Indonesia opposes Papuan independence and its military has been accused of ruthlessly eliminating the separatist movement’s leaders in the past. It maintains that the 1969 referendum was binding and legitimate.

It’s a region that has been racked by civil unrest for almost two weeks and due to an internet blackout information is trickling out slowly.

Thousands of people in Indonesia’s eastern-most provinces of Papua and West Papua on the island of New Guinea - collectively known as Papua - have been protesting over reports of racial discrimination and political unrest. Some are demanding an independence vote.


Several people have reportedly died in clashes between pro-independence demonstrators and Indonesian authorities.

The unrest was triggered by the mass arrest of a group of Papuan students in the East Java city of Surabaya on August 17 - Indonesia’s Independence Day. They were accused of desecrating the Indonesian flag and throwing it into a sewer. An angry mob hurled racist slurs, calling them “monkeys” and “pigs”.


To ward them off, the students took refuge inside a dormitory that was raided by Indonesian authorities. Police and military personnel reportedly threw tear gas inside the building and 43 Papuan students were detained but later released without charge.

Two days later, mass protests erupted in the West Papuan capital Manokwari and other parts of the province, in solidarity with West Papuans. Many carried signs and painted their faces with the ‘Morning Star’ flag, the banned symbol of Papuan nationhood.


In 1945, Indonesia declared independence from the Netherlands. However, when the new nation was formally recognised as a sovereign state in 1949, the western half of New Guinea was not incorporated into the Republic of Indonesia.


Dutch troops remained in Papua until 1962 and the United Nations (UN) handed administration of the region to Indonesia in 1963, pending a vote by its population on whether it wanted to become independent.

In 1969, a UN-supervised referendum, the ‘Act of Free Choice’ was held, but only 1,025 people, hand-picked by Indonesia, voted unanimously voted to join Indonesia. The outcome has been disputed by many Papuans, who are ethnic Melanesians, distinct from most Indonesians. Since then, many have been calling for self-determination.


Grievances have been further inflamed by persistent accounts of human rights abuses by security forces amid concerns that the region’s mineral and forest wealth has largely benefitted Indonesians from outside Papua.

The poverty rates of Papua and West Papua provinces are more than 20 percent, compared with the national rate of 9.4 percent and 3.5 percent in the capital Jakarta, according to Indonesia’s statistics agency.

Last week, Indonesia's government shut down the internet across the region in an attempt to quell pro-independence protests - A move criticised by rights groups and journalists, who said it had made reporting difficult.


A poorly armed and fractured separatist movement has simmered in Papua for decades. However, it is becoming politically cohesive. Many disparate independence groups united in 2014 under the banner of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP).

In January, Chairman of the ULMWP Benny Wenda, presented the UN with a petition purportedly signed by 1.8 million people calling for an independence referendum.

Indonesia resolutely opposes Papuan independence and its military has been accused of ruthlessly eliminating the separatist movement’s leaders in the past. It maintains that the Act of Free Choice was binding and legitimate.

This week a shooting broke out at a protest in the region’s Deiyai regency. Reports say at least six protesters and one soldier were killed and several others wounded. The army dismissed the report as “a hoax”. 


A statement by Papuan police spokesman, Ahmad Kamal, said that one soldier had been killed and two protesters had died. He said one of the protesters was killed by a bullet and the other by an arrow. He did not say how the soldier died. Five people had been wounded, he said.

Protesters also set buildings ablaze in the provincial capital Jayapura, forcing the state power firm to cut off the electricity in some districts, state media and an executive of the utility said.

Police fired tear gas to disperse demonstrators who also set fire to cars and threw stones at shops and offices, state news agency Antara said. Protesters also torched a local parliament office.


Wenda has called for the UN to act on the crisis. “Indonesian security services may turn it into a bloodbath,” he said, referring to the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre in which Indonesian forces shot hundreds of mourners at a funeral. 

Indonesian President Joko Widodo has called for calm and ordered “firm action against anarchist and racist actions”.


Even though he is popular in Papua and easily won the region’s two provinces in April’s Indonesian presidential election, his emphasis on economic development and infrastructure projects like the Trans-Papua highway to uplift Papuans has failed to satisfy their aspirations.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies