Chris Fitzgerald – Clashes have taken place between Indonesian police and protesters in West Papua, adding to ongoing concerns about allegations of police violence.
Younes Douw, a West Papuan human rights activist, claimed that 3000 students and indigenous Papuans participated in the protests. Mr. Douw said that "around 650 students took to the streets today. Added to by the Papuan community of around 2000 people."
The protests took place in Jayapura, including the areas of Yahukimo, Waena, and Abepura.
While these reports are difficult to confirm because of a lack of media transparency in the region, the Papua Legal Aid Foundation is reporting that at least 20 West Papuans were injured by police last Friday after protesting peacefully against the government's plan to create new provinces in the region.
The Foundations Chairperson, Emanuel Gobay, has said explained the clashes and explained that "in Sorong, there were 10 people who were injured. In Jayapura 10 people were also injured" and that "the injuries were a consequence of the repressive approach by police against demonstrators when they broke up the rallies."
However, Indonesian authorities have denied any injuries have occurred. The Assistant Superintendent of Police in Jayapura, Victor Makbon, has claimed that while protests were forcibly broken up because they did not have a permit, no injuries were caused. Mr. Makbon stated, "initially, earlier, there were some who resisted police, so the police had to take firm measures."
This comes as West Papuans are demanding an independence referendum, not new provinces or increased autonomy.
On April 12, the Indonesian government announced plans to establish three new provinces in West Papua, in addition to the existing two provinces of West Papua and Papua. The government's aim is to break the two provinces into five administrative regions, including South Papua, Central Papua, and the Papua Central Highlands Province.
There are concerns that this reform will have ramifications on the independence and autonomy of West Papuans. Under existing legislation, the creation of new provinces requires the establishment of government apparatus, including military posts, which threatens to cause increased clashes between authorities and West Papuans.
West Papuan independence has been an issue for some time. Heavy-handed repression under President Suharto was replaced by subsequent governments' emphasis on economic development and democracy for the region. However, the region remains impoverished, and national corporations exploit its natural resources.
The Indonesian military continues to maintain a strong presence in the region, with human rights abuses committed against West Papuans. Reports continue of villages being attacked and locals arbitrarily detained, tortured, and shot. These abuses have continued to fuel resentment and unrest. Furthermore, West Papuans face long jail sentences of up to 15 years for raising the West Papuan flag.
In a positive development, recent events have caught the international community's attention. In March, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples released a report criticizing the Indonesian government for ongoing abuses.
The report expressed serious concerns about the deteriorating human rights situation in West Papua, including attacks on indigenous Papuans, child killings, disappearances, torture, and mass displacement.
The report rightly calls for urgent access to humanitarian services to provide much-needed aid and support for those abused and displaced and for the Indonesian government to investigate any abuses committed against West Papuans.
It remains to be seen whether the increase in international pressure will have a positive outcome for West Papuans, but it represents a welcome pivot in expressing concern for the rights of the indigenous population.