Over the past weeks, protests have erupted across West Papua and Indonesia with over 200,000 people joining the march. Fuelled by the alleged racist attack of three Papuan students who were shot in their dorms by militia groups, along with video footage of Indonesian police firing at campaigners – in which six were killed – tensions have rapidly escalated.
Yet, this uprising is not something new. Over the years, many massacres have occurred. It has been estimated that over 500,000 civilians have been killed and thousands more raped, tortured, and imprisoned since Indonesian rule began over 50 years ago. One of the most poignant bloodbaths being the infamous “Biak Massacre” back in 1998, where numerous people were shot following protests. More than 200 – including women and children – were then frogmarched onto Indonesian vessels by the military, taken out to sea, and thrown in to drown.
As a result of the on-going political unrest, there are now over 6,000 Indonesian military and police on the streets of Papuan Towns and cities. To date, the country remains the poorest province in Indonesia according to the 2016 Human Development Index, with 40 per cent living below the poverty line. Furthermore, Papuans have the highest maternal and child mortality rates in the country; the highest rates of illiteracy; and the lowest life expectancy. Many have argued this is evidence of the government turning a blind eye to the growing injustices and struggles the people of West Papua face.
Naomi Sosa, Director of Papua Partners UK, an organisation that provides support to the indigenous Papuan community, explained, “Papuans experience direct violence in terms of widespread human rights abuses by the state but they also experience deep structural violence. Many more Papuans die by structural violence than by direct violence. This is seen played out in the crisis in Asmat Regency of Papua where a measles and malnutrition crisis killed at least 72 people – who were mostly children – in early 2018. Other epidemics and famines over the last 40 years, due to lack of immunisation and no presence or negligence of the state, have most likely killed tens of thousands.”
Most Papuans live in a perpetual state of fear, aware that they could face a catalogue of violence at any given point. Apart from physical abuse, rural villages have been burnt to the ground, and agriculture and livestock destroyed, subjecting the inhabitants to illnesses and starvation.
Furthermore, the creation of new districts has allowed local elites to have access to funds and control with little accountability. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people continue to be denied the services and finances that they need, which contributed to more violence and deaths.
“There cannot be peace in the land of Papua until there is real justice for the Papuan people,” Sosa added. “Until then, any peace achieved only by stopping direct violence, blocking of protests, silencing of journalists and activists, is a false and unsustainable peace and will never be acceptable to the majority of Papuan people.”
Since the rights to freedom of expression are also largely denied in West Papua, many find themselves to be victims of persecution or imprisonment should they object to Indonesian rule or express being in favour of independence. At present, hundreds of political prisoners are being held with lengthy jail sentences for protesting peacefully.
In a damning report, Amnesty International said that “the people of Papua have been subject to severe human rights violations at the hands of the Indonesian authorities. Their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are heavily curtailed, and many are imprisoned simply for having taken part in non-violent demonstrations, or having expressed their opinions.”
Today, the police arrested a leading West Papuan activist. Buchtar Tabuni, who is the deputy head of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) was suspected as an instigator in the recent riots and pro-independence protests.
Tempo reported that Police spokesman Brig. Gen. Dedi Prasetyo in South Jakarta said that Tabuni has been charged with articles on treason and others, and Papua Regional Police HQ are still examining him. Dedi, however, did not disclose the role of Buchtar and his alleged association with Benny Wenda – another Papuan activist accused of orchestrating the insurgences.
The province of West Papua, which lies far east of Indonesia, was originally inhabited by Melanesian people until it was colonised in 1898 by the Dutch. It was temporarily transferred to the United Nations before being given to Indonesia in 1963. By 1969, following a referendum, which many claimed to be fraudulent, it came under Indonesian rule – a move that has since been hugely contested by most Papuans over the decades.