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Indonesian Public and Human Rights Groups Decry West Papuan Arrests

Papuan activists shout slogans at a rally commemorating the 57th anniversary of the failed efforts by Papuan tribal chiefs to declare independence from Dutch colonial rule, in Surabaya, Indonesia, Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018.
Papuan activists shout slogans at a rally commemorating the 57th anniversary of the failed efforts by Papuan tribal chiefs to declare independence from Dutch colonial rule, in Surabaya, Indonesia, Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018.

Indonesian human rights groups decried the arrests made of West Papuan students and pro-independence activists after they staged peaceful rallies across Indonesian cities on Saturday.

Benny Wenda, chairman of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP), demanded accountability from the Indonesian law enforcers, writing, “in the strongest possible terms, the ULMWP condemns the Indonesian government for the arrest and brutal treatment of over 500 West Papuan people and Indonesians in solidarity, who were targeted on 1st December simply for peaceful commemorating West Papua National Day.”

Amnesty International Criticism

“These arbitrary arrests add to the long list of acts of harassment, intimidation and arrests faced by Papuans this year, not to mention the attacks they faced from hostile groups at yesterday’s rallies,” Amnesty International’s Usman Hamid said in a statement.

The most number of arrests — more than 200 — took place in the city of Surabaya, East Java, where demonstrators — from organizations such as the Alliance of Papuan Students (AMP) — staged a peaceful rally commemorating West Papua’s National Day. On December 1, 1961, the morning star flag — a symbol for its independence — was first raised under Dutch administrative rule.

December 1 has since been regarded as the day West Papua carved out its independence. In 1963, West Papua was formally absorbed into Indonesia; with the trails blazed by the UN and the West, Indonesia held a contentious referendum in 1969 in which only over a thousand were selected to agree, through bribery and threats, to the formal absorption.

Charges of Treason

The rally on Saturday, as human rights lawyer and the activists’ legal council Veronica Koman told VOA, was rife with accusations of treason and separatism of the West Papuans, lobbed by more than a dozen nationalist groups. “Because of the nature of our criminal code on treason is pretty broad, it’s used to persecute these students. During the Dutch rule, there would have to be an attack in order for an act to be considered treasonous. Now it’s not,” she said.

Anindya Shabrina, a student and activist with National Students Front (FMN) who was there to document the Surabaya rally, said that she saw the nationalist groups pelt rocks, glass shards and bamboo sticks at the dormitory where the rally took place. According to her, 16 people were injured, three of them required stitching for their injuries.

“The [state apparatus] always does this in the name of the Surabaya people, even though the working class over here perhaps doesn’t really care that much about this stuff. Sentiments against dark-skinned people exist, I’m sure, but they don’t themselves commit any acts of discrimination. They accept them,” she told VOA.

It was also reported that two people involved in the Surabaya rally were missing: university students Fachri Syahrazad and Arifin. They have since returned home. On the day of the rally, they were taken to the police crime investigation unit building to be interrogated. “I wasn’t given a chance to contact my family or a lawyer,” Fachri told VOA, adding that he was there to document the rally and that his phone and wallet were confiscated by officers. “The next day, I woke up at 7 only to be grilled again and the official report, along with further questioning, was made at 12. It was very intimidating.” Veronica said that it should have been illegal to deny someone who has just been arrested a chance to contact any form of legal council.

Surabaya police chief Rudi Kurniawan told VOA that no arrests have been made. “That was an effort at protection and repatriation because an order was disturbed,” he said.

Widespread Protests

The arrests were not the first for West Papuan activists or students.

Crackdowns on protests also took place in the special province of Yogyakarta in 2016. Security was also cited as the reason. The crackdown took place again the following year, when President Joko Widodo made a visit to Yogyakarta.

The provinces of Papua and West Papua have been plagued by intimidation and violence, with over 500,000 Papuans killed since the 1960s. It is also Indonesia’s poorest province, with 28 percent of its people living below the poverty line. A military presence, complicated by its involvement with Freeport McMoran (Papua houses the lucrative Grasberg gold mine), has also been cited as one of the sources of violence in the region. In 2014, four people of the Paniai regency were shot by security forces. In 2017 shootings between the Free Papua Movement and security forces were reported.

Febriana Firdaus, an investigative journalist who has written extensively on West Papua, said that what’s caused the rift is Indonesia’s treatment of Papuans. “They’re not transparent about what happened between Indonesia and Papua. Papuans feel suspicious that their freedom of expression is silenced. Indonesia never opens up to Papua, especially with regards to the [The Act of Free Choice] referendum, in which people were captured and killed,” she said.

“There’s no democracy for Papuan students to express their political aspirations as prescribed by Indonesia’s constitution,” said Dorlince Iyowau, spokesperson for the "Alliance of Papuan Students." “There’s no good future for West Papuans because the only good future for West Papuans is independence from Indonesia’s colonialism.”