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Riots in Manokwari, the capital of Indonesia's West Papua province. Riots in Manokwari, the capital of Indonesia's West Papua province.  (AFP or licensors)

Protest riots in Indonesia’s West Papua province

People set fire to a local parliament building in West Papua on 19 August, in protest against arrests and alleged racial abuse of Papuan students by Indonesian police.

By Robin Gomes

Violence erupted in the West Papua province of Indonesia on Monday, with people setting fire to the local parliament building, in protest against the alleged racial abuse of students from neighbouring Papua province.   

The backlash came in the wake of news that security forces led by an angry mob reportedly launched physical and racial verbal attacks on some Papuan students living in a dormitory in the East Java city of Surabaya on Sunday, accusing them of refusing to celebrate Indonesia's Independence Day the previous day.

The students were accused of throwing an Indonesian flag into a sewer, which they denied. 

In the West Papuan capital Manokwari, a mob set fire to the West Papua Regional Legislative Council (DPRD) building and a number of other buildings and blocked roads with burnt cars and tyres.

Police also reported that protesters destroyed parts of an airport in Sorong, another city in West Papua province.

Residents of West Papua are ethnically similar to those in the neighbouring province of Papua.  The two provinces became part of Indonesia controversially in the 1960s, despite the former Dutch colony declaring independence in 1961.   

Since then, a separatist movement has been simmering in Papua, with people complaining of discrimination and rights abuses at the hands of Indonesian authorities.

In recent years, some Papua students, including some who study in other provinces, have become vocal in calling for self-determination for the province.

The arrested students were released on Aug. 18, by which time outrage in Papua had emboldened protesters to take to the streets.

Papua Governor Lukas Enembe condemned the Surabaya incident saying, "Indonesia has been independent for 74 years, and intolerant, racist and discriminatory actions should not be allowed in this country."  "Racial acts in Surabaya have hurt us in Papua," he said in a statement. "Intolerant, racial and discriminatory actions should not exist in today’s Indonesia.”

Indonesian President Joko Widodo is seeking to defuse the tension, with his chief security minister, Wiranto, pledging a "complete and fair" investigation into the East Java incidents. 

Home Affairs Minister Tjahjo Kumolo said he would summon the governors of Papua, West Papua and East Java to get to the bottom of the matter.

Religious groups and rights activists condemned the weekend arrests, saying it was a setback to efforts to end tensions in Papua.

Yuliana Langowuyo, deputy director of the Franciscan Commission for Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation, said the students were treated in a "very degrading way."

"Such racism and discrimination show the failure of the state in protecting the rights of all citizens," she told UCANEWS.

Natalius Pigai, a Papuan activist and former member of the National Human Rights Commission, called on police to punish those involved in the student arrests. "The police must move immediately to try and diffuse the situation,” he said.

19 August 2019, 16:31