Papua protests: capital Jayapura burns during night of violence | World news

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Protesters in Indonesia’s easternmost region of Papua have set buildings ablaze in the provincial capital Jayapura, forcing the state power firm to cut off 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 on Thursday, state news agency Antara said. Protesters also torched a local parliament office. “Several public facilities and properties were damaged by rioters,” national police spokesman Dedi Prasetyo said.

In the wake of Thursday’s unrest, Papuan independence leader Benny Wenda called for UN to act on the crisis, the result of related protests about racism, discrimination and calls for independence. “Indonesian security services may turn it into a bloodbath,” Wenda said, referring to the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre in which hundreds of mourners at a funeral were shot by Indonesian forces.

The region has been racked by civil unrest for two weeks over reports of racial and ethnic discrimination. Some protesters are also demanding an independence vote – a move ruled out by the security minister on Thursday.

Smoke billows from a building after hundreds of demonstrators marched near Papua’s biggest city Jayapura. Photograph: Indra Thamrin Hatta/AFP/Getty Images

Indonesian president Joko Widodo called for calm on Thursday evening, telling reporters he had ordered “firm action against anarchist and racist actions”. He promised to further develop Papua.

During the riot in Jayapura, the protesters torched a building housing the offices of state-controlled telecoms firm Telekomunikasi Indonesia. The company said in a statement it could not assess the full damage yet.

The utility company PLN has turned off power in areas around the torched building, said regional director Ahmad Rofik, and state energy firm Pertamina said it had shut several petrol stations in Jayapura because of the protest.

National military spokesman Major General Sisriadi said more than 1,000 people had taken part in the protest.

Police spokesman Prasetyo told broadcaster Kompas TV: “The condition is gradually recovering.” News website said demonstrators had begun to disperse.

Gunfire broke out a day earlier between protesters and police in the town of Deiyai, about 500km (310 miles) from Jayapura.

Riot police officers fire tear gas during a protest in Jayapura, Papua.

Riot police officers fire tear gas during a protest in Jayapura, Papua. Photograph: Antara Foto/Reuters

Police said one soldier and two civilians were killed in the incident, while a separatist group said six had been shot dead. The military dismissed that as a hoax.

Police have deployed 300 mobile brigade personnel to the towns of Deiyai, Paniai and Jayapura after Wednesday’s incident, media quoted police chief Tito Karnavian as saying.

What is West Papua?

Papua and West Papua form the western half of the island of New Guinea and is officially part of Indonesia. The government in Jakarta maintains Papua and West Papua are integral and indivisible parts of the state of Indonesia: this position has the support of major powers in the region and around the world. Known as Irian Jaya until 2000, it was split into two provinces, Papua and West Papua, in 2003. They have semi-autonomous status. The provinces have suffered from systemic underdevelopment but they are rich with natural resources, including gold, copper, and timber and generate billions of dollars for Indonesia.

Why is independence a big issue?

Political control of the region has been contested for more than half a century and Indonesia has consistently been accused of human rights violations and violent suppression of the region’s independence movement. The people indigenous to the province are Melanesian, ethnically distinct from most of the rest of Indonesia and more closely linked to the people of Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji and New Caledonia.

So how did it become part of Indonesia?

Formerly the Netherlands New Guinea, Papua was retained by the Dutch after Indonesian independence in 1945 but the province was annexed by Jakarta in 1963. Indonesia formalised its control over West Papua in 1969 when its military hand-picked 1,025 of West Papua’s population and compelled them into publicly voting in favour of the takeover under a UN-supervised, but undemocratic, process known as the Act of Free Choice. The British and Foreign Commonwealth Office reported at the time “the process of consultation did not allow a genuinely free choice to be made”, while the US embassy reported it was “unfolding like a Greek tragedy, the conclusion pre-ordained”.

How much support does the independence movement have?

Many Papuans regard the Indonesian takeover as an illegal annexation. In 2017, an illegal petition calling for a free vote on independence, signed by 1.8 million people (about 70% of the Papuan population) and secretly carried around the provinces, was presented to the UN’s decolonisation committee, and the human rights commissioner.

Is there an armed struggle?

The Free Papua Movement has led a low-level insurgency for decades. That insurgency has long been the rationale for significant Indonesian military involvement in Papua. With the heightened police and military presence, there have been reports of security force abuses including extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary detention, excessive use of force and mistreatment of peaceful protesters. Dozens of Papuans remain behind bars for peaceful demonstration or expressing solidarity with the independence movement. West Papuan sources have claimed white phosphorous, a banned chemical weapon, has been used to attack civilians, though this has not been categorically proven. This claim has been strenuously denied by Indonesia.

Is there any outside support for independence?

There has always been concern about the annexation of the region. A report in 2004 by the International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School said Indonesian military leaders “began making public threats against Papuan leaders … vowing to shoot them on the spot if they did not vote for Indonesian control”. In May 2019, the then UK government’s minister for Asia and the Pacific, Mark Field, described the Act of Free Choice as an “utterly flawed process”, but said there was no appetite in the international community to revisit the question of the legitimacy of Indonesia’s control. The Free West Papua movement has strong support from Melanesian neighbours, in particular Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, but regional powers, such as Australia, support Indonesian control of the province.

A separatist movement has simmered for decades in Papua, while there have also been frequent complaints of rights abuses by Indonesian security forces.

The spark for the latest unrest was a racist slur against Papuan students, who were hit by tear gas in their dormitory and detained in the city of Surabaya on the main island of Java on 17 August, Indonesia’s Independence Day, for allegedly desecrating a national flag. They were later released without charge.

Papua and West Papua provinces, the resource-rich western part of the island of New Guinea, formed a Dutch colony that was incorporated into Indonesia after a widely criticised UN-backed referendum in 1969.

On Thursday, chief security minister Wiranto said the government would not entertain any demand for an independence vote, according to “Demands for a referendum, I think, is out of place. Demands for referendum I think must not be mentioned. Why? Because the unity of the Republic of Indonesia is final,” Wiranto was quoted as saying.

The government has cut internet access in the region since last week to stop people sharing “provocative” messages that could trigger more violence.

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