Pacific / West Papua

Jakarta blames Papua unrest on independence movement

17:37 pm on 6 September 2019

Facing international pressure over major unrest in Papua region, Indonesia's government has pointed blame at West Papuan independence groups.

Benny Wenda, Wellington, 10 May 2017. Photo: RNZI / Koroi Hawkins

Indonesia facing international pressure over Papua violence

The United Liberation Movement for West Papua and its leader, Benny Wenda, have been singled out for orchestrating the unrest of recent weeks in Indonesian-ruled Papuan provinces.

The turmoil was sparked by Papuan protests which began as anti-racism rallies last month and quickly developed into demonstrations demanding independence.

The largest public mobilisations in decades in Papua have prompted the deployment of 6000 extra security personnel to the region, while dozens of activists have been arrested, and at least ten people have been killed in the ensuing violence.

The national police chief Tito Karnavian told media in Jakarta that the unrest had been driven by pro-independence groups and Mr Wenda in particular.

He said the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) and the National Committee for West Papua were both responsible for the unrest, and vowed they would be caught. Police said diplomatic channels would be used to hold Mr Wenda to account.

Indonesian police vehicles attend to mass mobilisations in Jayapura, Papua province, August 2019 Photo: Whens Tebay

But the UK-based ULMWP leader said Indonesian officials were trying to turn the problem in Papua into a personal issue, rather than confronting the need for a peaceful transition to independence in the region through a legitimate self-determination referendum.

Mr Wenda claimed the Indonesian state through its security forces was fostering conflict by arming Indonesian settlers and directing nationalist militias.

"It is the Indonesian nationalist groups which called us 'monkeys' and 'pigs' in Surabaya," he said, in reference to a 17 August incident - considered to have sparked the protests - when dozens of Papuan students were abused, teargassed and arrested by soldiers.

"I say to the Indonesian citizens in West Papua: you are the eye witnesses of the injustices being carried out by the Indonesian government against my people," he said.

"Listen to why we are demonstrating. Support our peaceful demands for a democratic referendum on independence."

Citing the controversial process by which Indonesia took control of Papua in the 1960s, the ULMWP said West Papuans had still not been granted a legitimate act of self-determination in accordance with international practice.

However, Indonesia said its sovereignty in Papua was non-negotiable.

International attention

On Thursday, UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet urged Indonesia to engage in a dialogue with Papuans, saying she was disturbed by escalating violence.

Photo: AFP / Luiz Rampelotto / NurPhoto

She said unrest in Papua was part of a concerning global trend where mass protests were met by state supression.

"Much of the grievances can be traced back to inequalities and power imbalances," she said at a news conference.

"When people from all walks of life are allowed a seat at the table, to openly discuss their access to social, economic, civil, political and cultural rights - in a safe space, without fear of repression - only then can we hope to guarantee stability."

Ms Bachelet has urged Jakarta to open dialogue with West Papuans on their aspirations and concerns. But the rights chief was silent on the status of a trip to Papua by her office, something which Indonesia agreed to in principle in January.

Pacific Island governments have voiced concern that Jakarta is dragging the chain on allowing the visit to go ahead, and took a recent stand on the matter.

Echoing this, New Zealand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said on Thursday it was "deeply concerned" by the recent violence and had raised the issue with Indonesian authorities. "We have urged Indonesia to respect and protect the human rights of all its citizens," a spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, in Papua's neighbouring Papua New Guinea, Prime Minister James Marape condemned violence and killings across the border.

"Whilst we respect Indonesian sovereignty and their borders, just like PNG also expects our bilateral partners in the region to respect our soveriegnty and our borders, respect of sovereignty and borders must come within the context of human rights.

"No human beings in those borders need to be unnecessarily harassed or killed for expression of their basic, mundane human rights," Mr Marape told media.

Indonesian police confront West Papuan demonstrators in Jayapura, August 2019. Photo: Whens Tebay

Security forces have responded to some of the unrest with tear gas and, according to witnesses, live ammunition. In the remote Deiyai regency, at least five people and a soldier were killed after security forces claimed they were attacked. Activist and church groups said eight civilians were shot dead during the incident.

Indonesia's President Joko Widodo on Thursday met with young Papuans at the presidential palace in Jakarta, saying the situation in Papua had stabilised. He re-emphasised his government's plans to promote economic development in the region.

But the government's handling of the unrest, including blocking internet access in Papua since the protests began, continues to face criticism.

Amnesty International has spoken out about the naming of human rights lawyer Veronica Koman as a criminal suspect for sharing videos online of the Surabaya incident. The NGO called on police to drop action against Ms Koman as well as treason charges against six activists.

"It's a general pattern of the failure of Indonesian authorities, in particular, the Indonesian security forces, to differentiate the peaceful political activism and acts of violence," said Papang Hindayat, a researcher with Amnesty International Indonesia.

Even as Indonesia's president played down the tensions in Papua, discontent continued to simmer.

On Monday, police said five gold miners in the central highlands regency of Yahukimo were killed by local residents armed with machetes, bows and arrows.

"The reason for this killing is clear, namely the form of refusing the illegal gold theft in the territory of the customary lands of the Papuan Nation," said Sebby Sambom, a spokesperson for the West Papua Liberation Army, a guerilla force which operates in the area.