Ronna Nirmala, Jakarta – The Indonesian Air Force fired two commanders in the troubled Papua region on Wednesday after a widely shared video showing military police roughing up a deaf Papuan man caused a public outcry and drew condemnation from the president's office.
In the video that has gone viral, two military police are seen throwing the disabled Papuan man to the pavement, with one kneeling on the disabled man's back while the other places his boot on the man's head. The pair – a sergeant and a private – had intervened to break up what appeared to be an escalating altercation between the man and the owner of a street-food stall in Merauke, a regency of Papua province, on Monday.
Air Marshal Fadjar Prasetyo, the air force chief, apologized for the incident, and said he had dismissed the chiefs of the Merauke airbase and its military police unit from their posts because "the commanders are responsible for the actions of their units.
"Following a review, I will replace the commander of the JA Dimara Airbase and the commander of the JA Dimara Airbase Military Police Unit," Fadjar said in a statement, without naming the commanders.
"This replacement is a form of accountability for the incident."
The incident cast a new spotlight on longtime allegations of Indonesian government forces using excessive force and engaging in racist actions against indigenous people in mainly Melanesian Papua, where violence linked to a separatist insurgency has grown in recent months.
Indonesians, via social media, were comparing the incident with one in the United States last year when an African-American man, George Floyd, died after a white police officer knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes.
In Jakarta, the presidential chief of staff, Moeldoko, called the military policemen's actions "excessive." "The Office of the Presidential Staff deeply regrets and condemns the act of violence," he said.
Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) chief Air Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto told journalists he had ordered the dismissal of the commanding officers because "they were unable to nurture their men." "Why did they treat a person with a disability like that? That's what makes me angry," Hadi said.
Fadjar said the two military police involved in the incident had been detained, and there would be a transparent investigation. Air Force spokesman Indan Gilang Buldansyah said the two would be in custody for 20 days and could face a military tribunal.
Indonesia's far-eastern Papua region is where a low-level separatist insurgency has simmered for decades.
In 1963, Indonesian forces invaded Papua and annexed the region, which makes up the western half of New Guinea Island. Papua was formally incorporated into Indonesia after a U.N.-sponsored ballot called the Act of Free Choice in 1969.
Locals and activists said the vote was a sham because only about 1,000 people took part. However, the United Nations accepted the result, which essentially endorsed Jakarta's rule.
The region is rich in natural resources but remains among Indonesia's poorest and underdeveloped ones.
A savage act'
Nyong Robi, leader of FORMASI Disabilitas, a group that advocates for people with disabilities in Papua, said he feared the incident could trigger widespread protests similar to those that gripped the region in 2019.
At that time, more than 40 people were killed after protests over perceived racism against Papuans. "I was told that people in Papua and West Papua wanted to stage demonstrations because they were angry," Robi told BenarNews.
Robi said the Papuan man in Monday's incident was trying to communicate with the officers using sign language. "[B]ut the problem was that the officers didn't understand, so they didn't respond and instead took excessive action," Robi said.
Separately, Ambrosius Mulait, a Papuan activist who was jailed for nine months last year for taking part in the 2019 protests, called the officers' action "racist." "It was a savage act that [has] happened too often," he tweeted.
The secretary for the Papua provincial government, Dance Julian Flassi, urged people not to be provoked. "The two individual officers have been detained and will be punished according to the law," Flassy said in a video statement.
Indonesians on social media reacted to the incident using the hashtag #PapuanLivesMatter, highlighting some apparent similarities with a video that showed a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on George Floyd's neck. That video sparked protests across the U.S. spearheaded by the Black Lives Matter movement.
The officers' "cruel and inhumane" conduct "complicates efforts to promote peace and prosperity in Papua" Beka Ulung Hapsara, a member of the National Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM), told BenarNews.
The Papua Humanitarian Coalition, which comprises civil society groups in Papua, said the incident reflected the arrogance of security forces in dealing with indigenous Papuans.
"If there is sufficient evidence, the perpetrators must be tried openly and fairly in a civilian court, and not only be subjected to internal sanctions," said Ronald Tapilatu, spokesman for the coalition.
Data gathered by the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (KontraS), a human rights group, shows members of security forces committed 40 cases of violence in Papua last year.
Meanwhile, Amnesty International said there were at least 54 cases of extrajudicial killings resulting in 90 deaths in Papua and West Papua provinces between February 2018 and July 2021.