Mon, Sep 02, 2019 - Page 7 News List

Racism, rage and rising calls for freedom in Papua

At a pivotal moment in the region’s struggle for self-determination, there is seething anger as well as hope

By Kate Lamb  /  The Guardian, JAYAPURA, Indonesia

Illustration: Yusha

At the base of the verdant mountains of Sentani, where dense, tropical jungle overlooks a sprawling teal lake, worshipers stream into church, men in suits and ties and sandals or batik shirts, women with colorful woven bags strung from their foreheads and slung over their backs.

Grey clouds hang low over the house of worship, a wood and tin shed with concrete floors and large open windows that let in the thick humid air.

Almost two weeks after a series of violent protests hit Indonesia’s easternmost territory, touching off the worst unrest in more than a decade, the pews in the majority Christian province are full and the parishioners are angry.

The ring of evangelical hymns gives way to the rousing words of the Reverend Benny Giay, one of Papua’s staunchest supporters of self-determination. His fury is palpable.

“They called us animals!” he rails from the pulpit as women in the pews before him click their tongues in disgust. “Now there are anti-racist protests all over. It is like an earthquake!”

Ignited by malicious racial slurs two weeks ago, the protests in West Papua have spread and intensified, with thousands taking to the streets in a series of rolling and in some cases violent demonstrations.

On Thursday, angry demonstrators torched parliament and police buildings in Jayapura. Police fired tear gas and 600 extra paramilitary troops have been deployed to the city.

At least six people have been killed as the volatile situation, unfolding in a region for decades roiled by separatist conflict, escalates daily.

The Guardian travelled to West Papua, obtaining rare access to the province’s leading pro-independence figures at a pivotal moment for the province.

On the ground there was seething anger and resentment, but also hope that the rage on the streets will transform into real momentum for independence.

“The protests are a spontaneous action against racism,” said Victor Yeimo, from the West Papua National Committee, which advocates a non-violent struggle to achieve self-determination. “But what people want is freedom.”


West Papua occupies the western half of New Guinea island, Indonesia’s most remote and least developed territory, almost the size of Spain. Lying more than 4,000km from the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, is home to some of the largest tracts of rainforest after the Amazon, and a bounty of gold, copper, timber and natural gas.

However, the region is riven by deep divisions. The protests that began early last month were sparked by a viral video that showed Indonesian military officers taunting Papuan students in the Javanese city of Surabaya, calling them “monkeys,” “pigs” and “dogs.”

They have since spread to almost 30 cities inside and outside West Papua.

There, demonstrators have flown the banned Morning Star flag, a symbol of Papuan independence, and held signs reading: “Papua merdeka, itu yang monyet inginkan” (Free Papua, this is what the monkeys want).

After a market and government building were torched, the government in Jakarta sent more than 1,000 security personnel into the already heavily militarized province, sparking fears the protests would be put down with force.

However, they have continued, spreading to Jayapura and the remote highlands, where thousands of Papuans in traditional dress carrying sticks, bows and arrows rallied to express their indignation.

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