Explained: Why West Papuans are holding violent protests against Indonesian govt

Neha Banka
People burn tires during a protest at a road in Manokwari, West Papua, Indonesia, August 19, 2019. (Source: Antara Foto/Toyiban/via Reuters)

While Indonesia was celebrating its Independence Day on August 17, reports emerged accusing West Papuan students in a university dormitory in Surabaya, a city in the island of Java, of allegedly throwing the Indonesian national flag into the sewer. As soon as reports of this alleged incident began circulating, Indonesian authorities raided the university building, threw tear gas into the dormitories and took 43 people into custody, most of whom were West Papuans.

Soon, large crowds also gathered outside the university building, shouting anti-West Papuan slogans and chants and singing the Indonesian national anthem.

This incident in Surabaya led to widespread protests by West Papuans against Indonesian authorities, and it highlighted the alleged generational and institutional racism and violence that West Papuans have been subjected to.

Indonesian human rights lawyer Veronica Koman who has been sharing crowd-sourced videos from outside the university dormitory in Surabaya, documenting the protests and the violent response by Indonesian authorities, told indianexpress.com that all photos and videos had been verified for authenticity.


A few days before the students in Surabaya were accused of destroying the Indonesian flag, a group of students from Papua in the city of Malang on the island of Java, had held a pro-independence rally that turned violent after a clash with members of a local right-wing group, following which the Papuan students were detained by police for questioning. These subsequent incidents resulted in full-blown protests against alleged brutality by police and Indonesian security forces, and calls for Papuan independence.

Why have West Papuans faced generational racism and discrimination?

The island of New Guinea off the coast of Australia is pided into two, where the eastern half forms the independent state of Papua New Guinea and the western half forms West Papua or Western New Guinea that has been governed by Indonesia since 1963.

After Indonesia won its independence from the Dutch, the country set out to re-colonise Papua against the wishes of the Papuan people, said Lisa Tilley, lecturer in Politics, Birkbeck, University of London, in an interview with indianexpress.com. According to Tilley, Indonesia s motivations for attempting to re-colonise Papua was linked to the natural resources available on the island that the newly independent nation wanted. Papua had never been in a political grouping with other Indonesian islands before Dutch colonialism but Indonesia was determined to extend its sovereignty over Papuan territory in order to extract resources from the area. Papuans have, therefore, been included against their will within Indonesia but have been subjugated on racial hierarchies as part of their marginalisation on their own land.

Domestic politics and religious factors ebb and flow but the picture of resource extraction and land dispossession is the consistent story. Racism is central to that material story of exploitation, added Tilly.

Generational discrimination and racism against West Papuans have existed since the occupation of West Papuan territory by the Dutch colonisers and then the nation of Indonesia. The attacks that West Papuan students at the Surabaya university were subjected to by Indonesian authorities however, put this issue into the spotlight in an unprecedented way. Racist discourses which dehumanise Papuans by comparing them to monkeys circulate among Indonesians and these relate closely to material exclusions and oppression, said Tilley.

Following the week s violence, Papuan writer Ligia Giay, wrote an article for TirtoID, an Indonesian news publication, explaining colonial gaze and racism towards Papuans. Giay writes using her own experiences to describe how Indonesians view Papuans with disdain. It is this way of seeing Papuans that specifically focuses on what Papua lacks; couth, clothes, beauty, internet signal, the right use of Indonesian language, civilisations . If this sounds familiar, that is because this practice was common during Dutch colonialism, writes Giay.

In photos posted on Twitter by human rights lawyer Veronica Koman, West Papuans were seen demonstrating in Jayapura, West Papua, holding placards written in Bahasa Indonesia in solidarity with the students who were assaulted by Indonesian police on August 17. We are not monkeys , If we re monkeys, don t ask these monkeys to fly the Red & White , Kick out Papua= kick out Indonesia from Papua , read some of the placards, referring to the racial slurs used against West Papuans and the colours of the Indonesian national flag imposed on West Papua.

Map of the island of New Guinea (Source: BBC.com)

The racism & discrimination against West Papuans is deep-rooted and institutionalised. According to Tilley, Papuans are excluded from employment, dispossessed of their land that faces contamination due to extractive industries operating in the resource-rich region of West Papua. The Indonesian government s migration policies also exclude Papuan residents from availing of economic opportunities. Although transmigration policies mean that the government gives away land in Papua and provides incentives for those from other Indonesian islands to move there, Papuans find it very difficult to move to other parts of Indonesia because of administrative barriers as well as racism in society. For example, Papuans report that private landlords in East Java sometimes explicitly specify ‘no Papuans’ when advertising properties for rent, said Tilley.

Racism and discrimination against Papuans was enforced by the Dutch when in the 1880s they began occupying the islands that now form Indonesia. After the Dutch left the islands, Indonesian adopted the same racist language and policies, the use of which continues to be widespread today. According to Tilley, when the Dutch developed and urbanised the islands of Java and Sumatra into plantation economies, they did not do the same to Papua despite occupying the island. The perception of Papua as having vast potential for extraction, with extensive gold and copper reserves in particular, was prominent during the time around independence. Hence in the 1960s, General Suharto’s coup and the massacre of up to a million leftists in Indonesia paved the way for an international capital-friendly regime to open up Papua for exploitation, marginalising and brutalising Papuans in the process. Suharto’s regime worked together with key multinationals, most notably the US company Freeport McMoRan, which has been implicated in human rights abuses, dispossession, and environmental contamination in Papua ever since, explained Tilley.

According to Tilley, however, more Indonesians are now understanding how Papuans have faced generational injustice and Papuans themselves are working to raise awareness and generate conversation about the racism and discrimination that has historically been perpetrated upon them.

Indonesian soldiers stand as they arrive at Domine Eduard Osok Airport to be deployed to Sorong and Manokwari following the protests in Sorong, West Papua, Indonesia, August 20, 2019. (Source: Antara Foto/Olha Mulalinda/ via Reuters)

What happened during the Independence Day weekend in the Surabaya dormitory?

Tweeting from Surabaya on August 16, Koman reported that a student dormitory for West Papuan students was being attacked with rocks by a crowd who were subjecting the West Papuan students racial verbal abuse.


After Indonesian police stormed the student dormitory, they fired shots of tear gas and detained the students inside. The detained students denied allegations of destroying the Indonesian flag and reportedly did not cooperate with Indonesian police. Koman reported that the students had not had access to food and water for approximately 24 hours and that authorities had arrested two people who had attempted to enter the dormitory carrying food and water for students at 2 am. Crowds that had gathered outside the dormitory increased in number and by nighttime started chanting kick out, kick out Papua, kick out Papua right now!

Koman reported that the violence against the detained students increased during the night and 42 people had been arrested. They are all arrested just now For what? For being Papuans, I guess," tweeted Koman.

Over the next few days images of the detained Papuan students emerged and spread over social media in Indonesia, that showed the severity of injuries that were inflicted upon the students by Indonesian authorities.

Videos surfaced where shots fired by Indonesian police into the students dormitory were audible in video clips and mass rallies were soon organized protesting the alleged police brutality perpetrated upon the Papuan students. These monkeys don t want to be part of you humans, we want to be free, said slogans by Papuans calling for independence of West Papua.

What happened during protests against police brutality?

Over the weekend, news of police brutality against West Papuan students in Surabaya had spread and photos and videos on social media documenting the violence was widely shared. Protests against the racist attacks erupted across West Papua, where in one documented incident the local legislative office in Manokwari, the capital of West Papua, was burned down by protestors.

University students in Manokwari took to the streets and chanted free West Papua and we are not Red White, we are the Morning Star , referring to the colours of the Indonesian national flag and the Morning Star, a flag used by Papuans in an act of civil disobedience against Indonesian occupation that represents a free state of Papua.

In the city of Raja Ampat, protesters gathered in public spaces with loudspeakers and placards. In Jayapura, the Indonesian flag was taken down at the Governor s Office and West Papuan senators joined protesters to denounce racism and police brutality. In Sorong, protesters damaged the premises of the local airport and a government building and local police arrested 15 people following the incident. In Merauke, West Papua, protesters carrying posters of monkeys, were prevented from entering the city center by local police. Student dormitories for West Papuan students elsewhere across Indonesia were surrounded by police to prevent protests.

How did the Indonesian government respond to the protests?

On August 19, the Indonesian government restricted internet access across West Papua stating that the move was to limit hoax , but human rights activists in West Papua and Indonesia stated that it was an attempt by the government to curb the spread of information among West Papuans and to enable pro-Indonesia and pro-government propaganda narratives.

Indonesian president Joko Widodo released a statement calling for calm and urging people to forgive each other . Al Jazeera English quoted the president saying, "My brothers and sisters in Papua and West Papua, I know you feel offended. Therefore, as fellow countrymen, to forgive each other is the best. You may get angry but forgiving is better. It’s OK to be emotional, but it’s better to be forgiving. Patience is also better.

Despite Widodo s public calls for calm, the government deployed Indonesian military personnel who reached Manokwari, West Papua last night. To deploy more security forces just makes everything worse. I cannot even predict what is going to happen because I…have never seen West Papuans so angry. West Papuans have finally reached a tipping point. They can t take it anymore, said Koman in an interview with indianexpress.com.

It has been racism all along that caused their fundamental right to self-determination was robbed from them. Indonesia thought of West Papuans as stone-age people so they were not granted the right to vote in the sham 1969 Act of Free Choice. The racism continues till today that Indonesians treat West Papuans like subhumans. No justice for human rights abuses, as if they are just animals, said Koman.