Exposure of widespread racism against Papuans has prompted a shift in the discourse about the acceptance of Papuans in Indonesia.


Protesters at one of the recent anti-racist demonstrations in Papua held a banner reading “If we are monkeys, don’t force monkeys to fly the Red and White (Indonesian flag)”.


The Papuans protesters were saying “if you think we are monkeys, you don’t regard us as fellow Indonesians”. The banner suggests something of a shift in the discourse about the place of Papuans in the Indonesian state.


The protests and demonstrations throughout Papua were triggered by a conflict at a student hostel in Surabaya on the eve of Indonesian Independence Day (17 August), when a nationalist crowd and some soldiers surrounded the hostel and called the students monkeys, dogs and pigs. The students had been accused of throwing an Indonesian flag into a ditch.


The soldiers and the nationalists who surrounded the student hostel in Surabaya are strongly opposed to the separation of Papua from Indonesia. However, whether they realised it or not, their racism sent a mixed message. They insist that Papua is an integral part of Indonesia, but do not regard Papuans as humans, let alone fellow Indonesians.


If the conflict in Surabaya had been an isolated incident there would have been few political consequences. The recent protests are so significant because the clash in Surabaya followed several recent conflicts involving Papuan students studying at universities in Java. More broadly, the racist slurs directed at the Papuan students resonate with the experience of many Papuans. The racism does not distinguish between the governors, pro-independence activists or women selling fruit and vegetables in the markets. It serves to unite Papuans.


Speaking on Najwa Shihab’s current affairs program, Mata Najwa, Papuan church leader and intellectual Dr Benny Giay asserted that Papuans feel they are second class citizens in Indonesia. When there are cases of racism, whether against students in Java, former governor and national hero Frans Kaisepo, or Papuan football players, the government says nothing. Indeed, in the case of the hostel in Surabaya, the security forces were present, as they were in earlier cases.


In similar vein, an editorial in the Suara Papua news portal titled “Humans and Monkeys” (Manusia dan Monyet) asked: “You want evidence of racism? Just ask Papuan students in Java or Papuan footballers at various Indonesian clubs.” With the recent cases in Java, the paper argued, this long experience of humiliation could no longer be tolerated and triggered a wave of pro-independence protests of unprecedented destruction and violence throughout Papua.


The political and historical context to the conflicts around Papuan student hostels in university towns in Java is critical. The conflicts involving Papuan students in Java often occur on anniversaries of political significance.


The day before the Surabaya protest, Papuan students had demonstrated in Malang on the 57th anniversary of the 1962 New York Agreement that transferred the administration of Papua from The Netherlands to Indonesian administration. The students demanded the right of self-determination that had been denied to Papua in 1962, when there had been no Papuans involved in negotiations. The Papuan students were met with a counter demonstration, racial abuse and stone-throwing.


Following the conflicts in Surabaya and Malang, as well as the demonstrations in Papua, retired General Wiranto the Coordinating Security Minister, rejected Papuan demands for a referendum, saying the New York Agreement had determined that Papua was part of Indonesia.


Wiranto reminded us that the Indonesian Government and many Papuans have diametrically opposed interpretations of the shared history of Papua’s integration into Indonesia during the 1960s.


Not all the recent conflicts involving Papuan students studying in Java have occurred around the politically contested anniversaries of Papua’s integration into Indonesia.


In July 2016, in Yogyakarta, Papuan students were prevented from demonstrating in support of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP), which was lobbying to become a member of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG). The student hostel was blockaded by the National Police’s Mobile Brigade (Brimob) and local nationalist groups, and Papuan students were called monkeys and told to leave. As student leader Aris Yeimo noted, all this occurred in Yogyakarta, a city known for its pluralism and support for democracy and human rights.


The Papuan students studying at Indonesian universities outside Papua are a critical segment of Papuan society. Most of them are studying with the support of local and provincial governments in Papua. While there is much contestation about Indonesia’s development policies in Papua and who benefits from them, the Papuan students in Java and other provinces are clearly among the beneficiaries of government policies. After they finish their studies, the students will return to Papua and some will become leaders in their societies. The students demonstrating in Surabaya, Malang and Yogyakarta will be among the political elite in the coming decades.


In an ideal world, the Papuans studying with students from other provinces and living in the university towns of the Indonesian heartland should be developing a greater identification as Indonesians as well as a deeper knowledge of the many other cultures in Indonesia. The conflicts in Surabaya, Malang, Yogyakarta and elsewhere suggest that, instead, their Papuan identity is being reinforced.


Jenny Munro’s detailed study of the educational experiences of Papuan highlander students at universities in the province of North Sulawesi provides a broader context in which to analyse the conflicts involving Papuan students. Munro’s study found that the students saw education offering the prospect of transforming their own society and fulfilling dreams of acquiring skills in a peaceful cosmopolitan society. However, the students’ dreams were made small by oppressive racism and political constraints. Rather than encouraging them to identify more as Indonesians, the education experience in North Sulawesi consolidated the students’ Papuan identity.


The conflicts in Surabaya and Malang triggered pro-independence demonstrations throughout Papua of an unprecedented scale of destruction, with the loss of life among the demonstrators and the security forces. The banned Papuan Morning Star flag was flown by demonstrators in front of the State Palace in Jakarta. The Indonesian government curtailed access to the internet in Papua. Troop re-enforcements have been sent to Papua to add to an already significant deployment. This has been followed by a flurry of official meetings between government leaders, including President Joko Widodo, and Papuan leaders.


However, the conflicts around the student hostels and the racism expressed against Papuans expose deeper problems about the respect for Papuans by their fellow Indonesians – problems that cannot be addressed by sending more troops, building more roads or yet another presidential visit.


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