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Flaring Tensions in Papua’s Independence Movement Leads to Violence and Unrest

By Ben Levy

Global Outlook

Protest movements continue to flare up across the globe challenging national governments, anti-democratic conditions, coronavirus restrictions, and corruption. I some cases, these emotionally charged demonstrations have resulted in violent suppression and accusations of police brutality.

Unrest led by student demonstrators in the Indonesian region of Papau has swept the nation in recent months. Hundreds of university students marched in the provincial capital, Jayapura. Video footage from the rally shared across social media shows crowds of protesters fleeing in panic as a result of the police forces firing shots into the crowd.

The spokesman for the Papuan police, Ahmad Kamal, confirmed to reporters that warning shots had been fired into the protesters as a means of crowd control, but denied the allegations by those demonstrating that two students had been hurt and three others arrested.

Papua: Independence vs. Autonomy

The student-led protests are in response to plans to extend a special autonomy law that the demonstrators and organizers say has not done enough to help people in one of the country’s poorest regions.

The intention of the Special Autonomy Law, which was passed in 2001 and is slated to expire in 2021, was to provide Papua and West Papua provinces with a larger share of revenue derived from the region’s rich natural resources while also granting residents and local governments greater political autonomy.

The two regions, where political control has been contested for more than half a century, are located on the western half of the Pacific island of New Guinea. Indonesia’s grip over the region has led to numerous accusations of human rights violations and what international observers have described as the violent suppression of the region’s movement for independence.

Papua and West Papua are former Dutch colonies that were incorporated into Indonesia in 1969, a move that was widely condemned, with many Papuans forced into voting for Indonesian rule.

Today, the people are resisting special autonomy in favor of a free referendum on independence. Demonstrators accuse the Indonesian government of using the Special Autonomy Law as a means of suppressing the independence movement.

“Each time, underneath autonomy lies only bullets and killings,” said the exiled West Papuan leader, Benny Wenda, chair of the United Liberation Movement of West Papua.

“As the 2001 special autonomy law expires this year … the people of West Papua are united in rejecting Indonesian-controlled ‘autonomy’. There is only one solution to our problem: an independence referendum.”

Rising tensions lead to violence

Tensions surrounding the movement have risen dramatically in recent weeks. Clashes between Papua security forces and the separatists groups have resulted in the deaths of at least two civilians and two soldiers.

Growing unrest has also been blamed for the violent death of a popular Christian pastor, Pastor Yeremia Zanambani, who was found dead near his home earlier this month. He had been shot and stabbed multiple times. With no arrests so far, supporters of the independence movement fear that authorities will not launch a proper investigation into his death.

The arrest of up to 200 protesters across the Nabire regency, as reported by the United Liberation Movement of West Papua, has triggered additional protests demanding the release of these political prisoners.

Accusations of human rights violations

The region is rich in natural resources, including Papua’s Grasberg, the world’s largest gold mine. However, the provinces are among the least developed in Indonesia ranking high in levels of poverty and childhood malnutrition.

The indigenous Melanesian people of the region are ethnically distinct from the rest of Indonesia and are more closely related to the peoples of Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, and New Caledonia.

A war of words erupted at the UN general assembly this week with Vanuatu’s prime minister, Bob Loughman arguing “the indigenous people of West Papua continue to suffer from human rights abuses” and that there had been “little progress” in addressing violations.

Silvany Austin Pasaribu, the Indonesian diplomat, fired back “please keep the sermon to yourself”. Telling Vanuatu’s leader that “it is shameful that this single country continues to have excessive and unhealthy obsession about how Indonesia should govern itself. You are no representation of the people of Papua, and stop fantasizing of being one.”

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