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Indonesia Arrests 34, Blocks Internet in Papua to Curb Protests

Papuan activists scuffle with police and soldiers during a rally near the presidential palace in Jakarta, Indonesia, Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019.
Papuan activists scuffle with police and soldiers during a rally near the presidential palace in Jakarta, Indonesia, Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019.

Indonesia has arrested 34 people and cut internet access in its easternmost region of Papua to rein in violence after protesters torched buildings, a market and a prison over mistreatment of students and perceived ethnic discrimination.

Police have flown in 1,200 more officers to quell sometimes violent protests since Monday in towns such as Manokwari, Sorong, Fakfak and Timika, near the giant Grasberg copper mine operated by Freeport McMoran's Indonesian unit.

The communication ministry has blocked the internet and telecoms data to prevent Papuans from accessing social media since Wednesday, although telephone calls and text messages are unaffected, said ministry spokesman Ferdinandus Setu.

"This is an effort to curb hoaxes and, most importantly, stop people from sharing provocative messages that can incite racial hatred," he added.

A separatist movement has simmered in Papua for decades, with frequent complaints of rights abuses by security forces, but the recent anger appears to be linked to racist slurs against Papuan students who were detained last week.

The students were arrested in a dormitory in the city of Surabaya in East Java after being accused of disrespecting the Indonesian flag during an Independence Day celebration.

Smaller demonstrations and rallies in support of Papua flared nationwide on Thursday, while the chief security minister, police chief and military commander visited Sorong to inspect the sites of the most violent protests.

Official said two rallies in the Nabire and Yahukimo areas of Papua were peaceful, the Kompas news site said.

In Jakarta, the capital, more than a hundred Papuan students marched from army headquarters to the gates of the presidential palace, shouting pro-independence slogans demanding "Referendum for Papua" or "Freedom for Papua".

Some held posters demanding the right to self-determination and an end to racism and colonialism in West Papua. Papuan students also held a smaller protest in the nearby city of Bogor.

President Joko Widodo told reporters he would invite religious and community leaders from across Papua for talks next week.

Widodo has urged the army and police chiefs to act against officers who behaved in a "racist manner" towards students, his chief of staff told news channel CNN Indonesia.

Police have arrested 34 people in Timika, where thousands of protesters threw stones at a parliament building, houses, shops and a hotel on Wednesday, police said. They accused 13 of being members of a pro-Papua independence separatist group.

Papua and West Papua provinces, the resource-rich western part of the island of New Guinea, were a Dutch colony that was incorporated into Indonesia after a widely criticised U.N.-backed referendum in 1969.

Widodo has sought to ease tension and improve welfare by building infrastructure.

He has visited the region more often than any of his predecessors, and plans to open a bridge next month in Jayapura, the capital of Papua province, his secretariat said.

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