JAKARTA – The racist slur “monkey” has sparked massive pro-independence protests in Indonesian Papua, which after growing in intensity in recent weeks, including the burning of vehicles and government buildings, has provoked a strong reaction from the government in Jakarta.
The internet has been partially blocked and access to the area has been restricted, making it virtually impossible to know what is happening in this remote region, where at least 6,000 police and military personnel have been trying to enforce order for the last three weeks.
According to Indonesian authorities, 69 people have been arrested and at least three protesters have been killed since Aug. 19, although Papuan activists warn that the numbers could be much higher.
This tropical region, rich in natural resources and located at the eastern end of the archipelago, has witnessed a low-intensity separatist conflict for decades, but the recent uprisings – the most intense in years – were triggered by an incident thousands of miles away, in the island of Java.
Around the middle of August, a small group of Papuan university students in the Javanese town of Surabaya were subject to racist slurs, which proved to be the spark that ignited the protests.
Dozens of Papuan students were accused of having dishonored the Indonesian flag, and when the police went to arrest them at their residence, a crowd gathered and began to utter insults such as “monkeys!”
Papuans are Melanesians and have darker skin than Javanese or Sumatrans.
The students were released the same day, but videos of the incident were shared through social media in Papua, prompting widespread outrage from its people, who have always eyed the Indonesian state with suspicion, considering it an instrument of Javanese supremacy.
During the early days of the protests, many of the demonstrators appropriated the insult thrown at the students and marched proudly wearing ape masks and waving the banned Morning Star flag, which has served as a symbol of Papua’s pro-independence movement.
“We are not monkeys in the people’s republic of Papua, even if you do not like our freedom,” said a banner on the first day of demonstrations in Manokwari, the provincial capital of West Papua, where protesters set fire to the legislative building and a prison that day.
BLOCKING THE INTERNET
After blocking off the internet, which since Aug. 21 has resulted in a reduced number of images and videos of the protests, the police have arrested university students and activists and issued an arrest warrant against human rights lawyer Veronica Koman, who helped bypass the government’s information blackout.
Although the information ministry began restoring the internet in less conflicted areas on Thursday, several sources on the ground spoke of a prevailing fear owing to the huge military presence and clashes with civilian anti-secessionist militias.
Papuan Catholic priest Saul Paulo Wanimbo, based in the city of Timika, confirmed to EFE the presence of civilian militias calling themselves “Nusantara Association.”
“I suspect there is a possibility that these militias are supported by the military and the police,” he said.
“Now the Ministry of Security and the Police say that the situation in Papua is normal. If it’s normal, why are there troops everywhere?” stressed Wanimbo.
LONG SECESSIONIST CONFLICT
Aisah Putri Budiatri, a researcher at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), believed the protests were fueled by decades of nationalist conflict, human rights violations and inequality between Papua and more developed areas of the Archipelago.
In 1962, the Netherlands agreed to cede Papua – its colony until then – to Indonesia in a UN-backed process on condition of holding a referendum.
The referendum was finally held in 1969, during the brutal dictatorship of General Suharto, and in which only a little more than a thousand tribal leaders were allowed to vote under intimidation.
Budiatri, who is one of the authors of the book “Papua Road Map,” advocated dialogue to solve the fundamental problems in Papua instead of the deployment of more troops, and considered it problematic for outsiders to dominate the economic sector in an underdeveloped province rich in natural resources such as mining, oil and forests.
In 2015, Indonesian President Joko Widodo announced the end of an internal migration program from the most populous islands such as Java and Sumatra to remote areas of the archipelago, under which outsiders have come to make up nearly half of the more than 3.5 million population of Indonesian Papua.
The influx of Muslims, who make up about 88 percent of Indonesia’s population, from other islands is also a potential source of conflict for Christian-majority Papua, according to Budiatri.
In 2015, Widodo had promised free access to the region to foreign journalists and academics, who, however, continue to require special permission to travel there, as well as justice in major cases of human rights violations of the past, something that remains unresolved even after four years.