Indonesia pressed to conduct independent inquiry in West Papua

Human Rights Watch says situation in region remains ‘tense’ following deadly riots that forced thousands to evacuate.

A car passes governor office building of Jayawijaya burned during a protest in Wamena, Papua
President Joko Widodo has attempted to diffuse the situation by offering to meet with West Papua's pro-independence leaders [File: Marius Wonyewun/Antara via Reuters]

Indonesian authorities should independently investigate recent riots in West Papua that led to 33 deaths, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said as indigenous Papuans urged the government to allow United Nations human rights officials access to the restive region. 

The rights group said in a statement on Tuesday that Indonesia‘s National Commission on Human Rights, should lead the investigation, particularly on the deadly riots in the city of Wamena in late September, and review how the government troops handled the unrest.

Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW, said that having independent monitors on the ground “will help deter abuses by both the militants and security forces, which would benefit all Indonesians.”

“An independent investigation is needed to examine the role of the security forces and to prosecute anyone responsible for wrongdoing,” said Adams in a statement.

“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,” he added.

More than 16,000 Papuans and other residents have also been forced to leave their homes in recent weeks because of the violent protests.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, who is set to be sworn-in for his second term later this month, has appealed for calm amid the violent protests, but has also deployed thousands of security forces to help control the situation. 

Aside from meeting a group of indigenous Papuans at the presidential palace, he has also offered to meet pro-independence leaders, including Benny Wenda, the leader of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) who lives in exile in the UK.

Police had earlier accused Wenda of inciting the Wamena riots – allegations that he has denied.

Racial, religious pressures

Since mid-August, West Papua has been hit by waves of mass protests and violence fuelled by alleged racism against indigenous Papuans by Indonesians from other parts of the archipelago, as well as calls for self-rule in the impoverished region.

Security officers patrol in Ilaga, Puncak regency in Papua
Human Rights Watch said it has received reports of abuses by Indonesian security forces in West Papua [File: Sevianto Pakiding/Antara via Reuters]

The government in Jakarta maintains that the region, which occupies the western half of the island of Papua New Guinea, is part of the country because it was under the Dutch East Indies, which forms the basis of the country’s modern-day borders.

The majority of Papuans are Christian and ethnic Melanesian with few cultural ties to the rest of Muslim-majority Indonesia.

A low-level armed rebellion by indigenous Papuans has been rumbling for years against the central government in Jakarta.

In December, 17 people were killed after independence fighters attacked a road project, prompting a military crackdown that forced 35,000 civilians to flee.

The latest round of violence erupted in mid-August.

HRW said that they had received reports that Indonesian security forces “often committed abuses against the Papuan population, including arbitrary detention and torture.”

In a statement on Monday, Wenda of the pro-independence ULMP, expressed his willingness to accept President Jokowi’s invitation, but listed several conditions for the meeting to happen.

Among others, Wenda said the issue of West Papua’s referendum on independence should be on the agenda of the meeting, to be conducted through “third-party mediation”. 

He also demanded the release of several West Papua “political prisoners” and access to UN officials, international journalists and NGOs in the area.

“We will not be fooled by kind gestures and handshakes whilst our people are being killed in Nduga, in Wamena, in Jayapura,” he said referring to different cities in Papua.

Meanwhile, HRW warned that the recent deaths of non-Papuans in Wamena had also “angered” religious groups 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,” HRW said.

Source: Al Jazeera