Riot deaths in Papua must be investigated, says Human Rights Watch

By agency reporter
October 9, 2019

The Indonesian authorities should independently investigate recent riots in Wamena, Papua which resulted in 33 deaths, Human Rights Watch (HRW) says. Since 29 September 2019, at least 8,000 indigenous Papuan and other Indonesians have been displaced from their homes in Papua.

The National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas Ham) should lead an investigation into the deaths and review the government’s policing policy. The Indonesian government should also immediately allow the United Nations human rights office unfettered access to Papua and West Papua provinces to investigate the situation, said HRW.

“At least 33 people died during riots in Wamena in unclear circumstances,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “An independent investigation is needed to examine the role of the security forces and to prosecute anyone responsible for wrongdoing.”

Human Rights Watch spoke with two well-informed government officials and three indigenous Papuan men who had been detained briefly by the Wamena police.

In August, Papuans took part in protests across at least 30 cities in Indonesia that were preceded by an attack by Indonesian militants on a West Papuan student dorm in Surabaya on 17 August.

The protests turned to pro-independence rallies, some of which became deadly. At least 10 men, including an Indonesian soldier, were killed in August in Deiyai and Jayapura in Papua.

In Jayapura, Indonesian settlers, mostly ethnic Makassar, set up checkpoints and attacked indigenous Papuans with clubs and machetes. On 1 September, a group of settlers attacked a student dorm in Jayapura, most of whose residents were from Wamena, killing one student and seriously wounding two others. The incident raised tensions between the two different racial groups.

On 18 September, a new teacher allegedly made racist taunts at Papuan students at a public high school in Wamena. 

On 23 September, Wamena students protesting outside the Jayawijaya regent office were joined by a larger crowd that burned the office. Violence escalated. Many shops, mostly owned by Indonesians from other islands, burned down. Many of those killed were found trapped inside their burned houses. The burning and some killings continued on 24 September.

The government shut down the internet from 23 to 29 September in the vicinity of Wamena. The police listed the names and origins of the 33 people who died. They included eight Papuans, including two children, and 25 people from elsewhere in Indonesia, three of whom were children.

On 27 September, Indonesia’s National Police chief replaced the Papua police chief, Rudolf Alberth Rodja, a non-Papuan, with Paulus Waterpauw, an ethnic Papuan who had been the Papua police chief from 2015 to 2017.

In Wamena, the main city in the area, the riots caused thousands of Papuan and non-Papuan residents to flee the city amid the deterioration of security and rumors of an increased Indonesian military deployment, ostensibly to prevent further violence.

More than 5,000 residents, both Papuans and non-Papuans, have sought safety in several refuge points in Jayawijaya regency, including the police station and two military posts. Some are staying in churches. An Air Force officer said 2,000 evacuees had reported to the military to leave Wamena on a Hercules transport plane.

Last December, Papuan militants killed 17 Indonesian workers in Nduga, near Wamena. It prompted the Indonesian military and police to initiate a security operation, displacing thousands of indigenous Papuans. Thousands of them are still seeking refuge in Wamena and Jayapura.

News about the recent deaths of non-Papuans in Wamena has angered many Muslims in Sumatra, Sulawesi, and Java. The Islamic Defenders Front, one of the largest Muslim militias in Java, had started to call on Muslims for 'jihad' against predominantly Christian Papuans in the two provinces.

Human Rights Watch has long documented human rights abuses in Papua’s central highlands, where the military and police have frequently engaged in deadly confrontations with armed groups.

Indonesian security forces have often committed abuses against the Papuan population, including arbitrary detention and torture. A lack of internal accountability within the security forces and a poorly functioning justice system mean that impunity for rights violators is the norm in Papua. The failure to appropriately punish serious abuses by Indonesian security forces has fueled resentment among Papuans.

The Indonesian security forces should exercise care when operating in Wamena, directing all security personnel to treat residents in accordance with international standards. They should transparently investigate and hold accountable anyone implicated in a criminal offense. Both the military and the police should allow journalists to operate independently in the area. The government should lift the decades-long official restriction on foreign media access to Papua.

“The situation in Wamena is tense, yet it’s difficult to verify the circumstances because no journalists can independently go into the area to interview witnesses,” Adams said. “Having independent monitors on the ground will help deter abuses by both the militants and security forces, which would benefit all Indonesians.”

* Human Rights Watch https://www.hrw.org/

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