A recent attack by police and civil organizations on a dormitory for Papuan students in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city, has sparked mass protests across the island of Java. The issue is rooted in hate speech and longstanding discrimination against Papuans, who are an ethnic minority. Protestors have attacked government buildings, demanding equal treatment for Papuans.
Papua has a long history of tension with the rest of Indonesia. Scores of West Papuans reject the 1962 New York Agreement, which handed West Papua over to Indonesia from the Dutch, with many saying Papuans didn’t have a say when the decision was made. A significant portion of West Papuans have been fighting for independence even before the agreement and conflict in the area has been common in the 57 years since it was annexed to Indonesia. But Indonesian police and military have effectively stifled independence movements, imprisoning freedom fighters and occasionally barring journalists from entering the province. This month's protests are just the latest in the ongoing issue.
Saturday, Aug. 17
On Indonesia’s independence day, Surabaya Police raided a dormitory where they arrested 42 Papuan students after receiving reports from Islamist and nationalist civil organisations that they had allegedly defaced the Indonesian flag by throwing it into the sewer. Police shot tear gas into the dorm and used excessive force against the residents, injuring five.
The victims say the raid was racially-motivated. Police allegedly called them “monkeys,” sparking accusations of hate speech. Papuans are a Melanesian ethnic minority and are often discriminated against by other Indonesians, especially given their desire for independence.
Sunday, Aug. 18
The 42 students were released from jail due to lack of evidence that they had tampered with the Indonesian flag.
Monday, Aug. 19
Protests broke out in Manokwari, the capital of West Papua, with protestors blocking roads and setting the House of Representatives on fire. Citizens of nearby cities Jayapura and Sorong also took to the streets to protest the unfair treatment of Papuans in Surabaya.
Tuesday, Aug. 20
The Ministry of Communication and Information blocked internet access in West Papua to “prevent the spread of hoaxes.”
Officials apologised on behalf of the Indonesian police for racist and discriminatory remarks. “The government regrets the incident related to the defacing of the Indonesian flag, which sparked negative reactions from civil organisations who took matters into their own hands,” Coordinating Minister of Law and Human Rights Wiranto, who goes by one name, said in a press conference.
Governor of West Java Indar Parawansa also acknowledged the Indonesian police’s misconduct. “Those inappropriate words, which should not have been spoken, understandably sparked sensitivity amongst Papuans,” he told CNN Indonesia. Surabaya Mayor Tri Rismaharini and Chief of the national police General Tito Karnavian also issued formal apologies.
In Sorong, another city in West Papua, police restricted protestors’ movement, keeping them confined to one square. Head of Sorong police Mario Christy Siregar told BBC Indonesia that the riots began with protestors throwing rocks and glass bottles towards the West Papua Mayor and his colleagues.
Some protesters raided the local public records office next to the mayor’s office, burning a number of documents. Their motive remains unclear. They also destroyed part of the Sorong Airport and the Sorong State Prison, leading to the escape of over 200 prisoners.
In Jayapura, protestors from nearby districts Wamena, Abepura, and Kotaraja marched towards the Papuan Governor’s office to protest racial persecution and discrimination towards Papuans not only in Surabaya, but across Indonesia. West Papuan dorms have been routinely raided in the past for allegedly supporting a referendum that calls for independence.
In the city of Ternate, citizens led by the Indonesian Front for West Papua said that police and military treated them violently during their protest.
In Malang city, a demonstration by 56 students from the Papuan Students’ Alliance was forcefully broken up by vigilante groups with police backing.
As of Aug. 20, Tapol.org placed the number of arrested protestors across Java at 169. The police have not released an official number.
On Aug. 20, police also began the process of identifying the culprit who allegedly committed hate speech against the Papuan students in Surabaya. In a statement, head of East Java Police, Luki Hermawan, said an investigation is ongoing, and that police forces are working with witnesses and civil organisations to identify the perpetrators.
Thursday, Aug. 22
Over 1,000 people took to the streets in Nabire, West Papua, in a day of protests, spreading to the Maybrat and Biak districts.
Sunday, Aug. 25
Police released the identities of the five hate speech perpetrators who abused the Papuan students in Surabaya. They were suspended from their police unit pending further investigation.
Police also identified three leaders of the vigilante-like civil organizations that initially harassed the Papuan students over the alleged defacement of the Indonesian flag. It’s still unclear whether these leaders will be charged with hate speech.