Protest and repression of West Papua conflict spreading across Indonesia

Racist mobs and Indonesian police harassed and raided West Papuan student accommodation in the Indonesian cities of Surabaya, Malang and Semarang in August this year in an attempt to intimidate students sympathetic to the right of self-determination for West Papua.

At a hostel in Surabaya students were taunted with the racial epithet: “monkeys!” before police stormed in and arrested 43 people. Footage of this and other incidents of racial abuse – which Papuans say they experience daily – was widely circulated on social and mass media.

The incidents triggered a series of demonstrations by West Papuans and their supporters throughout Indonesia in August early September. These protests were organised to oppose ongoing racial discrimination and the escalating military repression inside West Papua. Many protests carried the Morning Star flag – considered illegal by the Indonesian authorities – and called for a self-determination referendum.

The protests throughout West Papua are seen as the largest, most visible and confident displays of opposition to Indonesian repression for some time, but often resulted in confrontations with police and army and leading to some deaths and casualties. There has been at least 16 people recently charged in West Papua. Some have been moved to a jail on the island of Kalimantan over 2000 kilometres from their families.

Protest and repression spreads

In Jakarta, on August 28 a peaceful demonstration organised as part of this wave of protest unfurled the Morning Star flag outside Indonesia’s Presidential Palace and called for an act of self-determination. For this, six people have been arrested and charged with “makar”, which means “subverting the state”, or treason. They remain in jail 3 months later and, if convicted, face up to 20 years in prison or death. A separate action on the same day in another location where the Morning Star flag was also unfurled saw no arrests. In fact painting, carrying or raising the Morning Star flag has been a characteristic feature of the recent protest wave – suggesting the arbitrary arrest and charges of the Jakarta 6 is intended as an example.


The Surabaya incident and its aftermath has significantly raised profile of the West Papua issue within Indonesian political discussion. Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s already high profile Papua policy was previously characterised by the release of some political prisoners, increased infrastructure spending and Presidential visits to the region. However, the new wave of protests has punctured the illusion that this approach has made much headway towards a resolution.

The treason charges suggest a return towards greater reliance on repression. Arbitrary arrest and brutality long used inside West Papua is being extended, in effect, to the other provinces of Indonesia – at least for protest actions around the West Papua issue. The escalation is a dangerous precedent that threatens to roll-back democratic space opened up in Indonesia by the “reformasi” movement that defeated military rule in 1998.

The six charged with treason are Paulus Suryanta Ginting (Surya Anta) who is not Papuan but the National Spokesperson for Indonesian Peoples’ Front for West Papua (FRI-WP, which jointly organised the Indonesian actions), Anes Tabuni, Charles Kossay, Ambrosius Mulait, Isay Wenda and Arina Elopere.

A lawyer active in defending Papuan activists, Veronica Koman, has also been charged with incitement. Koman has not been detained as she is based in Australia studying though the Indonesian police have issued an Interpol notice for her arrest which Australia has refused to rule out complying with. Since the charges, she has remained active in Australia campaigning in defence of West Papuan’s rights.

A mess created by Dutch colonialism and Suharto

The backstory to the Surabaya incident is that earlier in August, there was a series of demonstrations by various coalitions supporting the demand for an act of self-determination. These actions were responding to the anniversary of the 1963 New York Agreement which settled the dispute between the governments of Indonesia and the Netherlands over West Papua. Papuan nationalists argue that Papuans should have been able to participate in those negotiations and that it was not simply a matter for Jakarta and The Hague.

In the 1960s in Indonesia, the incorporation of West Papua into Indonesia was seen as crucial to completing national liberation from centuries of Dutch rule. Before its handover to the Republic of Indonesia, Papua was the last holdout of Dutch colonial power that had previously controlled the entire archipelago.

In 1949, Indonesian republicans made four concessions to the Netherlands to get agreement to end a four year Dutch military campaign aimed at re-establishing its colony after the Dutch had fled to Australia during World War Two. The concessions were that: Indonesia would be a federal state; Dutch capital would retain possession of all their businesses; the Republic of Indonesian would pay outstanding “debts” to the Netherlands and; West Papua’s integration into Indonesia would occur later following further negotiations.

The New York agreement signed on 15 August 1962 between Jakarta and The Hague allowed for a joint UN-Indonesian administration in West Papua until 1 May 1963, with an act of free choice scheduled for 1969. However, in 1965 there was a bloody military takeover in Indonesia supported by the United States, Britain and Australia that resulted in the death of up to three million people. The purpose and effect of the coup, and the reason for its extreme violence, was to reverse the popular, anti-imperialist political direction of the Republic under its first president, Sukarno.

By the time of the promised 1969 Act of Free Choice in Papua, the military dictatorship, by then entrenched in Jakarta proceeded to implement a farcical process, now referred to the “Act of No Choice”. Suharto’s new military government selected who would be allowed to vote. These 1,022 men were then confined to a fenced camp for the voting process itself. The result of this military “act” of incorporation into Indonesia is now contested by many West Papuans and their supporters.

Indonesian student protests oppose repression in West Papua

Adding to the problems of current president Widodo, on September 22, Indonesia saw its largest street demonstrations since Reformasi. The student demonstrations were organised across major Indonesian cities in response to a range of grievances reflected in nine key demands adopted nationally.

The most prominent demand was opposition to the corrupt parliament’s attempt to water down the powers of the Reformasi era Corruption Eradication Commission. Students also opposed proposed legislation banning sex outside of marriage and parliament’s refusal to pass legislation against domestic violence and sexual assault.

Importantly for west Papua, in an unprecedented expression of solidarity, the protests also opposed military repression of the Papuan population, called for release of political prisoners. Some students carried banners calling for release of Surya Anta and the Jakarta six.

So far student protests have not adopted support either for self-determination or for the right to choose self-determination through a true act of free choice as one of their demands. However, if student protests can be sustained, an ongoing student movement that opposes police and military violence would make it more difficult for Widodo to keep escalating repression in response to the Papua conflict.

Wide implications of the Jakarta 6 case

What happens to the Jakarta Six activists charged with treason will set an important precedent. Long jail sentences for raising the flag is not new inside West Papua. However if Widodo can get away with jailing activists for this peaceful act in Jakarta it normalises the banning of freedom of expression in Indonesia more broadly. If, on the other hand, prosecutors are forced to release them, this would be a blow to the legitimacy of police and military repression and a boost to the campaign for the right to self-determination.

Until recently the six were held at a detention centre in Jakarta usually used for terrorist suspects run by the Police Mobile Brigade (BRIMOB). Surya Anta was kept for months in an isolation cell with no ventilation contributing to an ear infection and temporary hospitalisation.

On November 11, lawyers representing the six attended a court hearing concerning complaints that the arrests and seizure of property without warrants had been illegal. The police simply did not turn up and the hearing was postponed for two weeks. This gave police time to finalise their charges and on November 18 hand the prisoners over to the prosecutor, thwarting any opportunity to challenge the arbitrary nature of the arrests.

The fate of the Jakarta six and other political prisoners may ultimately be determined by the orientation and strength of the Indonesian student movement and others opposing the use of military force and police repression, as well as by the movements inside West Papua itself.

However, international solidarity with the struggles for full democratic rights, including the right to advocate for self-determination in West Papua and also, importantly, international solidarity with the movements for social justice and against repression in Indonesia as a whole, may also play a crucial role. That was the case for East Timor, which gained independence only after Indonesian Reformasi overthrew the Australian supported Suharto dictatorship.

Reformasi, its leaders and the Timorese struggle were all strengthened by the support they received, especially from solidarity organisations in Australia. The recent upturn in struggles in Papua and across Indonesia suggests that it might be time we started paying more attention once more to out North. For ongoing developments check

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