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Why West Papua's latest protests are different from the ones before

ABC News - September 4, 2019

Tracey Shelton and Tasha Wibawa – Thousands of people have been protesting across Indonesia's easternmost territory over the past two weeks, torching government buildings and clashing with police, resulting in dozens of deaths and injuries.

The protesters' demands range from an end to racial violence to calls for a referendum on independence for the region.

It's not the first time Papuans have taken to the streets to demand independence, and incidents of armed resistance to Indonesian rule in the provinces of Papua and West Papua have also occurred periodically over the years.

But these latest protests are not only the largest held in the region in years, but they have also drawn support from across Indonesia.

"Today's protest is different because it's so widespread," said Andreas Harsono, an Indonesia researcher for Human Rights Watch.

While previous movements have been largely orchestrated by Papuan liberation leaders in exile, these recent protests have erupted from within West Papua and have since spread to other provinces.

Mr Harsono said he counted protests in 30 cities both inside and outside of the region during the first week.

"The spread of the protests indicates the deep frustration among indigenous Papuans against Indonesian rule," Mr Harsono told the ABC.

As the unrest continues, we take a look at how the latest protests started, what authorities have done in response and Australia's stance on West Papua.

What sparked the protests?

The Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua – often referred to collectively as West Papua – share an island and ethnicity with Papua New Guinea.

While the east of New Guinea island was colonised by Britain and later gained independence as Papua New Guinea, West Papua remained a Dutch colony until it was handed over to Indonesia in 1963.

Some activists and armed groups have been fighting for independence ever since, and the region has been dogged by allegations of racism and discrimination against the native population.

Mr Harsono listed human rights abuses, impunity, drastic demographic change, environment degradation and poverty among the reasons for the growing frustration among the local population.

On August 17 – which marks the Indonesian declaration of independence from Dutch colonial rule – a group of Papuan students said they were barricaded inside their dormitory overnight by nationalist vigilantes who cut power to the building and chanted racist slurs.

The mob said the students had committed "slander" on the Indonesian national flag, and police moved in to storm the building, reportedly firing tear gas, injuring five and arresting 43 students who were later released without charge.

Footage of the military officers calling the students "monkeys" quickly circulated on social media, sparking outrage and "one of the largest protests across the region", according to West Papuan Independence Movement leader Victor Yeimo.

"It's not just about being referred to as monkeys," Mr Yeimo told the ABC. "It's the accumulation of the anger of the Papuan people that they've been treated like animals in Indonesia."

How have authorities responded?

The protests have since spread and become more violent, with reports of government buildings, tax offices and a prison being burnt down.

In response, the Indonesian Government has blocked internet access in both provinces, banned all protests and deployed some 6,000 additional security forces.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo was scheduled to travel to West Papua late last month, however, his visit has since been delayed several times.

"There is no tolerance for rioters and anarchists," Mr Widodo tweeted last week. "In regards to Papua, appropriate action in accordance to law has been taken towards civilians and military."

At the height of the violence, police said demonstrators were armed with bows and arrows, machetes and spears, and that a soldier and a civilian were killed by arrows, and another civilian died after being shot in the leg.

But numerous activists said police shot into the crowds killing six people, before arresting dozens of demonstrators.

Mr Harsono said verifying information in West Papua is always challenging as authorities have "restricted access to the provinces since the 1960s".

"Foreign journalists have difficulties entering the area. Local journalists are regularly harassed, intimidated, if not co-opted with money," he said.

"Without independent journalism, it's very slow and difficult to verify facts in West Papua."

The protests have also spread to other cities in Indonesia and received widespread attention across the country via social media.

Asep Komarudin of the Civil Society Coalition for Democracy told the ABC it wasn't only Papuan students who attended a protest they recently organised in Jakarta, many university students also joined to demand an end to racism in Papua.

Mr Komarudin said eight of the protesters were arrested in Jakarta and six remained in custody.

What do the protesters want?

While the protests largely began as a call to end racism, restore internet access and remove the extra troops deployed to the region, there is also a strong call for self-determination.

More than 1.8 million people called for an independence referendum in Indonesia's West Papua province by delivering a petition to the UN Human Rights chief.

In 1969, a referendum called the Act of Free Choice was held to allow West Papuans to decide their future.

However, it has since been criticised as a sham due to reports of military coercion of the small portion of the Papuan population who were allowed to vote.

The protests have renewed calls for a new inclusive referendum to allow Papuans to decide for themselves if they want independence or to remain a part of Indonesia.

But the percentage of native Papuans in the region has been declining for decades due to the government's transmigration policy that has resettled Indonesians from highly-populated regions – most commonly Java.

"All aspects of the livelihood of Papuans are controlled by Indonesians, they have taken over the region's economy, as well as all sectors of social and cultural life," Mr Yeimo told the ABC.

"Papuans are left feeling like animals in that they [feel like they] don't own anything of their own."

Although World Bank figures show the GDP per capita of West Papua – which is rich in natural resources – is significantly higher than the national average, it is also the most impoverished region in the country.

West Papua has Indonesia's highest mortality rates for children and expectant mothers, as well as the poorest literacy rates, according to the World Bank.

Last week, Indonesia's Coordinating Minister for Security Wiranto told reporters the Government had ruled out an independence vote, adding that Indonesia should remain united.

"I think [demands for a referendum] are inappropriate," Mr Wiranto said at the House of Representatives, adding that the unity of Indonesia was "final" and "non-negotiable".

"Referendums are for occupied countries that are given the choice to be independent or to join... the occupying country. But Papua and West Papua are legitimate territories of the Republic."

What is the Australian Government's stance on West Papua?

Australia officially recognises Indonesia's sovereignty over West Papua.

"Australia currently works with Papua provincial and national stakeholders to tackle key governance, economic and human capital challenges in the Papua provinces," a spokesperson for the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said.

Earlier this week, four Australian citizens were deported from Indonesia after allegedly taking part in a demonstration in West Papua.

On Friday, Mohammad Iqbal, spokesperson from Indonesia's National Police, said they were investigating "foreign interference" in the recent unrest.

"We cannot mention the country of origin and we cannot say which country is allegedly involved as it could be from everywhere – both groups and individuals," he told a news conference.

Indonesia's National Police Chief, Toto Karnavian, also said "foreign factors" were involved. "We know these groups [of demonstrators] have relations with international networks," he said.

Strict security measures are still ongoing in Papua with officials reportedly guarding a number of public facilities such as houses of worship, markets, shops and offices.

Source: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-09-04/west-papua-latest-protest-over-referendum-for-independence/1147101