Thousands protest against racist abuse in West Papua

By Patrick Brown
October 14, 2019
AP Photo/Safwan Ashari RaharusunLed by a banner reading, “Stop intimidation and racism towards indigenous Papuans,” march in Manokwari, West Papua, Aug. 19 protested Indonesian government repression. Many Papuans call for government in Jakarta to allow a referendum on independence for West Papua.


AUCKLAND, New Zealand — Demonstrations of thousands in Jayapura, Manokwari and elsewhere across the West Papua region — the Indonesian-ruled half of the resource-rich island of New Guinea — broke out in mid-August against racist abuses faced by indigenous Papuans.

Despite stepped-up military and police repression the protests are continuing, leading to the renewal of the nationalist movement. Many Papuans are demanding the government in Jakarta allow a referendum on independence for West Papua.

News of attacks on Papuan students in cities in Java on Aug. 17, Indonesia’s independence day, sparked the protests. According to the U.K.-based Free West Papua Campaign, “military officers” in Surabaya taunted Papuan students as “monkeys” and accused them of desecrating the Indonesian flag. Tear gas was used in an attack on student dormitories.

The indigenous people of West Papua face systematic military repression, slurs and attacks. West Papua, the last colonial outpost in the Dutch East Indies, was incorporated into Indonesia in 1963. Indonesia itself gained independence from Dutch colonial rule after World War II. Capitalists, both from Indonesia and overseas, profit mightily from mining and forestry in West Papua.

Less than half the population has access to electricity. Over a quarter of West Papuans live below the poverty line, more than twice the official national average.

Days after the attacks in Java, angry crowds took to the streets across West Papua, home to 3.6 million people, as well as in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta in central Java. Thousands rallied in highland villages.

An Aug. 29 mass march in Jayapura highlighted a second wave of protests. With more than 250,000 people, Jayapura, capital of Papua province, is the largest city in the West Papua region.

Solidarity in the region

Marches in solidarity with the West Papuan people were held early in September in Papua New Guinea and in Vanuatu, both predominantly Melanesian Pacific island countries.

As part of rallies across Australia, several dozen people gathered in Kingsford, Sydney, an area with a substantial Indonesian population, Sept. 7, to condemn violence against the protests in West Papua.

Bridget Harilaou, of the Anti-Colonial Asian Alliance, who is of Indonesian-Australian descent, said it was “important to show there are Indonesians who support independence and freedom for West Papua and who condemn the violence from the Indonesian government.”

Annalucia Vermunt, Communist League candidate for Auckland mayor, told the Militant Sept. 29, “Working people around the world, and especially in New Zealand, Australia and the South Pacific should support the West Papuan people’s nationalist aspirations against Indonesian military repression. We have a common enemy in the imperialist rulers in Canberra and Wellington who have backed Jakarta’s decadeslong occupation.”

National repression continues

Weeks after the Java attack, police shot and killed demonstrators in Jayapura, Wamena, as well as Fakfak and Deiyai. Jakarta has sent in thousands of soldiers and police to reinforce tens of thousands of security forces already stationed there.

Michael, who is originally from West Papua, told the Militant in Auckland Sept. 29, “There are military and police bases in Jayapura” and the West Papua provincial capital of Manokwari. He declined to use his real name for fear of government victimization. The Indonesian government takes a “military approach” to the Papuan indigenous people, he said, “but that won’t solve the problem.”

Tens of thousands of people in the mountains, Al Jazeera reports, have been “forced from their homes as security forces attempt to flush out” armed pro-independence groups.

Alleged “ringleaders” of the protests have been arrested by Indonesian police, including Buchtar Tabuni, a leader of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, and Surya Anta, spokesperson for the Indonesian People’s Front for West Papua. Jakarta has moved to cut off news from the region, imposing limitations on internet access.

Fearing violence by cops and armed pro-military militia, hundreds of students have returned to West Papua from cities across Indonesia.

“Papuans want a final decision for their political right for self-determination,” Yason Ngelia, chairman of the Student Movement at Jayapura’s Cenderawasih University, told Radio New Zealand in early September. “We are flying the Morning Star” flag of independence, he said. This is an act of defiance punishable by imprisonment under Indonesian law.

 Felicity Coggan in Sydney, Australia, contributed to this article.