Update: Riot in Wamena – Chronology of events and consequences of the riot

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The riot in Wamena must be understood as part of a series of anti-racism protests in all major cities across West Papua. The protests occurred in response to racist acts against Papuan students in the Javanese cities of Malang, Surabaya and Semerang between 16 and 18 August 2019. In contrast to previous riots in Jayapura, Waghete, Manokwari, Sorong, Timika and others, the riot in Wamena was reportedly triggered by a specific incident that occurred in a public school in Wamena several days prior to the other riots. The riot in Wamena marked the worst outbreak of violence in a single incident since the end of the military dictatorship under President Suharto. This article was compiled based on information from independent human rights defenders and news articles published by multiple media outlets.

Incident triggering the riot
On 18 September 2019, at 10.00 am, a substitute teacher with the initials R.T.S. taught social sciences to a grade eleven class at the PGRI Wamena Senior High School, Jayawijaya regency. The teacher, who reportedly started teaching at the school only five days prior to the incident, asked a student with the initials A.P. to read a text. The student had difficulties to read the text fluently, so the teacher reprimanded A.P., allegedly commenting that he ‘reads like a monkey’ (“Kamu baca seperti monyet”).

On 21 September 2019, the class teacher with the initials D.A. tried to mediate between the A.P. and R.T.S and both sides were asked to apologise. However, the incident had already drawn the attention of students in other grades. Many students abandoned their classes and protested against the racist comment, so the principal allowed the students to go home earlier to avoid a further escalation of the situation. On 22 September 2019, around 2.00 am, unknown perpetrators entered the school premises and broke the windows in the teachers’ room and multiple class rooms.

Case narrative
On 23 September 2019 at 7.00, students of the Wamena PGRI Senior High School blocked the entrance gate to the school and demanded that the school should file a lawsuit against the R.T.S. for the racist insult against A.P. Attempts by the principal to calm down the students failed after a large group of students from other schools in Wamena joined the protest. The discussion became more tense so school representatives called the police. Shortly after, several police officers arrived at the school and tried to mediate between the students and the principal. Both sides agreed to continue further discussions at the Jayawijaya District Police Station.

The principal and several teachers drove with motorcycles to the police station, while the students walked by foot, accompanied by the police officers. Shortly after, a group of students of YPK Betlehem Wamena High School joined the crowd. The situation became more tense after the crowd split up at the cross junction of Sudirman Road and Bhayangkara Road. Some students headed in direction to the Yapis Islamic Senior High School and the Jayawijaya regent’s office in Sudarso Road, while a second group walked to the Wamena Public High School I (SMA Negeri I), where they entered the school campuses and vandalised facilities. The police officers dispersed the crowd in both locations with warning shots and allegedly arrested seven students at the Yapis high school after a brawl between pupils occurred.

Meanwhile, a crowd of highschool students gathered in the yard in front of the Jayawijaya regent’s office around 8.00 am. Simultaneously,  several hundred students came together in the Homhom area, approximately 3.2 kilometres north of the regent’s office. When the group wanted to walk from Homhom to the regent’s office to assemble with the other students, police officers blocked the Homhom road, preventing the protesters from walking to the regent’s office. Being unable to pass the police blockage, the students became angry and threw rocks at the police officers. The situation further escalated as police officers released warning shots in an attempt to disperse the crowd.

According to information received, at 9.00 am security forces were no longer capable of controling the situations in different parts of Wamena. The police forces were backed-up by members of the military. In addition, many university students, pupils from other schools in Wamena and other indigenous Papuans joined the protests, hence the number of protesters reportedly rose from several hundred to more than thousand. Some protesters were allegedly armed with bows, arrows and sticks. Witnesses claimed that the strategy to release warning shots failed to disperse the crowd but instead amplified the outbreaks of violence and vandalism. Some protesters allegedly started to attack bystanders (Papuans and non-Papuans) who had tried to calm down angry protesters. Pastors who witnessed the outbreaks of violence helped to evacuate non-Papuans in churches and office buildings.

Around 9.30 am, an outbreak of violence and vandalism occurred in front of the Yudha Supermarket in Homhom Road. The protesters vandalized the store and set the building on fire.  Witnesses claimed that police officers opened fire at the crowd. Two protesters were hit by bullets. One of the victims was identified as Kelion Tabuni (see table below). The incident caused an escalation of the situation. Subsequently, the mob burnt down various shops and residential houses in the Homhom area and Pikhe Road, which were owned by Non-Papuans. Witnesses claimed that the crowd carried Kileon Tabuni’s body in direction to the bridge in Pikhe Village.

Meanwhile, a large crowd of students had gathered in front of the regent’s office, waiting for the Jayawijaya regent, Jhon Richard Banua. The students demanded a lawsuit against teacher R.T.S. and asked the regent to command the release of the seven students who had previously been arrested at the YAPIS Islamic School. When the regent arrived at the office without meeting the crowd, several students began throwing stones. Shortly after, unknown perpetrators set parts of the office building on fire. The regent finally met with the students, and convinced them to leave the office through the gate behind the office complex, because the situation was about to escalate.

The students finally left the regent’s office through the rear gate and walked in the direction of the Wamena airport. The situation was still tense. A group of students was reportedly intercepted by members of the Police Mobile Brigade in front of the Kristus Jaya Catholic Church. The officers allegedly forced the students to lie down on the floor and released shots into the air. Security force members also blocked the cross junction of Diponeggoro Road and Trikora Road, forcefully dispersing the crowd using tear gas and releasing shots into the air. The majority of protesters fled in the direction of the Mission Market in Wouma District. Simultaneously, protesters participating in the riots at Homhom also gathered near the Mission market. At 10.30 am, the protesters reportedly set the Mission market on fire. Many victims died in the fire, the majority of them non-Papuan traders.

Around noon, several groups of non-Papuans armed with machetes and knives allegedly patrolled Wamena. A witness, an indigenous Papuan from Wamena, claimed that the armed migrants chased after him. At 4.00 pm, the security forces regained control over the security situation in Wamena and re-established public order.

Consequences of the riots
According to latest data published by the police, 33 persons were killed (25 non-Papuans & 8 Papuans) and 82 persons injured (38 non-Papuans & 44 Papuans) during the riot. The sudden outbreaks of violence left thousands of persons in Wamena traumatised. Moreover, ten government offices, 351 shops, 15 motorcycles, 100 cars, 27 residential houses and the Mission market were set on fire. The police statistics differ from the data collected by the media outlet Jubi. According to ‘Tabloid Jubi’ (Jubi), the riots cost the lives of 42 persons. Sixteen of them were ethnic Papuans. They were allegedly killed with fire arms (See table below). The names of non-Papuan fatalities have not been published.

The incident also caused the internal displacement of thousands of persons. While many non-migrants booked airplane tickets to Jayapura or were flown out of Wamena by the military, indigenous Papuans sought shelter in surrounding villages and churches. According to the secretary of Lanny Jaya regency, Christian Sohilait, about 6,000 Papuans originating from Lanny Jaya reportedly moved to different locations around Wamena in fear of security force raids.

There are factors that can explain the difference in the total number of fatalities between police figures and those of Jubi. Many Papuan victims who sustained bullet injuries during the incident did not go to the hospital because they feared that the police would take them into custody. Likewise, many families were afraid to report the deaths of relatives to the police. Many bodies were brought to their home villages, were they were buried. It is therefore assumed that the number of Papuan fatalities and injured victims was much higher than the number the police published, eight and 44, respectively.    

The riot also had severe consequences for the everyday live in Wamena. The city's landscape continues to be dominated by heavy security force presence. Markets, schools and government offices were not functioning for weeks after the riot. The outbreak of violence also had impacts on the local fuel prices in Wamena. According to information received, the fuel prices raised to IDR 80,000 (US$ 5.70) per litre in the past until mid-October. After that the price slowly dropped to a price between IDR 50,000 (US$ 3.60) and IDR 25,000 (US$ 1.80).     

Table of Papuan victims according to Jubi, 26.10.2019

No

Name

Age

Additional information

1.

Manu Meage

13 years

shot dead in front of Jayawijaya General Hospital

2.

Eliakim Wetipo

25 years

Shot dead in Homhom, body was cremated in Asotipo village

3

Gestanus Hisage

21 years

body was cremated in Kurima village

4.

Kelion Tabuni

20 years

Shot dead in Homhom, projectile pierced his stomach and exited at the waist, witnesses stated that Kelion was the first protester who was shot by police officers – the incident triggered riots

5.

Niligi Wenda

28 year

Shot dead in Wouma district, projectile entered his chest

6.

Nisaba Himan

N/A

Shot dead, body was found in Pisugi and later cremated in Agamua Village, Wesaput district

7.

Lawan Hesegem

28 years

Shot dead in Wouma, body was brought to Kurima Village for cremation

8.

Eles Himan

20 years

Shot dead in Homhom, sustained lethal bullet wound to the waist

9.

Yus Asso

20 years

Shot dead near Megapura Village, Wouma district, as he was working in the garden, projectile pierced his buttocks from back to front

10.

Keitron Tabuni

28 years

Shot dead on the Mission Bridge in Wouma district, sustained lethal bullet wound in the chest, his body was found near the body of Niligi Wenda

11.

Beam Wenda

28 years

Allegedly shot dead, body was found in Tulem (information yet to be confirmed)

12.

Inius Tabuni

28 years

Allegedly shot dead, body was found in the Baliem river (information yet to be confirmed)

13.

Wenas Babingga

20 years

Allegedly shot dead in Homhom (information yet to be confirmed)

14.

Yandrik Wenda

17 years

Allegedly shot dead in Wouma (information yet to be confirmed)

15.

Naligin Yikwa

22 years

Allegedly shot dead in Homhom (information yet to be confirmed)

16.

Marius Wenda

20 years

Allegedly shot dead in Homhom (information yet to be confirmed)