West Papua has erupted as demands for self-determination have fuelled the largest protests in years. Thousands of West Papuans have taken to the streets in the last month to demand a referendum on independence from Indonesia. Indonesian troops have shot dead at least six protesters.
Demonstrations have also taken place in 30 cities across Indonesia.
The protests were triggered by racial abuse on 17 August—Indonesian Independence Day. Papuan students living in Surabaya, East Java were accused of disrespecting the Indonesian flag. Indonesian police stormed their dormitory and fired tear gas while racist slurs, such as “monkey”, were chanted at the students. Several students were injured and 43 were arrested but later released without charge.
In an outpouring of rage protesters threw rocks at government buildings and burnt down the local parliament in the West Papua province’s capital.
West Papuans have faced heavy repression. The Indonesian government has deployed 6000 extra troops and police and cut off the internet.
The protests mark 50 years since the sham “Act of Free Choice”. Following the end of Dutch colonisation, the UN handed administration of West Papua to Indonesia. Indonesia was required to hold a referendum for West Papuans to decide whether to become an independent state or part of Indonesia. In 1969, 1025 West Papuans were hand-picked and voted under threat of violence to become part of Indonesia.
West Papuans are today demanding a real referendum. Papua is one of the richest regions in Indonesia in terms of natural resources, yet its people are the most impoverished. Over 500,000 people have been killed under Indonesian rule as part of a slow motion genocide. When Papuans demonstrated for independence in 1998, they were massacred, and their bodies dumped at sea.
The repression of the latest protests comes only months after a military campaign in the Nduga regency of Papua. The Nduga raids forced tens of thousands of villagers to flee the area and more than 180 civilians died.
Indonesians supporting the West Papuans’ struggle are also facing repression. Indonesian police have arrested Surya Anta, the spokesperson of the Indonesia People’s Front for West Papua (FRI-WP) for “treason” after joining a protest in Jakarta. Human rights lawyer and Indonesian activist, Veronica Koman, has been named a suspect and could be jailed up to six years and fined $70,000 under an electronic information and transactions law.
The Australian government has refused to condemn the repression, declaring its ongoing support for Indonesia’s “territorial integrity and sovereignty over the Papua provinces” in a Department of Foreign Affairs statement. But the West Papuans’ struggle for freedom deserves our support.
By Vivian Honan