JAKARTA: Indonesia’s resource-rich Papua region has seen a string of riots in several of its big cities this week, the biggest such outbreaks of violence in the country in years.
It began with an incident in Surabaya, East Java last weekend, where Papuan university students living in a dormitory were accused of damaging the Indonesian flag before the country’s Independence Day on Saturday (Aug 17).
Angry nationalist groups surrounded the building, while police and military officers in riot gear stormed the boarding house forcing the students to get out. Some students were hauled up for questioning but were later released.
Videos of the events at the dormitory spread like wildfire online. Racist taunts calling the students derogatory names could be heard in the videos, which infuriated the Papuans.
The first riot broke out on Monday in Manokwari, West Papua, where thousands took to the streets and set the local parliament house on fire.
Mr Markus Yenu, a Papuan activist who took part in the protest, said the protest was the people’s response to the situation.
“The people were angered by the racist language and the treatment (on the students in Surabaya).
“We Papuans are perfect human beings, just like Acehnese or other people. The situation upset us, so we decided to protest,” Mr Yenu told CNA.
Following the riot in Manokwari, Surabaya leaders apologised for the incident in their city, and President Joko Widodo on Monday urged people to forgive each other.
READ: Indonesia president urges calm after violent protests in Papua cities
But more riots followed. In Sorong, a prison was set ablaze and more than 250 prisoners escaped. Thousands rallied in Jayapura in Timika near the world’s largest goldmine Grasberg, while a market was set on fire at Fakfak.
The government has deployed more than 1,000 security personnel from across Indonesia to Papua to quell the protest and cut off internet access since Wednesday evening to prevent provocative posts from fuelling the violence.
Authorities have also detained at least 30 people in Papua over the violent incidents, and on Thursday, the national military chief, police chief and coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs visited Manokwari.
Analysts cautioned that unless the government takes firm action to solve Papua’s long standing issues, such problems will continue to haunt the country’s easternmost region.
PAPUANS MARCHED THE STREETS TO PROTEST AGAINST RACISM
Protestors who took to the streets of Papua wanted to urge the government to take action.
Mr Yenu claimed the protest in Manokwari was meant to be peaceful, but protestors lost their cool when they saw police troops on the streets.
“The fire (at the parliament) was not our intention. It happened suddenly because there was not just one person or two there, but thousands of people,” he said.
He added that they protested because they felt the government did not respond to the incident in Surabaya quickly enough.
“They should immediately get their act together and gather all the leaders - the church leaders, youth leaders, traditional leaders, religious leaders, for us all to sit together and talk how to sort things out,” he told CNA.
Mr Beni Gurik, who was among the thousands who marched through the streets of Jayapura, said they wanted to protest against racism and the way the Papuan students in Surabaya were treated.
“After rallying, we went home escorted by dozens of police and military trucks in a safe and orderly manner,” he said.
Mr Fernando Ginuni from Sorong, on the other hand, said people have decided to take a break from protesting for the time being because they wanted to give the authorities a chance to investigate the Surabaya incident.
Even though the situation had calmed on Thursday, the government thinks the Internet restriction is still needed, despite criticism of that move.
Mr Ferdinandus Setu, the communications ministry’s spokesman, told CNA that only the Internet from cellular providers is blocked, but broadband and landline services are still available.
Lieutenant Colonel Eko Daryanto, Papua’s military spokesman, said things were under control again after they communicated with local tribe leaders. He urged people not to believe the fake videos and pictures circulated online, and promised action against perpetrators of the Surabaya incident.
SURABAYA INCIDENT OPENS DEEP WOUNDS
Papua, a former Dutch colony, was initially declared independent in 1961. The Netherlands signed an agreement for a temporary United Nations administration, which also stated that a referendum would be held.
The referendum, known as the Act of Free Choice, paved the way for Indonesian sovereignty over Papua in 1969.
However, until today, some people argue that the outcome of the referendum - to join Indonesia - is invalid because only 1,000 handpicked Papuans were allowed to vote.
Some also believe that Papua does not belong to Indonesia because Papuans are Melanesians, unlike the majority of Indonesians.
Ever since, a low-level separatist movement fighting for independence continues to flare in the region, often taking the lives of civilians.
The Indonesian government gave Papua special autonomy in 2001 and in 2003 divided the region in two provinces, West Papua and Papua.
Despite this, problems and conflicts keep recurring.
“The problem with Papua is in its history,” Manokwari-based tribe leader Paul Finsen Mayor told CNA.
“The problem is that the political identity of Papua is wrong, and the Indonesian government hasn’t corrected it. If Papuans are treated cruelly, it’s better that Papuans decide their own fate,” he said.
Human Rights Watch Indonesia’s researcher Mr Andreas Harsono noted that there are five basic problems in Papua.
“First, its history and political integration into Indonesia and second, marginalisation of Papuans, when immigrants take over the economy and land.
“Third, violation of human rights such as extra judicial killings and sexual violence and fourth, limited press freedom. Finally, slow development such as limited access to healthcare and education,” he said.
READ: Malnutrition, disease kill at least 139 displaced in Indonesia's Papua: Aid group
Mr Yenu, the Papuan activist, concurred, adding that Papuans are suffering from poverty.
“If we speak truthfully, we are not part of this country. Despite that, our love for this country is big.
“But how come Papuans remain poor? The price of goods is expensive, people suffer. There is no free education, there is no free hospital,” he said.
He added that they do not receive free healthcare and the Smart Indonesian Card distributed to villagers is not enough to cover the educational costs in Papua.
West Papua and Papua are among Indonesia’s poorest provinces. The region is resource-rich and has the world’s largest gold mine Grasberg, although Arizona-based Freeport-McMoran owns approximately 49 per cent of it.
'EMPOWER LOCAL POTENTIALS AND INTRODUCE TRAUMA HEALING'
Mr President Joko Widodo ordered the police chief to take legal action against racist and ethnic discrimination but, as of Friday, no arrests have been made in the Surabaya case.
East Java police spokesman senior commissioner Frans Barung Mangera said that the case was still under investigation and the police did not want to act recklessly in times like this.
Human Rights Watch Indonesia’s Mr Harsono said a short-term solution to the unrest in Papua would be to arrest the perpetrators responsible for the Surabaya incident.
“Just catch the perpetrators first. Investigate them. That will calm things down. At least the Papuans will then feel that there is justice,” he said.
In the long term, Mr Harsono said discrimination in Papua must end to bring a lasting peace.
READ: Indonesia jails Pole for treason in Papua after meeting activists
Mdm Adriana Elisabeth, an expert on Papua at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, said the lack of dialogue between the central government in Jakarta and the locals in Papua contributed to the longstanding problems in Papua.
Since Mr Widodo became president in 2014, he has visited Papua about ten times – more than any other president. He has made infrastructure development in Papua a priority, but locals think it is still not enough.
Mdm Elisabeth thinks more dialogue is needed.
“The government should also empower local potentials and introduce trauma healing, especially for women, children and adolescents.”
However, tribe leader Mr Mayor opined that unless a referendum is held, there will always be problems.
“If the result is to stay with Indonesia, then fine,” he said.