John Martinkus – It was a simple insult that started it: "Monkey."
The Indonesian police, alongside Islamist and nationalist Indonesians, gathered outside the Papuan university dormitory in the East Javanese city of Surabaya and yelled "Monkey" at the Papuan students inside.
One story said the Papuans had flushed the Indonesian flag down the toilet. Another said they threw it in a drain. Another said they pulled it down and replaced it with the Morning Star. Whatever happened to start the trouble, the result was a huge crowd of angry Indonesians and police screaming at the Papuans to go back to Papua.
It was August 17, 2019, Indonesia's day to celebrate the declaration of independence from the Dutch in 1945. It had been a national holiday since the 1950s, when president Sukarno declared it one. For these Indonesians, it was too much of an insult that Papuans could tear down their flag on such a day. One of Sukarno's greatest achievements was saving the 'monkeys' from colonialism under the Dutch – how dare these ingrates desecrate the flag?
Word spread, a crowd formed. The Papuans stayed inside and pretty soon the police turned up.
The Papuans inside were remarkably defiant, with one apparently telling a reporter: "If I cannot fly my flag, they cannot fly theirs."
Having seen Papuan students demonstrating at the university in Abepura and security forces there trying to round them up, I can well believe it. They were like rugby players, taking people down right and left.
The difference was this time Papuans, and those sympathetic to them, were filming it all on their phones. They put it on Twitter, Facebook and every other social media platform they could find.
Here was racism and abuse clearly documented and sanctioned by the Indonesian state. They were second-class citizens in their own country. The best and brightest had been sent off to university in Surabaya and still they were called monkeys and dogs. It filtered back to West Papua pretty quickly, and widespread rioting and demonstrations commenced two days later.
On August 19 the massive protests, involving thousands of people, started in the Papuan capital Jayapura and the towns of Manokwari, Sorong and Wamena. They quickly escalated to violence, with government buildings burnt down and even the airport briefly seized by protesters in Sorong.
The scale of the protest and the determination of the protesters not to back down in the face of the usual security services response were unprecedented. They were chanting calls for independence, waving the Morning Star flag, condemning the institutional racism in Indonesian society.
The entire sentiment of disenfranchisement, of marginalisation, oppression and brutalisation by Indonesian society suffused the protesters. More than 50 years of it. It was like a dam of frustration had been breached and the Papuans flowed out onto the streets, an unstoppable flood.
The Indonesian human rights lawyer Veronica Koman told France 24: "I've never seen the Papuans so angry."
There are no figures on how many people took part, but Koman said that it was the first time Papuan protests had reached this magnitude. The anger continued the following week. The prison in Sorong was partially burnt down, allowing more than 250 prisoners to escape. Government buildings in Manokwari, Sorong, Fak Fak and Wamena were also burnt down by protesters, sometimes with people inside.
The Indonesian military and police opened fire with live ammunition on the demonstrators, but this time it only seemed to anger them more. They extended their protests to Indonesian shops and businesses, burning them down.
The Indonesians flew in more troops. They shut down the internet in West Papua, as well as mobile phone coverage, landline phones and even ATM access. They were losing control, and they did not want anyone in the outside world to see it.
Meanwhile, people were dying. The worst of it was in Wamena, where it was reported in The New Zealand Herald by long-time campaigner for East Timor and West Papua Maire Leadbeater that on September 23:
"Forty-three people were killed as buildings and vehicles were torched. More than half of the victims were non-Papuan migrants and many residents, both Papuan and non-Papuan, fled the area. Jakarta capitalised on the suffering of the migrants, offering them trauma counselling and flights home. Journalists were banned and the internet closed off, but some recent witness accounts suggest provocateurs may have been involved."
Lurid and graphic tales of the fate of Indonesian 'settlers' were run in the press. Indonesian military C-130 aircraft were flown in to evacuate them and the Papuans were portrayed once again as savages and out of control.
What the papers didn't report was how many Papuans were being shot, arrested and tortured by the security forces trying to repel this huge tide of anger and resentment. The Surabaya 'monkey' video had been, as one commentator put it, "the straw that broke the camel's back".
The fighting in the highlands, the diplomatic efforts abroad and the continuing economic marginalisation of the Papuans signified by such mega-projects as the Trans-Papua Highway had created a pressure-cooker environment that exploded with the demonstrations, which on more than one occasion descended into full-blown riots.
With the internet and communications blackout, the narrative of the Indonesians as victims crept into international coverage. But the reality was the Indonesian security personnel were cracking down as hard as they could in the usual way.
As renowned Indonesian novelist Eka Kurniawan put it in The New York Times:
"The crackdown targets not just Papuans, but anyone who sympathises with their struggle. Surya Anta Ginting, the spokesman for the Indonesian People's Front for West Papua, was arrested alongside the students, also on treason charges. While in detention, he reportedly was held in isolation and made to listen to nationalist songs. Veronica Koman, a lawyer for the West Papua National Committee, a pro-independence group, has been accused of provoking the violence by spreading fake news, simply because she shared information about Papua on Twitter. She is thought to be in Australia, and the Indonesian police have asked Interpol to arrest her and have threatened to revoke her passport.
"Once again, a crisis in Papua is revealing the true face of the Indonesian government. This is an Indonesian government that, rather than listen to the Papuan people's cries for dignity and equity, tries to quiet them with soldiers and money. This is an Indonesian government that allows Papuan people to be called monkeys and then asks them simply to forgive."
Foreigners were barred and any who were there were thrown out. Four Australians were arrested and deported after being near a protest in Sorong. The violence continued, with 6000 more troops and police deployed to West Papua.
A student dormitory in Abepura, just outside Jayapura, was attacked by security forces and local pro-Indonesian militia, who opened fire on the students inside, killing three. That incident was caught on video.
The Indonesian security forces had their blood boiling, but so did the Papuans. The Indonesians complained that their police had been attacked in their cars by angry students throwing rocks and arrows in the Abepura incident. The fact they had just shot dead three students was downplayed.
Footage emerged showing soldiers firing at a crowd of demonstrators outside a government office in Deiyai. Some of the demonstrators were standing with their hands in the air as soldiers moved in. It was always a few here, a few there. Papuans were killed and arrested; Indonesian transmigrants were killed or their businesses and government buildings burnt down in revenge. The reports of violence continued to come in from Jayapura, Sorong, Manokwari, Timika, Fak Fak and Wamena – all West Papua's major population centres.
A theme started to emerge: the presence of pro-Indonesian militias composed of Indonesian loyalists from the migrant population or from Islamic organisations that were clearly supported by – and in some cases, such as the Abepura student dormitory attack, integrated with – the police.
Ever since I first went to West Papua in 2002, Papuans had been talking about the threats they received from groups such as Laskar Jihad, who viewed themselves as defenders of Indonesia and Indonesians in West Papua.
The pattern was a nationalist group moving in and starting trouble, tolerated, indeed encouraged, by the local Indonesian police and military. It was fine for them to walk around on the streets yelling Islamic and nationalistic slogans and carrying swords and knives. But if you did that as a Papuan, you would be shot on the spot.
[This is an edited extract from The Road by John Martinkus (Black Inc).]