Students' arrest sparks protests in West Papua

Protesters took to the streets of Manokwari in Indonesia's West Papua province yesterday. They targeted the Parliament building after local representatives failed to condemn the use of violence by police in an operation in Surabaya, East Java provinc
Protesters took to the streets of Manokwari in Indonesia's West Papua province yesterday. They targeted the Parliament building after local representatives failed to condemn the use of violence by police in an operation in Surabaya, East Java province, that some claim was racially motivated.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Police had allegedly used excessive force against ethnic Papuans in East Java

Three policemen were injured during violent protests yesterday in Indonesia's restive West Papua province, following the arrest over the weekend of ethnic Papuan students in Surabaya, East Java, where police was said to have used excessive force in storming a dormitory.

In Manokwari, the capital of West Papua, protesters torched a local Parliament building and a number of public facilities.

They also blocked roads with trees and reportedly raised the outlawed Morning Star flag, the province's symbol of independence.

Angry Papuans had targeted the Parliament building after local representatives failed to condemn the use of violence by police in an operation some are claiming was racially motivated.

West Papua has been under Indonesian control since 1969 and rebels pushing for independence have been engaging in a low-intensity conflict with Indonesian security forces.

Such flare-ups are common around Independence Day, which fell last Saturday, but the riots in Manokwari signal that anti-Indonesia sentiments are taking a violent turn.

Police said that while there were simmering tensions, things were under control until provocative messages on WhatsApp and Twitter went viral.

The messages claimed that police officers who arrested the Papuan students had made racist remarks, news website Tirto reported.

Police had carried out the operation last Saturday in Surabaya, East Java, following reports that some Papuan students had desecrated the Indonesian flag the day before, a charge the students denied.

But when they refused to leave the dormitory, police fired tear gas into the premises.

Some of the students suffered cuts and bruises from being hit by the gas canisters, news website Tempo reported, citing a lawyer representing the students. Police have not responded to this claim.

Brigadier-General Dedi Prasetyo, spokesman for the national police, told reporters yesterday that protesters in Manokwari were provoked by the content that was circulated on social media, saying "irresponsible parties" had made netizens think Papuans were being discriminated against.

He said people should not be provoked into carrying out "anarchic acts" in raising their concerns.

The police cybercrime department has since traced the individuals who own the social media accounts.

Former general Wiranto, Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs, issued a statement yesterday, saying the incident in Papua has hurt the solidarity and unity of all Indonesian citizens. "An order has been issued to investigate thoroughly and fairly whoever breached the law in this incident," he said.

"We appeal to everyone to not be provoked by negative reports coming from irresponsible parties who have the intention to break our unity, peace and solidarity as a dignified nation."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 20, 2019, with the headline 'Students' arrest sparks protests in West Papua'. Print Edition | Subscribe