As violence continues in West Papua, calls to release political prisoners grow stronger

On May 21, protests were held in different parts of Indonesia to demand the release of recently arrested activists

May 21, 2021 by Peoples Dispatch
Recent protests across Papua and Indonesia come at a time of increased violence against the Papuan people. Here 800 police and soldiers evicted people from a state-owned student dormitory on the basis that it has been used for political activities. Photo: Veronica Koman

Large scale protests were held in the Papuan provinces of Indonesia at a time of heightened violence between government forces and pro-independence insurgents. On Friday, May 21, protests were held in different parts of West Papua, demanding release of political prisoners, and an end to months of violence.

West Papuan cities like Manokwari, among others, witnessed hundreds participating in demonstrations. Along with protests in the Papuan provinces, Papuan communities in Java and other regions of Indonesia, also held protests condemning the violence.

According to Veronica Koman, an Indonesian lawyer and human rights advocate currently in exile in Australia, a student-led protest in Semarang, Java, led to attacks from right-wing groups and over 46 Papuan and Indonesian students being detained by the police. A solidarity protest was also held outside the Indonesian embassy in Canberra, Australia on Thursday, May 20.

Earlier this week, the government of president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo announced deployment of an additional 500 troops. But apart from counter-insurgency deployments, security forces and local authorities have been cracking down upon civil society groups, church groups and activists in the region.

Most recently, the highly publicized arrest of Victor Yeimo, who was booked under charges of treason earlier this month on May 9, has led to growing calls for the release of political prisoners. Yeimo is the general secretary of the West Papua National Committee (KNPB) and was arrested for suspicions in his role behind the anti-racist protests of 2019.

The Indonesian government deems the protests that swept West Papua for months, to be “riots”, in an attempt to mask the root causes of the mobilizations. At least 30 people were reportedly killed during the protesters, for the most part West Papuans at the hand of Indonesian police.

Over 32 human rights groups and church groups issued a joint statement on May 18, calling for Yeimo’s release and to de-escalate the situation. Father Alberto John Bunay, one of the signatories of the statement, coordinator of the Papuan Indigenous Priests Forum and the Papua Peace Network, argued that Yeimo’s “arrest will worsen the situation in Papua. We must settle the Papuan problem through dialogue.”

Yeimo’s arrest follows the government branding several activists and groups associated with the Free Papua Movement (OPM) as “terrorists” from the previously held label of “armed criminal groups”. Activists and church groups fear that the new labeling indicates the government attempts to intensify violence in the region.

The Indonesian National Armed Forces (TNI) has been engaged for months in a violent conflict with insurgents associated with the West Papuan Liberation Army. The conflict has reportedly displaced over 50,000 inhabitants, mostly Papuans, in the region and has only led to increasing militarization of the region.

The Indonesian government has also been accused of imposing a blanket media blackout that has kept information about violence, death tolls and displacement under wraps for months now. “The government is monopolizing any info from going out (through) internet and mobile disruptions (and) attacks against journos,” said Veronica Koman, responding to a Twitter Q&A on the occasion of the protests.

Internet blackouts for West Papuans has been very frequent since the anti-racist protests of 2019, with an ongoing disruption and blackout of internet services being in place since at least April 30.