Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Despite Deaths, Independence Protests Continue in Indonesia

Published: August 2, 2011

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Thousands rallied for independence from Indonesia in the country’s Papua region on Tuesday, in tense demonstrations that followed days of political violence that killed at least 21 people.

Several thousand people, many in traditional tribal dress, marched amid heavily armed police officers and soldiers in cities and towns in the provinces of Papua and West Papua, the police and witnesses said.

Protesters demanded a referendum on independence for the region and the repudiation of a 1969 United Nations-backed vote that formalized Indonesian control over the former Dutch colony.

“For 40 years, the Indonesian government has never fairly applied the law or upheld human rights,” Viktor Kogoya, chairman of the self-styled Jakarta consulate of the West Papua National Committee, which organized the protests, said in Jakarta. “The Papuan people have never had justice.”

The protests were largely peaceful, although activists and church workers accused the authorities of fomenting a climate of fear to deter demonstrations. Anonymous text messages had circulated for days warning of a looming “massacre.” And witnesses in several towns said groups of unidentified men in civilian clothes could be seen lingering in the streets from early in the day. Witnesses suspected that the men were part of the security forces.

The protests followed the death of at least 17 people in interclan political fighting in the region’s remote central highlands over the weekend, as well as a predawn raid on Monday in which unidentified assailants blocked traffic outside the Papua provincial capital, Jayapura, shooting and stabbing four people, including one soldier, to death.

The West Papua National Committee has accused elements of the security forces of provoking or staging the violence in order to foil the protests. The rebel Free Papua Movement has denied involvement in the Jayapura attack, according to news reports.

A spokesman for the Papua police, Col. Wachyono, also stopped short of blaming the rebels for the Jayapura attack, despite the discovery of a separatist flag at the scene. “We can’t conclude yet if it’s any organization,” he said. “After we do our investigation, we’ll report who it is. If it’s been staged or if it’s purely criminal, we’ll uncover it.”

Tuesday’s protests were scheduled to coincide with a conference in Britain advocating Papuan independence through legal challenges to Indonesian rule. Many Papuans, who are ethnically distinct from most other Indonesians, chafe at what they see as heavy-handed and exploitative rule from Jakarta.

Measures intended to promote greater autonomy, including a major injection of government funds into the resource-rich region, have failed to end calls for independence or a sporadic, poorly armed insurgency.