Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo called for calm on Monday after protesters set fire to a local parliament building in easternmost Papua region during rioting sparked by allegations that police used racist language and beat Papuan students in recent days.
Thousands marched in Papua and West Papua provinces, which make up the Indonesian half of New Guinea island, to protest alleged racist treatment by security forces and residents against Papuan students who demanded self-determination for the mainly Melanesian region during a rally in East Java on Friday.
“My brothers and sisters in West Papua, I know you are offended, and as we belong to one nation, the best thing to do is to forgive each other,” Jokowi said in televised remarks.
“I understand that emotions are high,” he said, “but forgiveness and patience should prevail.”
Protesters in Manokwari, the capital of West Papua, attacked the provincial parliament and set fire to several other government buildings, police said. Television footage showed thick smoke billowing from the local House of Representatives building.
There were no immediate reports of fatalities.
Protests have also been reported in Jayapura, capital of Papua and the nation’s easternmost province, authorities said.
Dozens of people were injured Friday when Papuan students who were demonstrating and calling for self-determination clashed with counter-protesters in the city of Malang, police and Papuan activists said.
The next day, heavily armed anti-riot police fired tear gas on a Papuan students’ dormitory in Surabaya, East Java’s main city. They arrested and briefly detained 43 people there over accusations that they had desecrated an Indonesian flag, local media reported.
National police chief Gen. Tito Karnavian said the situation in Papua was under control.
“If we need reinforcements, we can send them from the nearest provinces, including Maluku,” he told reporters.
Tito said he regretted the events leading to the rioting.
“Many Papuans go to universities in East Java, West Java and Jakarta and there have been no problems,” he said.
“There was a misunderstanding and some people used improper words that offended our brothers from Papua,” he said, referring to reports that the Papuans were called “monkeys” during Saturday’s dormitory raid.
“Please treat our brothers and sisters from Papua well, as we belong to one nation,” Tito said. “Never allow ourselves to be pitted against one another and provoked by false information.”
‘It hurts me’
Thousands of people in Papua province shouted “Freedom!” as they marched peacefully through the streets of Jayapura to the governor’s office.
“It hurts me to see that our children are treated badly in Java,” Ani Motte, one of the protesters, told reporters.
“Where can you find monkeys with curly hair? Mr. President, I did not give birth to monkeys,” she said.
Student leader Alex Gobay warned that should Papuans be expelled from Surabaya, Papuans would do the same to non-native Papuan students studying in Papua.
“We are ready to send them back to Java,” Gobay told reporters as other protestors shouted “Expel! Expel!”
The protesters said Indonesia should allow Papuan self-determination if the government failed to address their grievances.
“If you can’t accept us, just return the sovereignty to Papuans, so that we can determine our future for ourselves,” said one protester who gave his name as Osyo.
“We Papuans have honor and dignity,” he told the protesters. “I thank you for avoiding anarchic acts. We must not destroy what we have built.”
Jayapura police chief Gustav Urbinas said 600 police were deployed to provide security during the rally.
“Everything went peacefully,” he said.
Khofifah apologized to Papuans for any mistreatment and offense.
“I would like to stress that in no way do such personal outbursts represent the voice of the people of East Java,” she said on television.
Exercise restraint, authorities say
Security affairs minister Wiranto called for a thorough investigation into the events and urged security forces to exercise restraint.
“I call on TNI [military] and police personnel to act in a persuasive and measured manner,” Wiranto told reporters in Jakarta.
Home Affairs Minister Tjahjo Kumolo said he would summon the governors and ask them to explain what precipitated the eruption of violence.
“After the situation improves, regional heads must account for the events in their jurisdictions,” he said.
A low-level separatist conflict has been taking place since the 1960s in Papua, where the population is predominantly Melanesian. Papua declared its independence from Dutch colonial rule on Dec. 1, 1961, but that was rejected by the Netherlands and later by Indonesia
In 1963, Indonesian forces invaded the region and annexed it. In 1969, the region held a referendum in which security forces selected slightly more than 1,000 people to agree to Papua’s formal absorption into the nation, according to human rights advocacy groups.
Violence has been on the rise in Papua after separatist rebels allegedly killed 19 members of a crew working on a government road project and a soldier in Nduga regency.
In response to the killings, the government sent additional 600 troops to Nduga.
The anti-insurgency campaign has forced more than 20,000 Nduga residents to flee to the forest and neighboring regencies to avoid being caught in the violence, local rights and church activists said.
At least 182 people had died of hunger and disease after fleeing, they said.
Last week, Indonesian Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu called for a crackdown on separatist rebels after suspected insurgents abducted and killed a policeman in a remote part of Papua province.
“Those rebels have to be finished and crushed. They can’t just kill people with reckless abandon,” Ryacudu said in a video released by Antara on its website. “Don’t let them do what they are doing. Launch an operation and crush them.”
Tia Asmara and Ahmad Syamsudin in Jakarta contributed to this report.