Recent protests and riots in Papua and West Papua have reinvigorated the question of how capable the Indonesian government is of addressing problems in the east of the country. At least 30 people were killed and dozens were injured as protests erupted, primarily in Wamena, in September 2019. The protests and ensuing riots led to thousands of people fleeing their homes.
Racial issues have triggered these tensions. In August 2019 a mob — including police and military — gathered in front of a university dormitory in Surabaya, East Java and accused West Papuan students of deliberately discarding an Indonesian flag. The mob used racist chants towards Papuan people and the police shot teargas into the dormitory and arrested dozens of West Papuan students. This response has been described as ‘disproportionate’ by human rights lawyers and is being seen as a product of racism.
This incident went viral and prompted people in Papua to protest. In Manokwari, the capital of West Papua, an initially peaceful protest in August 2019 ended in a riot — the mob set fire to the local parliament building. Other rallies followed in Jayapura, Timika, Merauke and Fakfak. People damaged public facilities and government offices. Some informants said that facilities belonging to the government and those belonging to non-Papuan migrants were targeted. Both civilians and security forces suffered casualties and injuries.
In countering this anger, early government responses have been a mixture of ignorance and confusion. Indonesian President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) called for the people in Papua to be ‘patient’ and to ‘forgive each other’, without indicating any intention to crack down on racial abusers in Surabaya. Tito Karnivan, the Chief of Indonesian Police, blamed an exiled West Papuan leader for being the ‘mastermind’ behind the riots without any substantiation. Internet access has been shut down throughout the region to clamp down on protests. There has been excessive use of force by police in these protests.
Comprehensive measures from the government to address these protests are yet to be seen. The clearest response so far is the increasingly aggressive expansion of state securitisation — the government has increased police and security personnel numbers in the provinces.
A thorough resolution of Papua’s issues has gone nowhere in the era of Jokowi. Jokowi does not have any political ties with Indonesia’s previous political establishment resolve the problem. At the very least he could provide a clear direction towards a solution. People were optimistic in 2015 when Jokowi released Papua’s political prisoners and opened limited access to Papua and West Papua for foreign journalists. Yet since the second half of his first term, political competition has prevented further work in mending fences with the Papuan people.
Since mid-2016, other political dynamics have diverted Jokowi’s attention away from the east. Jakarta’s polarising 2017 gubernatorial election and a number of massive rallies in 2016 and 2017 have redefined the political landscape between Jokowi and his political opponents. Jokowi has spent much of his energy reconsolidating his political capital and catering to increasingly powerful Islamic politics. It took almost a year for the Constitutional Court of Indonesia to uphold Jokowi’s win, creating a further distraction.
Poor human rights conditions in Papua have been ignored by Indonesian presidents, including Jokowi. A report by Amnesty International Indonesia revealed that there were 69 cases of unlawful killings in Papua from January 2010 to February 2018 (from both Indonesian president Yudhoyono’s and Jokowi’s era) which caused 95 fatalities. It is likely that the recent shootings of protesters will not proceed to a serious investigation, despite the spread of viral footage showing that security forces opened fire on protesters.
In dealing with human rights, Jokowi has placed himself in an inconvenient situation. Key aides and political allies in the Coordinating Ministry for Political, Legal and Security Affairs and the Ministry of Defence are either suspected perpetrators of past state violence or orthodox military figures who support a securitisation approach in Papua. Jokowi has made little effort to distance himself from these circles in his second term.
Problems in Papua will continue to be a critical issue in Indonesian domestic politics. Jokowi’s administration may have made some progress in the region, most notably on building basic infrastructure. But this plan has its limits. One should not forget to address human rights issues as they relate to the very dignity of people.
Noory Okthariza is a researcher at the Department of Politics and Social Change at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Indonesia.