Jakarta, Indonesia – Several demonstrators have been injured and dozens detained as Indonesian authorities crack down on separatist protests in the West Papua region, according to witnesses, but the police strongly deny anyone was wounded.
A family member of one of the injured protesters, who asked not to be identified for security reasons, confirmed to Al Jazeera on Friday that a relative was injured during the protests in Fakfak Regency, West Papua province.
Rights groups Amnesty International Indonesia and Human Rights Watch also confirmed to Al Jazeera that there were several reports of injuries in Fakfak.
They urged the authorities in West Papua to “ensure the safety” of all people across the region, and refrain from using excessive force in dealing with the situation.
“Police have the right to remove part of the protests that is violent, but must guarantee the rights and the safety of others who want to protest racial and discriminatory treatment of Papuan students by the police and mass organisations in Surabaya and Malang, East Java,” Usman Hamid, executive director at Amnesty, said in a statement.
Violent protests started earlier this week when authorities detained Papuan students studying in the island of Java for reportedly holding a pro-independence rally. Another group of Papuan students was accused of damaging the Indonesian flag.
Dozens of Papuan students were rounded up and racist slurs such as “monkeys” and “pigs” were allegedly hurled at them by the local people.
Victor Yeimo, a spokesperson for the West Papua National Committee (KNPB), told Al Jazeera that a member of his organisation also confirmed reports of injuries sustained by several West Papuans, some of whom were taken to a local hospital.
John Djonga, a prominent Catholic priest in Papua province, said he had sent an emissary to Fakfak, who confirmed that some injured protesters were being treated in a hospital there.
Police deny allegations
The Indonesian police have repeatedly denied the reports of injuries among protesters.
“Those are hoaxes. One is an old photo taken in 2018 when there was a clash between the red-white [pro-Indonesia] group and the pro-independence demonstrators,” police spokesperson Dedi Prasetyo told Al Jazeera.
The Indonesian government continues to block the internet in the West Papua region, making it difficult for the news media to obtain reports from the ground and verify claims of casualties circulating on social media.
Earlier this week, protesters torched a traditional market and kiosk in Fakfak and destroyed roads, prompting police to fire tear gas to disperse the crowd.
Demonstrations were also held in other parts of the region, including in Sorong, the largest city of West Papua province, where protesters attacked and temporarily shut down the airport.
As protests continued, authorities rounded up several protesters across West Papua, according to Al Jazeera sources and reports from local media.
However, witnesses and authorities have provided conflicting numbers in terms of people detained.
The Indonesian news website, Tempo, reported that at least 45 people had been arrested, with about 10 of them named as suspects of assault, according to police spokesman Dedi.
On Thursday, President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo expressed concerns over violent protesters mixing with peaceful Papuan demonstrators.
“It is common, in an incident, there is [a third party who] act to get a free ride. It’s common, I think,” he said.
In Mimika in Papua province, police chief Agung Marlianto said protesters brought gasoline, sharp objects, and the morning star flag, the banned symbol of the pro-independence movement in West Papua.
“It is clear, there are [allegedly] free riders that oppose [the government] and have been taking advantage from this peaceful rally,” he said.
Army says will act on racism charges
Meanwhile, the Indonesian National Armed Forces (TNI) promised to investigate individuals captured in a video, showing them hurling racial slurs at Papuan students during the raid last week at a dormitory in Surabaya.
“There were indeed people seen wearing camouflage shirts. We have taken steps to check whether these people were members of the military or not,” said Lieutenant Colonel Arm Imam Hariyadi, chief spokesman of the regional military command.
A military army spokesman said the soldiers suspected of taking part in the incident will be summoned.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Haris Azhar from the legal and rights organisation, Lokataru, urged the authorities to punish soldiers involved in making the racist comments against the Papuan students.
“They have to be processed by law, especially when the evidence is clear,” Haris said, adding that making racist comments violates a 2008 Indonesian law, which seeks to eliminate racial and ethnic discrimination in the country.
Haris, however, complained that instead of going after the perpetrators of the racial abuse, authorities were responding to the unrest by rounding up protesters, sending more troops and blocking the internet.
On Thursday, the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York urged the Indonesian government to immediately lift the internet ban and to stop restricting journalists from covering the civil unrest in the region.
Foreign journalists are barred from reporting in West Papua.
Until the early 1960s, West Papua was a Dutch colony. When the Dutch left, Indonesia took control of the region through a controversial 1969 referendum when some 1,000 people were able to vote.
An armed rebellion by the indigenous West Papua National Liberation Army has been rumbling since.
The region is the poorest in Indonesia, in spite of its natural wealth, and has been subject to numerous allegations of human rights violations.
In December, an attack by independence fighters killed at least 17 people and triggered a military crackdown that caused 35,000 civilians to flee their homes as security forces tried to flush rebels out of the mountains.
According to Human Rights Watch, West Papuans have increasingly become targets of intimidation by “Islamist and nationalist groups” since the formation in 2014 of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, which is advocating for Papuan independence.