West Papua conflict exacerbates after racist assaults against Papuan students - An analysis

This article provides a summary and analysis of important developments in West Papua between mid-August and end of September 2019. A series of incidents in the island of Java triggered protests and riots in multiple Papuan cities. The subsequent outbreaks of ethnic horizontal violence and human rights violations in relation to violent security force crackdowns mark the worst aggravation of the West Papua conflict since the downfall of president Suharto in 1998. The long-standing conflict has shaken Indonesia’s easternmost provinces Papua and Papua Barat for over 50 years, yet a sustainable solution for the conflict is out of sight. The Government continues to control the escalation with a security-based conflict approach.

 Root causes of conflict and incidents triggering the escalation

On 15 August 2016, members of nationalist mass organisations (ORMAS) attacked a group of Papuan protesters in the city of Malang, Java Timur Province, who organised a peaceful demonstration in commemoration of the New York Agreement. The police officers failed to arrest and prosecute the perpetrators. A similar incident occurred the following day in the east-Javanese city of Surabaya as joint security forces and ORMAS members gathered at the Papuan student dormitory and threatened to kill Papuan students. The ORMAS members and military members were shouting racist insults such as ‘animals’, ‘dogs’, ‘pigs’ and ‘monkeys’. The trigger for the racist assault was a broken flagpole with the Indonesian flag in front of the dormitory building. Military and ORMAS members accused Papuan students of having broken the flagpole one day before the Indonesian Independence Day on 17 August 2019. The police failed to disperse the violent mob and prosecute the perpetrators. Instead, a police SWAT team forced its way into the student dormitory while using tear gas and arrested 43 Papuan students. Until today, no serious investigation has been done on who was factually responsible for the broken flagpole. On 17 August 2019, military personnel, ORMAS members and local residents raised banners in front of the Papuan student dormitory in the city of Semarang, Java Tengah Province. The banners stated that the residents will forcefully evict all Papuan students if they would engage in any activity contradicting the unitary state doctrine in Indonesia.

The incidents triggered mass demonstrations against racial discrimination of indigenous Papuans in all large cities and towns across the provinces Papua and Papua Barat. Peaceful protests were held in the Papuan towns of Merauke, Nabire, Serui, Biak, Bintuni, Jayapura, Enarotali, Moanemani, Dekai, and Wamena. In Papua Barat demonstrations were held in Manokwari and Sorong. The demonstrations were covered by the national media. However, little media attention was given to the well-coordinated protests of thousands of Papuans, such as in Jayapura. Instead, the national media mainly broadcasted the riots in Manokwari and Sorong, while the Government responded by sending additional troops to Papua.

The protesters in all cities also used this momentum to express their aspirations for political self-determination, arguing that indigenous Papuans are treated as ‘second-class’ citizens in Indonesia. Mixing-up the issues of political self-determination and racial discrimination may appear inconclusive. However, in the context of West Papua, it is the direct outcome of the Government’s failure to address the root causes of the long-lasting West Papua conflict by taking meaningful steps towards sustainable peace.

Under President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) the security-based approach of previous Governments was never abandoned, but complemented by a strong focus on economic development. However, the root causes of the long-standing conflict – namely the dispute over the historic integration of West Papua into Indonesia, unresolved cases of human rights violations and the growing marginalisation of indigenous Papuans - remained un-addressed. This has given rise to disappointment, frustration and growing discontent among many West Papuans, nourishing the aspirations for political self-determination. At the same time, security forces continued to limit the freedom of peaceful assembly and the freedom of expression, preventing the people in West Papua from taking their aspirations and concerns to the streets.

While President Jokowi has repeatedly expressed his support for a dialogue between Jakarta and West Papua in public interviews, the Government has not adopted a clear position as to whether it supports a political dialogue with the separatist movement and Papuan diaspora or only a development focussed dialogue with civil society representatives living in West Papua. In 2017, President Jokowi invited Papuan civil society leaders and re-affirmed his willingness to have a sectoral dialogue. The dialogue should again only touch development related issues such as education, health and infrastructure. Once again, the Government did not take steps to prove their sincere endeavour for a dialogue.

On 30 September 2019 President Jokowi stated in a public interview that he would be willing to meet with representatives of the separatist movement. Jokowi’s statement contrasts the stance of previous governments and some of his cabinet ministers. However, it would not be the first time that President Jokowi promised progressive reforms in West Papua, which were later never implemented. On the 9 May 2015, President Joko Widodo publicly announced that foreign journalists would have free access to work in West Papua. Regardless of President Jokowi’s statement, the access for foreign journalists to West Papua continues to be strictly limited because the statement was never enforced through a government regulation.

Outbreaks of violence in West Papua

Several anti-racism demonstrations in West Papua were accompanied by acts of vandalism and security force violence against the protesters. Riots occurred in the cities of Fak-Fak, Sorong, Jayapura, Manokwari, Timika, Waghete and Wamena. A crackdown by security force members in Waghete, Deiyai Regency, on 28 August 2019 caused the death of eight protesters and one soldier. At least 50 others were injured. The most recent outbreak of violence took place in the highland town of Wamena, after a senior high school teacher allegedly addressed a Papuan pupil as ‘child of a monkey’. On 23 September 2019, Papuan protesters gathered in front of the Jayawijaya regent’s office and the Jayawijaya district police station to demonstrate against the teacher’s racist slur. The protests escalated into riots and police used fire arms and tear gas against the protesters. It was reported that the incident was also accompanied by ethnic horizontal violence against Indonesian migrants. According to the Head of the Papuan Regional Police Public Relations Desk, Ahmad Mustafa Kamal, 28 civilians died and 77 others were injured during the incident.This is the highest death toll and number of injuries associated with a single incident since the beginning of the ‘Reformasi Period’ in 1998.

While violent crackdowns with fire arms are a frequent pattern of state violence in West Papua, the outbreak of horizontal violence between indigenous Papuans and Indonesian migrants to this extent is a rather new phenomenon. According to the Police Chief, Tito Karnavian, the majority of the victims in the Wamena riots consist of Indonesian migrants. According to latest information the ratio is rather balanced: 17 ethnic Papuans and 16 migrants. Horizontal violence driven by nationalism and racism has become a new dangerous component of the conflict. A series of organised horizontal violence by nationalist militant organisations against indigenous Papuans was already reported from the Papuan cities of Jayapura and Fak-Fak in late August.

Members of the ‘Kelompok Nusantara’ group (Nusantara Group) and ‘Barisan Merah Putih’ (Red White Front) mainly consisting of Non-Papuans armed with weapons attacked indigenous Papuans, mainly those originating from the central highlands, which are known as strongholds of the West Papuan independence movement. The majority of its members are former members of the police and the military and their sons. Accordingly, the groups have the support of security forces and enjoy impunity.

On 20 August 2019, members of the Red White Front attacked Papuan protesters in the town of Fak-Fak as they were demonstrating against the racial discrimination. During the incident, one person was reportedly killed, many injured. After violent clashes between Papuan and Non-Papuan protesters, the Red White Front members set the local branch office of the Papuan Customary Council (Dewan Adat Papua, DAP) in Fak-Fak on fire.

On 29 August 2019, multiple units of the Nusantara Group armed with machetes and slingshot arrows (Panah Wayar) attacked indigenous Papuans in various locations in Jayapura. A seventeen-year-old Papuan boy was allegedly killed, many other Papuans injured. On 30 August 2019 at 2 pm, a group of migrants attacked Rev. Daud Auwe and eight Papuan students as they were driving through the Argapura area in Jayapura. The attackers stopped the group and set their car on fire. Subsequently, the armed group collectively attacked the nine Papuans with knifes, iron bars, wooden beams, stones and machetes and slingshot arrows. On 1 September 2019, members of the Nusantara Group attacked Papuan students in a boarding school in Abepura. One person was reportedly killed and a dozen injured. The students had allegedly informed the police several hours prior to the attack regarding the potential danger. According to information received, the police ensured they would monitor the surrounding area. Despite these precautions, the police only arrived one hour after the attack had taken place.

Security forces failed to arrest and prosecute the perpetrators in all of the afore mentioned cases.

Government officials respond to outbreaks of violence

The national TV channels broadcasted the demonstrations and interviewed officials who commented on the widespread anti-racism demonstrations in West Papua. Among them were government representatives and security officials.

It is striking that some Government officials stressed the role of "foreigners" as instigators and usufructuaries. The issue of foreign influence was repeatedly brought up by Government representatives. The demonstrations and riots were represented as a foreign conspiracy and the issue temporarily became the dominant idea in the public discussion on the anti-racism riots. Later officials stated that Benny Wenda was behind the riots. Moreover, the arrest of four Australian tourists who were deported from Sorong for watching the demonstration in Sorong was brought into the discussion. The media placed great emphasis on statements by the coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, Wiranto, National police chief, Tito Karnavian, and President Jokowi's chief of staff concerning “very clear indications” that foreign intervention had played a role in the protests. They also made references to NGOs and their network, without mentioning further names.

On 3 September 2019, Wiranto explained in an interview on the TV show "Indonesia Lawyers Club" that the "minor incident" in Surabaya had been used by foreign elements to reinvigorate separatism in Papua. During the show, he also referred to an official government decision to keep Papua closed to foreigners until the situation in West Papua had calmed down. On 5 September 2019, Wiranto stated in another interview there was clear evidence for the involvement of two local organizations in the 'foreign conspiracy', namely ULMWP (United Liberation Movement West Papua) and KNPB (Komisi Nasional Papua Barat) under coordination of Benny Wenda.

Later, the public discussion also comprised reflections by civilians, calling for a dialogue instead of a security-based conflict approach. However, it is disturbing that the civilian government representatives in Indonesia exercised restraint while the public stage was mainly taken by security force representatives. The Minister of Legal and Human Rights, Yasonna Laoly, made an exemplary statement in which he expressed his concerns over the situation in West Papua and the need for a dialogue. However, he did not make any further remarks, explaining that minister Wiranto had the authority to comment on the situation in West Papua.

President Jokowi, who simply called on the Papuan people to forgive the incidents as “fellow countrymen”, stepped in the background while the public stage was increasingly occupied by retired soldiers like Ryamizard Ryacudu (defense minister), Hendropriiyono (former head of Intelligence in Indonesia), Prabowo (former special force commander and chairman of Gerindra party), alongside Wiranto. It is clear that Wiranto and the former military generals continue to prioritize a security approach. Ryamizard clearly underlined that the Indonesian Government will never allow that Papuans will be given the opportunity to become independent. Hendropriyono stated that democratic means could be applied under “normal” circumstances but not to West Papua, where the situation was already out of control: “No more criticism, check and balance, that's acceptable in a normal situation. This is no longer a normal situation and everyone must unite“, said Hendropriyono.

Government authorities take action

Restriction of democratic space
The government blocked the internet across the Provinces of Papua and Papua Barat since 19 August 2019 to prevent the spreading of information through social media and hamper media coverage on the current situation in West Papua. The Government justified the blockade arguing that the dissemination of false information via social media could result in further riots and chaos. The internet blockade lasted until 5 September and was then partially reactivated. Since the first outbreaks of violence in mid-August, the police and military have deployed additional 6,000 security force members in West Papua, 1,500 were brought to Wamena alone after the outbreak of violence in late September. On 3 September the chiefs of the national armed forces and the police temporarily set up their office in West Papua, indicating that the Government assessed the situation as highly precarious. The decision to "move office to West Papua" is striking and has never been seen before. The additional deployment is likely to result in a further escalation of conflict, as emotions among ethnic Papuans regarding racial discrimination in Indonesia are still boiling.

On 1 September 2019, the Regional Police of Papua Barat Province adopted a ‘Police Edict for the Protection of Security and Public Order’, which criminalizes persons and groups participating in demonstrations or undertaking other activities that promote political self-determination. The edict also states that any person distributing false information or news that may result in anger or hatred among other groups of individuals will be strictly prosecuted. The space for demonstrations was almost hermetically sealed after the anti-racism protests. A leaked police document with guidelines for police anticipation in response to the riots in Wamena and Jayapura indicates that any further protests will be forcefully dispersed. The document suggests that the intelligence network in West Papua shall be strengthened and surveillance of Papuan students be increased. The guidelines instructed authorities to place weapons and ammunition in strategic locations in order to quickly respond to new riots.

Prosecution of activists and human rights defenders
The aftermath of the anti-racism protests was characterized by a sudden increase of arrests and prosecutions. Authorities used vague legal provisions such as treason, incitement and the electronic information and transaction law to criminalize political activists, journalists and human rights defenders in response to the West Papua-wide anti-racism riots. Statistic data suggests that Indonesian police officers conducted 208 arrests and pressed criminal charges against 94 suspects. At least 25 of the detainees are members of the West Papua National Committee (KNPB), a political movement organisation promoting the right to self-determination through peaceful protest.

The Police did not only prosecute activists in West Papua, but also in other parts of the archipelago. In Jakarta, police officers arrested Surya Anta Ginting, spokesperson of the Indonesian Peoples Front for West Papua (FRI WP) and five Papuan activists. The police also charged Indonesian human rights lawyer Veronica Koman and executive board member of the National Independent Journalist Association (AJI), Dandhi Dwi Laksono, for tweeting about racism against ethnic Papuans in Indonesia. Veronika Koman was forced to leave Indonesia and is currently living in exile. In early October 2019, Amnesty International published an open letter to President Jokowi, according to which 22 Papuan activists were charged with treason over  the  past  few  weeks  based  on  their  peaceful  exercise  of  the  rights  to freedom of expression, association and assembly.

Reactions by international stakeholders

The international community and international media outlets showed a prompt reaction to the outbreaks of violence in West Papua. International media outlets such as ‘The Guardian’, ‘Aljazeera’, ‘New York Times’, ‘BBC’ and ‘ABC News’  published news articles and short news broadcasts about the anti-racism riots in West Papuan cities.

The international media attention is not only an indicator for the severity and significant aggravation of the West Papua conflict. It also increased the pressure on intergovernmental bodies such as the UN to react upon the outbreak of violence in West Papua. On 4 September 2019, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, said her office was "disturbed" by the escalating violence in West Papua and the Government’s response to restrict the freedom of information. She encouraged the “Indonesian Government to engage in dialogue with the people of Papua and West Papua on their aspirations and concerns”.

On 16 September 2019, various special procedures thematic mandate holders of the UN Human Rights Council released a public statement, calling on the Indonesian Government to protect the rights of all people to peaceful protest, ensure access to the internet and protect the rights of human rights defenders reporting on protests in West Papua.

The situation also drew the attention of international cleric organisations such as the Pacific Conference of Churches (PCC). In a statement dating 22 August 2019, the PCC condemned the institutional racism against indigenous Papuans in Indonesia and “underlined the need for an urgent investigation of ongoing abuse of Human Rights, the Economic, Social and Cultural and Political rights of West Papuans, by the United Nations”.


The root causes of the long-standing conflict in West Papua have been ignored by Indonesian Governments for more than 50 years. Heavy security force presence has prevented the conflict from breaking out, yet tensions and frustration have built up under the surface of enforced public order. From this perspective it is not a surprise that a single incident can trigger wide-spread violence as it happened after the racist assaults against Papuan students.

Three substantial aspects have become central and dominant over these last two months: [1] the obvious distorted relation between the indigenous Papuans and other ethnic population-groups in Papua itself as well as outside Papua in Indonesia in general; [2] a virtual occupation of West Papua by security-forces; not less than 6.000 personnel has been added and more to be expected; [3] the political issue, the demand for a referendum/independence is now fully in the centre of the actual relation between Papua and the Central Government, including the dominant and determining security-institutions, in Jakarta.

Any continuation of security-based conflict approaches might temporarily calm down the situation in West Papua, but will never bring upon sustainable peace in the Indonesian provinces. What is needed is a dialogue under mediation of a neutral third party.

President Jokowi has repeatedly expressed his willingness to conduct a dialogue. He even took a meeting with representatives of the separatist movement into consideration. However, even if these statements might demonstrate Jokowi’s sincere effort to find a peaceful solution for the conflict, he is facing the opposing positions from members of his cabinet and the Indonesian parliament. Former security military members still believe in the security-based approach of previous Governments and appear to increasingly dominate the public discussion on West Papua, while civilian Government representatives stay in the background. This observation clearly illustrates the military’s power inside the Indonesian Government and society. President Jokowi has appointed several former army generals as ministers in his cabinet, probably because he realized that it was better to keep the military as a close ally in the Government than making enemies by excluding military members from his Government. The Indonesian military undoubtedly continues to be among the political key actors in Indonesia. In addition, the Indonesian military’s stronghold in Indonesia is West Papua, where it continues to run businesses under the name of foundations and associations and protect profitable resource exploitation projects. The military represents the view that the unity of the Indonesian State is non-negotiable and is ready to crackdown on Papuan resistance – through military interventions if necessary. Currently, the government is trying to maintain control through means of law enforcement.

Considering the opposing views within his cabinet and the power of the military in Indonesia, it is very unlikely that president Jokowi will allow that a referendum will be part of the dialogue agenda, as representatives of the independence movement demand. However, as international media coverage and awareness by inter-governmental bodies is increasing, the Jokowi Government is under pressure to take action in response to the anti-racism protests. It is possible that the Indonesian Government will try to establish a dialogue excluding the independence movement in order to find a temporary solution, which is presentable to the international community, but will not be able to establish sustainable peace. An alternative scenario would be that the Government may allow the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, as the Indonesian Government had agreed in February 2018.