Jakarta, Indonesia – Indonesia’s West Papua region has been mired in civil unrest since the middle of August, following police detentions and alleged racial slurs against ethnic Papuan students studying in the country’s most populous island of Java.
The protests, which at times turned deadly, have since evolved into calls for a referendum and independence in the country’s poorest region.
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The violence is a major test of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who was returned to power in April’s election and will be officially installed for his second term in office on October 20. Having won 78 percent of the vote in Papua, he now faces the difficult task of delivering on his promises of economic growth and genuine autonomy to Papuans, while dampening calls for independence that threaten to carve out another part of the country.
“For West Papuans, Jokowi’s approach is all wrong,” Made Supriatma, an Indonesia expert at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, a Singapore think-tank, told Al Jazeera.
“Jokowi always promises to boost economic growth under the special autonomy scheme and build the region using natural resources,” Made said. “But he has neglected the people, so they feel left behind,”
At the same time, Jokowi, has to confront the issue of racism, which has left indigenous Papuans feeling like second-class citizens, further increasing demands to break away from Indonesia, political observers added.
Jokowi, has tried to cultivate better relations with the Papuans.
Two months into his first term as president in 2014, he visited Jayapura, the capital and largest city in Papua province.
In the months leading to his re-election bid earlier this year, Jokowi visited parts of West Papua at least 12 times, according to the Jakarta Globe. He was later rewarded by Papuan voters, who gave him their overwhelming support in the election.
But the scale of the recent protests has left Jokowi scrambling to respond.
As the protests erupted, the president appealed for calm while declaring that the violence was under control, only to be confronted with more unrest.
On September 11, as the situation calmed, Jokowi finally welcomed Papuan representatives to the presidential palace for discussions, during which he promised to build a palace in West Papua and upgrade the region’s internet connection.
He also offered to engage in more dialogue with indigenous Papuans, and ordered the government to hire Papuan graduates to help build the proposed new Indonesian capital in Kalimantan.
He promised he would again visit several areas in Papua and celebrate the New Year in the region.
But he has remained mum on the growing demand for a Papua referendum.
Wiranto, Jokowi’s top security official and designated intermediary on the West Papua issue, has dismissed any talk of a referendum, offering only to talk to Papuans about their “basic rights”.
At the back of the government’s mind is East Timor, which held a referendum in 1999, and eventually declared independence from Indonesia.
Rumblings for freedom
Like Indonesia, the West Papua region was once a Dutch colony.
Indonesia proclaimed its independence in 1945, ending 350 years of colonial rule and then claimed all territories of the former Dutch East Indies, including the West Papua region, which is now divided into two provinces – Papua and West Papua.
The Dutch retained control of the region until the early 1960s, but in 1969, after a controversial referendum backed by the United Nations, it became part of Indonesia
That vote, remains contested by Papuan nationalist groups including the Free Papua Movement and the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, which was formed in 2014.
For decades, rumblings for Papuan self-determination and independence have continued.
In 2001, the government granted West Papua special autonomy in response to demands for an independence.
But in December 2018, violence flared again after independence fighters attacked a road-building project leaving 17 people dead and triggering a military crackdown that forced 35,000 civilians to flee their homes.
Anger over racial slurs
Then, in mid-August, two incidents in Java involving Papuan students set off the most widespread and sustained protests the region has seen.
According to reports, the students were allegedly called “monkeys” and “pigs”, as they were detained by police officers.
The students were eventually released, and the officers suspected of being involved either dismissed or suspended.
But by then, the uproar had spread across the West Papua region.
Despite facing threats of arrest, thousands of demonstrators waved the “Morning Star” flag, which is seen as a symbol of self-rule and banned.
Human Rights Watch in Indonesia reported that at least 10 people were killed in the latest violent protests.
Jokowi said he wanted to meet Papuans because he was confused about why they supported him, but were opposed to the administration in Jakarta.
“I want to find out why it has to be different,” he told Indonesia’s Kompas daily.
But West Papuans note representatives from the Papuan People’s Assembly were excluded from the meeting with Jokowi.
The Papuan Student Alliance, which has led several protest in recent weeks, has also rejected the government’s offer for dialogue.
Jhon Gobai, chairman of the alliance, said the talks “only prolong the oppression” of the Papuans.
“Right now, the people in West Papua are joining to protest in the street to demand one thing: Referendum. That is exactly what we want,” he said.
Vidhyandika Djati Perkasa, a researcher at the Jakarta-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) said the president needed to speak to all Papuans; not only those who supported integration.
“President Jokowi needs to visit Papua soon and set dialogue in West Papua instead (of the palace in Jakarta),” he said.
“The dialogue can be done several times to make sure that every West Papuan feels they are being represented,” he added.
Meanwhile, Alissa Wahid, of the Gusdurian organisation, which is dedicated to the legacy of former President Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid, urged Jokowi’s government to ensure that West Papuans are treated as equals in Indonesian.
Alissa said a “human approach” had to be prioritised to address the violence and racism.
The issue of racism is a sensitive topic for many Papuans, and they said that Jokowi needs to confront it if he wants to ease tensions.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Filep Karma, a pro-independence activist who was jailed for more than 10 years, said that many non-Papuans have repeatedly called him a “monkey”.
Aprilia Wayar, a Papuan novelist, said, she had experienced similar racism.
“Just yesterday, I wanted to rent a house in Yogyakarta. But when I came to visit the house, the owner asked me where I came from? I said I am from West Papua. They immediately cancelled it,” she said, recalling the incident.
Rosa Moiwend, a West Papuan activist, told Al Jazeera there would be no progress unless the issue of racism was addressed by the country and the president.
Above all, Jokowi must also look into the political history between Indonesia and West Papua, and clarify what happened during the 1969 referendum, she added.
“Otherwise, we are tired with another dialogue.”