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Why West Papua’s latest protests are different from the ones before

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Thousands of people have been protesting across Indonesia’s easternmost territory over the past two weeks, torching government buildings and clashing with police, resulting in dozens of deaths and injuries.

Key points:

  • Protests have been held in at least 30 cities both inside and outside of West Papua
  • Indonesian authorities have blocked internet access and deployed over 6,000 troops
  • Many of the protests have been calling for a new independence referendum

The protesters’ demands range from an end to racial violence to calls for a referendum on independence for the region.

It’s not the first time Papuans have taken to the streets to demand independence, and incidents of armed resistance to Indonesian rule in the provinces of Papua and West Papua have also occurred periodically over the years.

But these latest protests are not only the largest held in the region in years, but they have also drawn support from across Indonesia.

“Today’s protest is different because it’s so widespread,” said Andreas Harsono, an Indonesia researcher for Human Rights Watch.

While previous movements have been largely orchestrated by Papuan liberation leaders in exile, these recent protests have erupted from within West Papua and have since spread to other provinces.

Mr Harsono said he counted protests in 30 cities both inside and outside of the region during the first week.

“The spread of the protests indicates the deep frustration among indigenous Papuans against Indonesian rule,” Mr Harsono told the ABC.

As the unrest continues, we take a look at how the latest protests started, what authorities have done in response and Australia’s stance on West Papua.

What sparked the protests?

The Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua — often referred to collectively as West Papua — share an island and ethnicity with Papua New Guinea.

While the east of New Guinea island was colonised by Britain and later gained independence as Papua New Guinea, West Papua remained a Dutch colony until it was handed over to Indonesia in 1963.

A black and white map with West Papua and Papua highlighted in orange, neighbouring PNG and Australia.

Some activists and armed groups have been fighting for independence ever since, and the region has been dogged by allegations of racism and discrimination against the native population.

Mr Harsono listed human rights abuses, impunity, drastic demographic change, environment degradation and poverty among the reasons for the growing frustration among the local population.

On August 17 — which marks the Indonesian declaration of independence from Dutch colonial rule — a group of Papuan students said they were barricaded inside their dormitory overnight by nationalist vigilantes who cut power to the building and chanted racist slurs.

The mob said the students had committed “slander” on the Indonesian national flag, and police moved in to storm the building, reportedly firing tear gas, injuring five and arresting 43 students who were later released without charge.


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