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Escalating violence in Papua has led to the deaths of more than 30 student protesters, echoing the military’s brutality in Timor-Leste and Aceh in previous decades. By John Martinkus.

Indonesia cracks down on student protesters in Papua

In the town of Wamena, in the highlands of Papua, thick smoke poured from the roof of the regent’s office. It had been torched by protesters, according to police, along with dozens of other buildings and cars.

Other videos filtered out in the days that followed, in moments when the internet wasn’t shut down, along with photos of the bloodied bodies of Papuans caught up in the violence. Panicked crowds fleeing the crackling gunfire as the Indonesian security forces moved in; mass arrests, with hundreds of students forced to lie on the ground with their hands on their heads, armed Indonesian troops and police watching over them.

In one clip, a young man who identifies as a student in Papua’s coastal capital, Jayapura, details his injuries: his arm hit by a rubber bullet, head struck by a rifle and length of wood, choked, kicked in the ribs five times. A bloodied bandage sits low across his eye.

A crackdown, long threatened by the Indonesian military, finally happened in Wamena and Jayapura this week. The deadly unrest began on Monday with two demonstrations held by Papuans, one by university students at their campus just outside Jayapura, the other by high school students in Wamena.

Those on the ground say the protests were largely peaceful until the Indonesian military and police moved in. In Jayapura, videos appear to show tear gas being used and, in both locations, shots were fired at protesters. So far, the death toll has reached at least 32, with dozens more injured. The military now stands accused of killing high school and university students. Some 700 people have been arrested for questioning.

According to one Papuan civil servant, injured students started to arrive at the hospital in Jayapura midmorning on Monday. Some were wounded by rocks, others appeared to have been shot. “A young Papuan male student got shot from his back, which rips through the side of his stomach. I hear him yelling, ‘Aduh sa mo mati’ [I feel like dying],” the civil servant told The Saturday Paper. “A few minutes later, there was another Papuan got shot in the thigh.”

The civil servant, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, said more casualties arrived at the hospital on Tuesday. Some appeared to be wounded by something sharp.

“I saw a young student got burnt from hot water. I saw his skin rips off from his arms down to the legs,” he said. “A lot of the wounds I saw from Papuans are at the thigh and legs.”

The protests in Jayapura were caused by a student protest against racial discrimination by Indonesian authorities. In Wamena, the official line is that the protests were sparked by a hoax on social media – a rumour that a teacher racially abused an indigenous student in a West Papuan school. Papua police spokesman Ahmad Musthofa Kamal told reporters police were still looking for the perpetrator.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo appealed to protesters “not to be provoked by a hoax”.

In truth though, the roots of this latest violence lay in Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu’s declaration that security forces would “crush” Papuan rebels who were accused of killing a police officer last month. Throughout August, waves of protest rippled across Papua and Indonesia, beginning on the August 15 anniversary of the 1962 New York Agreement, which signed over administration of the region from the Netherlands to Indonesia. Within days, thousands were taking part in demonstrations across the province. On August 23, the Indonesian government cut the region’s internet.

“I have been disturbed by escalating violence in the past two weeks in the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua, and especially the deaths of some protesters and security forces personnel,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said earlier this month. “This is part of a trend we have observed since December 2018.”

Bachelet was referring to the Indonesian military operation that began in West Papua late last year, after 31 Indonesian road builders were killed by local villagers. West Papuans accused the government of dropping weapons from helicopters. Images sent to The Saturday Paper showed villagers maimed and burnt. Sources said at least four villages were attacked, from the air, from artillery and from ground troops. The Indonesian army sealed off the area.

 

For many observers, there is a strong sense of deja vu in this latest crackdown. Echoes of similar operations carried out by the Indonesian military throughout the 1990s and 2000s, in Timor-Leste, Aceh and beyond. The men who were then generals in the Indonesian military are now political power players in Jakarta. General Wiranto was Indonesian defence minister during the 1999 crackdown on Timor-Leste, which left 2000 Timorese dead and hundreds of thousands of others displaced. He is now the co-ordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs of Indonesia.

Prabowo Subianto, now leader of the Gerindra political party, was the head of Indonesia’s special forces during the brutal May 1998 riots. He was accused of orchestrating the kidnapping of activists and overseeing troops who tortured democracy protesters and was dismissed from the army over the kidnappings in 1998.

Ryamizard Ryacudu was appointed defence minister by Joko Widodo in 2014, in the face of protests from human rights activists. Ryacudu was army chief of staff when martial law was imposed on Aceh in 2003 as part of a military crackdown on the Free Aceh Movement rebels. He has been widely described as a “hardliner”. In 2003, he told Time magazine, “No region can be allowed to break away”, pointing to both Aceh and Papua. “Issues of justice, religion, autonomy, social welfare, education – those are not the Indonesian military’s problem,” he said. Human Rights Watch has documented accusations of extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances carried out by the Indonesian military in Aceh during the period Ryacudu was in command.

 

The August demonstrations in West Papua were denounced by Indonesian officials as an attempt to catch the attention of the United Nations General Assembly. Similarly, Wiranto said this week’s protests were orchestrated by the National Committee for West Papua, which is affiliated with Benny Wenda’s United Liberation Movement for West Papua. “The ‘free Papua’ movement seems to be showing its existence by provoking the public to commit anarchy, which only harmed themselves,” Wiranto said.

Wenda called for a peacekeeping mission to enter West Papua. “This is really shocking at a human level,” he told SBS. “These students are high school students in Wamena, they are kids.”

The UN has not been able to enter West Papua since violence broke out last December.

Wenda urged Australia to act quickly, warning of a repeat of the 1998 violence in Timor-Leste.

“We are obviously very concerned about the reports of violence in Papua and West Papua,” Australia’s defence minister, Marise Payne, told reporters outside the UN headquarters in New York. “And they are matters which our post in Jakarta is obviously following up with authorities there.

“We have indicated consistently that we urge absolute restraint, from both sides, in actions that are happening on the ground there and most particularly support President Widodo’s calls for calm as well.”

In recent weeks, an additional 6000 Indonesian troops have been sent into the region in an attempt to quell the uprising. The United Liberation Movement for West Papua has accused the Indonesian military of abducting activist Buchtar Tabuni. On August 30, the 20th anniversary of Timor-Leste’s referendum, exiled leader Benny Wenda called for West Papua’s own independence vote.

“We have already been a united government for five years,” he told Deutsche Welle from his home in London. “Indonesia is scared because before we were divided.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 28, 2019 as "West Papua protests". Subscribe here.

John Martinkus
is a foreign correspondent and author.