The ironies were stark and troubling. On 17 August most Indonesians joyfully commemorated their nation’s proclamation of independence from the Netherlands 74 years ago.
A few weren’t having fun. Next afternoon young Papuans studying in East Java and who are suspected of wanting self rule, were brutally bashed and teargassed on the pretext they’d ‘slandered’ the Republic’s flag.
The bloody clash came three days after the national release of a much trumpeted film recounting the struggles of Javanese against colonial oppression.
Bumi Manusia (This Earth of Mankind), is based on the novel of the same title by the once-banned writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925 – 2006). In the film the fictional indigenous student hero Minke is regularly taunted by the dominant Dutch as a ‘monkey’.
This was the same smear allegedly hurled by provocateurs and police who raided the students’ dormitory in Surabaya, where a flagpole is supposed to have been bent letting the cloth touch the ground.
Possibly a furphy, as circulation of the insult was made by ultra-nationalist vigilantes who’d besieged the building, cut power and flung stones. Either way the response seems to have been over the top.
Also in Surabaya, the nation’s second biggest city after Jakarta, is the fine old Majapahit Hotel named after a pre-colonial Javanese empire. A painting in the foyer shows a youth climbing on the roof in late 1945 and ripping away the bottom blue strip of the Dutch tricolor. This left the flag red and white, now the national symbol.
The incident, which may be apocryphal, is embedded in Indonesia’s history of achieving freedom, and the lad who did the deed a hero. Today Papuans who raise their own Morning Star flag risk 20 years behind bars.
After the raid local newspapers frontpaged photos showing gore-streaked faces and limbs of students who swore they were unarmed when clobbered by the cops. At least six were injured and 43 arrested. The prisoners were questioned for nine hours, then let go without charge.
Videos circulating on social media appear to have right-wing demonstrators shouting ‘get rid of the Papuans’ and ‘monkeys, get out’. There are around 300 ethnic groups in the Archipelago. The Javanese dominate and some are prone to think themselves superior.
The violence, and in particular the ‘monkey’ slur, infuriated crowds in Manokwari, the capital of West Papua province, 2,800 kilometers to the northeast. They torched tyres in the streets and a local government building.
Another protest of about 10,000 took place in Jayapura, the capital of Papua Indonesia’s easternmost province.
Posts implying Indonesian President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo has ordered an investigation into the Surabaya incident have not been confirmed. The East Java Governor Khofifah Indar Parawansa did apologise, telling journalists the incident didn’t reflect the views of most residents.
The ABC had East Java police spokesperson Frans Barung, saying the dorm was stormed to stabilize the situation because of the students’ ‘provocative actions on allegedly committing slander on the national flag’.
This year is the 50th anniversary of the ‘referendum’ to decide who would run the former Dutch territory of Nieuw Guinea. This involved 1,025 ‘leaders’ hand-picked by Indonesia. Unsurprisingly they decided against independence.
Indonesia called it an ‘Act of Free Choice’; Western observers labeled it an ‘Act Free of Choice.’ Earlier this year a 1.8 million signature petition demanding an independence referendum was handed to UNHuman Rights chief Michelle Bachelet. Jakarta labeled the event a stunt.
There’s little chance of a referendum or any serious investigation of the human rights abuses frequently recounted by separatists. A slight majority of the 3.6 million residents are indigenous Melanesians and nominal Christians. That ration won’t last as increasing numbers of settlers from Muslim Java will tip the balance.
Like the First Australians, the indigenes will then be a minority in their own resource-rich land.
Grasberg – also known as Freeport – in the Papua highlands is the world’s largest gold mine and the second biggest copper mine, its royalties essential for the national economy. In 2017 the government earned US $756 million.
The Indonesian military has a heavy presence in Papua where there are irregular skirmishes with the lightly-armed West Papua Liberation Army guerillas. Last December road workers were reportedly ambushed and shot The facts can’t be verified as foreign journalists are banned, but 19 may have died.
Bobby Anderson, a research associate at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, has been studying violence in the province. He concluded:
‘Despite the wealth Indonesia earns through Papua’s abundant natural resources, a dearth of government services results in ordinary Papuans having the lowest incomes, the lowest educational levels, and the highest mortality rates in the country.
‘Papua’s deaths, both spectacular and mundane, hint that, while Indonesia has coherent policies toward Papua’s natural resources, it has no coherent policy toward Papuans.’
Some delegates at this month’s Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu attended by PM Scott Morrison raised concerns about the situation in Papua, only to be told by Indonesia to butt out.
Volumes of laws are supposed to protect Indonesians’ civil rights but the only ones jolting action concern blasphemy rather than racism. The government has set up Inter-Religious Harmony Forums to counter extremism. These usually get involved only after conflict erupts.
The new generation of Papuans is now more aware of their land’s history and like Minke in Bumi Manusia, starting to kick against what they see as injustices and subjection.
Minke’s goal was freedom from Amsterdam’s authority; Papuans want release from Jakarta’s grip.
Australian journalist Duncan Graham lives in Indonesia.