Indonesia deploys troops to West Papua region as protests spread

Jakarta, Indonesia – Indonesia has deployed more troops to the restive West Papua, as demonstrations continue to spread to several communities in the region, with reports of injuries and more attacks that belie earlier assurances by the government that the unrest had been contained.

President Joko Widodo’s top security minister, Wiranto, told reporters on Tuesday that Jakarta will deploy more troops to the region to anticipate protests on Wednesday, when demonstrators are expected to hold bigger rallies.

Wiranto did not say if the government deployed military or police officers. But a video obtained by Al Jazeera showed hundreds of military and police personnel arriving in Manokwari, where the most violent of protests first took place on Monday, leaving government buildings and business establishments burned to the ground.

It was unclear how many troops were deployed.

Indonesia’s West Papua protests turn violent

On Tuesday, angry protests spread to at least six other areas of West Papua, with reports of injuries.

A police officer in Manokwari told Al Jazeera that one of its officers was shot and injured. Manokwari is the capital of West Papua province.

Meanwhile, a female protester was shot in her ankle, according to Victor Yeimo, the spokesperson for West Papua National Committee (WPNC), which initiated and organised the protests.

West Papua region is divided into two provinces, West Papua and Papua.

In Sorong, the largest city of West Papua province, protesters blocked the roads and gathered in front of the mayor’s office on Tuesday.

Another video obtained by Al Jazeera showed a group of men armed with sticks giving chase and throwing rocks at police officers, who were clearly outnumbered. In the video, one officer was seen falling and getting hit. 

Local media also reported that the angry protesters destroyed the Domine Eduard Osok Airport forcing airlines to cancel the rest of the flights to Sorong.

The protesters also set on fire the local prison building. It was unclear if the prisoners were let go before the building was set on fire.

‘Under control’

Mario Christy Siregar, the police chief of Sorong regency, told Al Jazeera that there were no serious casualties.

“None (get injured). (Everything is) under control,” he insisted.

In an interview with Al Jazeera late on Tuesday, Indonesia’s national police spokesman, Dedi Prasetyo said the police observed maximum tolerance and that there were no protesters hurt.

“None of the police use any bullet,” he said. 

Indonesia’s Papau: home to forgotten struggle

In other parts of West Papua region such as Nabire, Biak, Bintuni Bay, Kaimana, and Yahukimo, people joined the rally, peacefully, and shouted, “Papua! Freedom! Papua! Freedom!” and “We are not red and white. We are morning star.” 

Red and white refers to Indonesian flag, while the morning star is a political symbol for West Papuan who are fighting for their independence.

The protesters told Al Jazeera that they plan to hold a bigger rally on Wednesday, as protests enter its third day.

“The Papuan people continue to protest because they want independence as a solution. We believe that only by getting the independence makes our self-esteem equal to other nation’s,” said Victor of the West Papua National Committee.

Benny Wenda, the chairman of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, expressed deep concern over the situation of Papuan students in Indonesia.

“Racism goes hand-in-hand with colonisation and repression. Like the black people of South Africa, fighting against apartheid, our struggle against racism is also a struggle for self-determination,” Benny said. 

“President Widodo’s words are not enough: Papuans will not stop fighting until we achieve equality, self-determination and a referendum on independence,” he said in a statement released yesterday.

Late on Monday, President Joko Widodo appealed for calm in West Papua, while calling on his countrymen to “forgive” and observe more “patience”.

East Java Provincial Governor Khofifah Indar Parawansa also apologised to the Papuan students for their arrest and racial abuse by bystanders. There have been reports that the students were called “monkeys”. 

Internet slowdown

As the unrest continues, Indonesian government had slowed down the internet in several areas in the West Papua region. 

Arnold Belau, the chief editor of Suara Papua, the leading online news in the region, said internet in Jayapura has been off since Monday. Jayapura is the capital of Papua province.

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Communications and Information Minister Rudiantara confirmed to Al Jazeera that the government has applied “throttling mechanism” to filter the information and prevent hoax to circulate during the protest.

The minister explained that throttling only applies in three areas: Jayapura, Manokwari, and Sorong, between 12 at noon until 8 at night. 

“We need to do that not only due to the national security but also to avoid hoax from spreading to provoke (the masses),” he argued.

Throttling is the intentional slowing or speeding of the internet by companies providing the service. 

The minister also teamed up with the national police to examine posting on social media. Police said they have found several social media accounts they believe had provoked the masses and caused the riots in Manokwari. 

The minister was referring to two reported hoaxes mentioned on its official website. One of them is a post by Veronika Koman, a human rights lawyer focusing on West Papua issue, on the arrest of two Papuan students in Surabaya, East Java.

However, the ministry has been under fire after the public found out that it mistakenly quoted Veronika’s tweet, from “arrested” to “kidnapped”.

Veronika who is seeking an apology from the ministry over the accusation, said that the throttling measure violates freedom of expression and the right to access information of West Papuan people, instead of preventing the supposed hoax. 

Veronika added that by blocking the internet, people are only able to see television in which Jakarta can control the narrative.

Racial, human rights abuses

The demonstrations on Monday in West Papua erupted following the arrest last week of ethnic Papuan students living in Surabaya and Malang in Java island.

The students were accused of throwing the Indonesian flag into a sewer – allegations that they have denied in an interview with Suara Papua.

Responding to the report, the police locked down the dormitory of the Papuan students and fired tear gas to clear their rooms.

Indonesian official defends policies in West Papua

Police also reportedly detained Papuan students who were demonstrating in Malang, also in Java island.

The students were released from police detention on Sunday. But by then, tensions have already risen, with West Papua groups calling on people to hit the streets.

West Papua region was a Dutch colony until the early 1960s when Indonesia took control, cementing its rule with a controversial referendum that followed.

The government in Jakarta maintains that West Papua region, which occupies the western half of the island of Papua New Guinea, is part of Indonesia because it was part of the Dutch East Indies, which forms the basis of the country’s modern-day borders.

A low-level armed rebellion by indigenous Papuans, who now make up about half the population after years of migration by people from other parts of Indonesia, has been rumbling ever since.

West Papua is the poorest region in Indonesia, and there have been allegations of human rights violations taking place since then.

In December, violence also erupted in the province, killing at least 17 people and triggering a military crackdown.

Some 35,000 civilians have been forced from their homes as the security forces attempt to flush out the rebels from the forested mountains.

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