Explained: Why ethnic strife is tearing apart Indonesia’s Papua highlandshttps://indianexpress.com/article/explained/explained-why-ethnic-strife-is-tearing-apart-an-indonesian-island-6028360/

Explained: Why ethnic strife is tearing apart Indonesia’s Papua highlands

Unrest in the Indonesian side of the Papua islands exists since at least 50 years now, when the New York Agreement, which was brokered by the United Nations was signed between Indonesia and the Netherlands in 1962.

Student protesters run from tear gas fired by police officers during a protest in Jakarta, Indonesia Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019. (AP Photo)

Over 20 people have been killed and at least 65 injured in violent protests that erupted in the largest town of the Indonesian Papua highlands, Wamena after rumours spread that a teacher had directed racist slurs at some students. According to reports, the protesters torched shops, government buildings, homes, cars and motorcycles. Three of the killed were shot by the police and the rest died after being trapped in the burning houses and shops.

Indonesia is an archipelago consisting of several islands and one of them is the Indonesian side of New Guinea or Western New Guinea, which consists of the provinces of West Papua and Papua. The eastern side of the island is referred to as Papua New Guinea. Civil unrest in the two western provinces is not uncommon and in its present phase has been ongoing since mid-August over Papuans’ claims of facing racial discrimination and demands for self-determination.

August unrest

After Indonesia observed its independence day on August 17, the authorities arrested over 43 Papuan students from their dormitory in Surabaya city, which is located on the island of Java. They were accused of throwing the Indonesian flag in a ditch next to the building that housed their dorms. They were later released after no evidence was found against them. As news of the Indonesian flag being damaged spread, a crowd reached the dormitory and verbally attacked the Papuans by shouting racist slogans, accompanied by recitations of the Indonesian national anthem.


Widespread anti-racism protests organised by the Papuans have been witnessed since then, mostly in areas located in West Papua and Papua.

Indonesian riot police shot multiple rounds of tear gas at thousands of stone-throwing students who attempted to reach Parliament in Jakarta on Wednesday (AP Photo)

A brief history of the Papuan unrest

The Indonesian side of the Papua islands has seen unrest since at least 50 years now, when the New York Agreement, which was brokered by the United Nations, was signed between Indonesia and the Netherlands in 1962. Indonesia was a Dutch colony and became independent in 1949. As the Dutch were preparing to leave, Indonesia claimed control over West Papua.

The agreement was meant to provide a framework under which the authority would be transferred from the Netherlands to Indonesia. The agreement also included a guarantee for the Papuan people, that they would be allowed the “Act of Free Choice”, which allowed them to express their free will. The agreement mentions with regards to the Papuan people that all adult nationals of the region are eligible to participate in the act of self-determination and to decide if the inhabitants want to remain with Indonesia or if they “wish to sever their ties with Indonesia.”

Even so, after Netherlands’ withdrawal from Indonesia, there was no follow-up on these provisions and the government did little to bring about economic and political development in the West Papua province, which had been renamed to West Irian by then, until 2000 when it was renamed to West Papua.

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By this time, the Organisasi Papua Merdeka, the Free Papua Movement had emerged, of which the “Free Papua” rebels were a part of. To curb this resistance, the Indonesian government is known to have resorted to killings, disappearing people, raping Papuans and raiding ceremonies where they hoisted their separatist flags, raising concerns about the reported human rights violations by the Indonesian government. This fueled sentiments of insurgency among the people of West Papua. In 2017, the United Nations rejected West Papua’s petition for Independence as illegal.

Around August 15 this year, protests broke out again, coinciding with the anniversary of the New York Agreement. This was also the time when Pacific nations convened at the Pacific Islands Forum between August 13-16 where the Papua issue was also discussed.

Significantly, the indigenous people of the provinces of Papua and West Papua belong to the same ethnic origin as the people residing in Papua New Guinea and other Melanesian peoples who reside in the Pacific region. They also speak a language different from that of the Indonesian people.