Protests have broken out in the Indonesian province of West Papua after Indonesian soldiers were alleged to have racially abused Papuan students in Surabaya, the country's second-largest city. The government responded by sending in more troops and imposing internet restrictions.
On 16 August 2019, around 15 soldiers reportedly barged into a student dormitory in Surabaya and accused Papuan students of disrespecting the Indonesian flag. The soldiers’ actions were reportedly triggered by a photo shared on WhatsApp by a youth civil organization, of an Indonesian flag lying in a gutter ahead of the country's independence celebrations on August 17.
The soldiers allegedly hurled racist comments at the students, calling them ‘monkeys’. (Papuans are ethnically Melanesian, while the majority of Indonesians are Austronesian. Papuans are frequently the targets of racism in Indonesia). Around 42 students were taken to police headquarters the following day for questioning, but were released later in the afternoon.
Reports about the incident triggered a riot in Manokwari, the capital of West Papua province, where protesters burned down the West Papua Legislative Council building. Protests soon spread to other districts across West Papua and Papua, as well as the capital city Jakarta and other major cities in Indonesia. Some protestors have called for a referendum on the independence of West Papua.
#PapuaBukanMonyet (Papuans are not monkeys)
On Twitter, many Indonesian netizens used the hashtag #PapuaBukanMonyet (Papuans are not monkeys) to condemn the soldiers’ racist behaviour:
Ga usah teriak NKRI harga mati, kalau masih saling rasis, dan ga usah teriak damai-damai, teriak lah untuk tegaknya keadilan, karna sejatinya keadilan lah yg membawa kedamaian. #PapuaBukanMonyet #PapuaSaudaraKu #PapuaJugaIndonesia #PapuaDibelahNKRIDipecah
— Dily Salsabila Putri (@DilyPutri) August 21, 2019
Stop screaming that the unity of Indonesia is unarguable when we're still racist. Don't bother calling for peace, demand justice, because peace will come once justice is upheld. #PapuaIsNotMonkey #PapuaMyBrothers #PapuaIsIndonesia
#WestPapuans demand freedom! Thousands of #WestPapuan people marching against #racism today and calling for a #referendum after students in #Surabaya were racially abused as “monkeys”. #FreeWestPapua! #PapuaBukanMonyet #Papua #WestPapua #PapuaMerdeka #ReferendumYes #Jayapura pic.twitter.com/eZdKYu8Taz
— Free West Papua (@FreeWestPapua) August 19, 2019
On Instagram, Indonesian President Joko Widodo urged Papuans to forgive and forget the controversial incident, assuring assured West Papuans that the government would uphold the dignity and prosperity of everyone in Papua and West Papua provinces.
But some netizens advised him to act swiftly and punish the soldiers who abused the Papuan students.
Memaafkan mulu bosen pak, tangkap penyulut api disurabaya semuanya mulai dari TNI, Polisi, juga ormas yg terlibat dalam ujaran kebencian. Buktikan bahwa anda adil dalam hal ini.
— ahkohxet (@andreasfranceso) August 19, 2019
[We're] tired of forgiving, arrest those in Surabaya who triggered this, the military officer, police and groups which spread hate. Show us you have a say in this.
A few days later, the president commanded the national police chief to take firm action against the officers in question. The media also reported that national police reinforcements had been sent to West Papua, where protests had escalated because of the incident.
On 19 August, the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology (Kominfo) announced that the government was conducting a systematic throttling of internet connectivity in West Papua and Papua provinces, in order to curb the spread of misinformation that could further inflame tensions in the region.
On 21 August, Kominfo issued another release announcing that the government has decided to block data service in both provinces until the situation had stabilized.
Journalist Arnold Belau, who was in Jayapura, the capital of Papua province, on 19 August, tweeted about the internet outage the next day:
Sejak kemarin sore hingga pagi ini jaringan internt mati toal di Kota Jayapura. Kecuali wifi. @Telkomsel Ada masalah? Ikan ada gigit kabel optik lagi ka? Ato ada gempa besar kemarin? Aneh2 saja….
— Arnold Belau (@ArnoldBelau) August 20, 2019
Since yesterday evening the internet networks in Jayapura city is out, except wifi. What's going on Telkomsel? Another fish chewed on the fiber optic? Or another huge earthquake? Such antics..
Global Voices reached out to Belau on 22 August, and he confirmed the throttling of the internet in Papua:
Sejak Hari Selasa, di Tembagapura sampai Timika juga sama. Tak bisa akses internet. Hanya voice dan text message. Saat ini saya ada di Timika.
Since Tuesday, same thing happened in Tembagapura until Timika. Can't access the internet [properly]. [We're] only [able to send] voice and text messages. I'm currently in Timika.
President Joko Widodo defended the government's decision to block the internet in West Papua and Papua provinces, describe the move as serving ‘a common good’.
Indonesian NGO the Institute for Criminal Justice Reform (ICJR) pointed out, however, that internet throttling during a crisis situation is a direct violation of Article 4 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Meanwhile, the Indonesian chapter of the Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network has launched a petition calling for an end to the government's censorship of the Internet in West Papua and Papua provinces. The petition states that:
Blocking and restricting access to the internet in Papua and West Papua instead will make it harder for people living outside of the two provinces to verify facts and what has happened, to check on the safety of friends and relatives because people in Papua have no or limited access to send messages