Indonesia’s police chief said on Monday that authorities in the easternmost Papua region were regaining control after protesters set fire to tires and torched a local parliament building over the recent detention of scores of Papuan students.
A separatist movement has simmered for decades in Papua, while there have also been frequent complaints of rights abuses by Indonesian security forces.
The spark for the latest anger appears to have been the detention of Papuan students in Surabaya, East Java, for allegedly bending a flagpole in front of a dormitory during the celebration of Indonesia’s Independence Day on Aug. 17, according to activists.
Police fired tear gas into the dormitory before arresting 43 students, Albert Mungguar, an activist, told a news conference on Sunday. He said students had been called “monkeys” during the operation.
On Monday morning, Papuan protesters set fire to a parliament building and blocked streets in the provincial capital of West Papua, Manokwari, by burning tires and tree branches, paralyzing the town, Deputy Governor Mohamad Lakotani said.
Television footage showed a group of about 150 people marching on the streets, as well as footage of smoke billowing from a parliament building.
“According to the report I got from the West Papua police, the situation has gradually turned conducive,” National Police Chief Tito Karnavian said, adding officers from other parts of eastern Indonesia could be brought in if needed.
Papua Governor Lukas Enembe said Papuans were angry because of “the extremely racist words by East Java people, the police and military”, he told broadcaster TVone.
East Java Governor Khofifah Indar Parawansa said: “We apologize because this does not represent the voice of the people of East Java” and described the slur as “someone’s personal outburst of emotion”.
The incident also triggered a protest in Jayapura, the capital of neighboring Papua province, where TV footage showed thousands peacefully protesting on the streets.
Papua police spokesman Ahmad Kamal said by telephone 500 people were involved in the demonstration in Jayapura.
“It’s been a while since I saw West Papuans this angry…,” Veronica Koman, a human rights lawyer who focuses on Papua, said on Twitter. “The liberation movement is entering a new chapter.”
Koman posted videos on Twitter that she said were taken in Jayapura of people yelling “free Papua”. In one of the videos, a group of teenagers can be seen carrying a Morning Star flag, which is a banned symbol used by supporters of independence.
Papua and West Papua provinces, the resource-rich western part of the New Guinea island, make up a former Dutch colony that was incorporated into Indonesia after a widely criticized U.N.-backed referendum in 1969.
President Joko Widodo has sought to ease tension in the restive region, including by building the Trans Papua highway to spur economic activities and improve people’s welfare.
However, unrest has persisted and separatists killed a group of construction workers in December 2018, triggering a military crackdown that displaced thousands in the Nduga area.