Protesters in Indonesia’s restive Papua province set fire to a local government building and broke into a prison on Thursday as thousands rallied against racism and called for their region’s independence, officials said.
National police spokesman Dedi Prasetyo said the building was burned in Abepura town. He said he could not confirm reports that protesters also set fire to several other buildings, including offices, shops and gas stations.
The government has blocked telecommunication and internet access in the region since last week amid spreading protests that have at times turned violent. The protests were triggered by videos circulated on the internet showing security forces calling Papuan students “monkeys” and “dogs” in East Java’s Surabaya city.
A video obtained by The Associated Press from Abepura showed demonstrators, including students in yellow jackets, chanting “Freedom Papua” and paving posters reading “We are not monkeys.” Many in the crowd wore headbands bearing a morning star flag that is a separatist group symbol, and held banners demanding a referendum on independence.
Wiranto, the co-ordinating minister for politics, law and security, told reporters ahead of a hearing with lawmakers in the capital, Jakarta, that he had received a report saying that protesters had also broken into a prison in Abepura.
Wiranto, who uses one name, said he instructed security forces in Papua not to take repressive measures and not use real bullets in dealing with the protesters.
At least one Indonesian soldier and two civilians were killed Wednesday in a protest in Deiyai, a district in the province. Police said protesters stole at least 10 rifles.
Indonesia maintains a significant police and military presence in the volatile provinces of Papua and West Papua, a mineral-rich region where a decades-long separatist movement simmers and the predominantly Christian indigenous people resent an influx of Muslim Indonesians.
Wiranto rejected calls for a referendum on independence.
“Papua is already legitimately part of Indonesia and that is final,” he said.
Independence Day clash lit spark
Conflicts between indigenous Papuans and Indonesian security forces are common in the impoverished region, which Indonesia annexed more than half a century ago. It was formally incorporated into the country in 1969 after a UN-sponsored ballot that was seen as a sham by many.
Sebby Sambom, spokesman for the West Papua National Liberation Army, the military wing of the Free Papua Movement, denied Indonesian accusations that it was involved in the violent protests.”We have not taken a stand in this people’s protest over racism against indigenous Papuans,” he said in a statement. “This is purely an action carried out by the entire society.”
Sambom called for the withdrawal of troops from Papua to end the spreading protests.
State energy firm Pertamina shut several petrol stations in Jayapura because of the protest, its spokesperson, Fajriyah Usman, said.
National military spokesperson Maj.-Gen. Sisriadi said more than 1,000 people had taken part in the protest.
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 unrest was slurs directed at Papuan students, who were hit by tear gas in their dormitory and detained in the city of Surabaya on the main island of Java on Aug. 17, Indonesia’s Independence Day, for allegedly desecrating a national flag.
The government has cut internet access in the region since last week to stop people sharing “provocative” messages that could trigger more violence, a step criticized by rights group and journalists, who said it had made reporting difficult.