Papuans to be able to determine their own future," a spokesman for the group, Ambrosius, told the crowd.
Ambrosius also urged the government to lift an internet blackout imposed on the Papua region since last week.
"Blocking means that the Indonesian government is unable to solve and is hiding problems in Papua," he said.
National police spokesman Dedi Prasetyo said the internet shutdown was still necessary to prevent the dissemination of false information.
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 August 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.
The protesters were venting their anger against racism, while calling for a referendum on independence for their region.
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.
Cornelius Purba, a senior managing editor at the English-language Jakarta Post, wrote in an opinion piece that the prospects of an independent Papua were growing in light of the recent events.
“You may laugh at me now if I forecast the Papuan people will fulfill their dream of independence much sooner than their expectations, just like the way East Timor separated from Indonesia following the historic Aug. 30, 1999, referendum,” Purba wrote.
“Many will no doubt blame the United States or Australia if a Papua exit comes to pass. But seeing the racial abuse against Papuan students and the heightened reactions in Papua, we Indonesians, not just the government, should blame ourselves,” he said.
East Timor’s vote for independence from Indonesia was preceded and followed by violent rampages by pro-Jakarta militias in what have been described as a “scorched-earth campaign” backed by the Indonesian military.
“We have treated the Papuans the same way we did the people of East Timor.”
Ahmad Syamsudin in Jakarta contributed to this article