Residents ride in convoy during a protest in Mimika, Papua, on Wednesday. (Antara Photo/Sevianto Pakiding)

Gov't Blocks Internet, Deploys Security Personnel to Restore Order, but Resentment Runs Deep in Papua


AUGUST 21, 2019

Jakarta. The government has blocked internet access and deployed large numbers of security personnel in Papua to contain island-wide unrest, as protests over racist slurs allegedly directed at Papuan students in Surabaya, East Java, last week ran into a third day on Wednesday. 

The National Police said it deployed personnel in Fakfak and Mimika districts, in response to indications that a small group was trying to reignite the riots that broke out on Monday.

"We can confirm that the National Police brought the Fakfak region under control this afternoon," National Police spokesman Brig. Gen. Dedi Prasetyo told reporters in Jakarta on Wednesday. 

He said a handful of people in Fakfak tried to provoke the community to engage in further unrest. Police have identified the alleged perpetrators and seized several symbols. However, the police spokesman would not confirm whether the symbols were those of the separatist Free Papua Movement, or OPM. 


The Ministry of Communications and Information Technology also decided to temporarily block data services in Papua to prevent the spread of disinformation. 

"To speed up the process of restoring law and order in Papua and surrounding areas, and after coordinating with law enforcement officials and related agencies, the ministry ... has decided to temporarily block data services, starting from Wednesday until the situation in Papua returns to normal," a ministry spokesman said in a statement on Wednesday.

It is the second time this year the government has resorted to blocking or restricting internet access to contain unrest. The ministry also throttled data access during post-election unrest in Jakarta in May.

The incident in Fakfak and Mimika followed similar protests in Manokwari and Sorong over the past two days, when thousands of Papuans took to the streets in anger over the treatment of 43 Papuan students in Surabaya on Friday last week. In a message spread on WhatsApp, the students claim that they were called "monkeys" by members of an angry crowd besieging their dormitory over allegations that they had desecrated the national flag.

Several soldiers and police officers were reportedly in the crowd, but the Indonesian Military (TNI) and National Police have since denied that any of their members shouted racial insults.

Police detained the unarmed students after firing tear gas into their dormitory. They were released at midnight, after no evidence could be found that they had been responsible for damaging the flag.

Still, videos of the incident in Surabaya were widely circulated on social media and Papuans reacted to the insults. Police have vowed to track down the people who spread the initial WhatsApp message and subsequent videos, accusing them of trying to provoke social unrest. 

Deeper Issues

"The unrest was the accumulation of many problems that have yet to be resolved until now. So people are easily provoked," Adriana Elisabeth, a political researcher at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), said on Wednesday.

Adriana, who is also a coordinator of the Papua Peace Network, which facilitates dialogue between the Papuan people and the government, said there was a widening wealth gap between indigenous Papuans and the increasing number of Indonesians from other parts of the archipelago settling in the country's two easternmost provinces. 

"In my opinion, the Papuan identity was verbally humiliated. Then, if we associate it with economic issues in Papua, many non-Papuan groups are dominant. This also triggers social envy," she said.

"Several business premises were damaged in the riots. This shows a dislike for migrants. Although daily interactions are relatively harmonious, deep down, the problem is not resolved. A small spark can ignite massive unrest," she said.

Adriana added that many human right issues in Papua have also never been resolved. 

"This is dangerous. It is as if [the government] underestimates Papua's problems and thinks that by providing [goods or infrastructure] the problems would go away," she said. 

"The big issues are human rights violations, racial discrimination and marginalization. These are problems that have never been dealt with. They must be heard," the researcher said.