Anti-racism protests in the US are shining the light on racism against Papuans in Indonesia

Dozens of students held a protest in Renon, Denpasar in August 2019. One of the signs says: “We are not monkeys. We are human beings. Stop racism.” Photo: Aliansi Mahasiswa Papua / Facebook
Dozens of students held a protest in Renon, Denpasar in August 2019. One of the signs says: “We are not monkeys. We are human beings. Stop racism.” Photo: Aliansi Mahasiswa Papua / Facebook

Across the globe, people are taking to the streets and occupying virtual spaces to speak up against racism, following the senseless murder of a black man named George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer in the United States. 

Institutional racism, which sees black people subjected to violence at the hands of the state or agents of the state, has long been a problem in America, with George Floyd’s death having unveiled a new chapter to the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Thousands are taking part in various demonstrations, from the United States to New Zealand, to protest police violence and racial injustice. 

In Indonesia, much of the protests are happening virtually across social media platforms. On Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok voices of the oppressed are being amplified and in some cases also brought up to highlight the country’s own racism problem, which in itself are complex owing to diverse ethnicities in Indonesia, but is arguably most apparent in how it undervalues the lives of Papuans. Right next to #BlackLivesMatter, #PapuanLivesMatter has surfaced to educate Indonesians on injustices that Papuans face. 

‘Powerless to retort’

Precylia Yigi, a student from Papua, said that what happened in the US is revealing to the world how racism is still very much a problem in our world today.

“In Indonesia many are also voicing #BlackLivesMatter, but unfortunately Indonesians are still racist towards Papuans, and this is still happening today,” Precylia said.

The 25-year-old, who is enrolled in a government studies postgraduate program in Jakarta, says that students from Papua are often subject to discrimination, giving the example of a university rector who she says would go as far as to claim that members of Papuan tribes are cannibals.

“As an indigenous Papuan, statements like these hurt but I don’t have the power to retort,” she said, arguing that years of systemic racism and discrimination have robbed her and her people of their voice.

Precylia’s story is reminiscent of a widely reported racist incident just last August in Surabaya, which saw a group comprising the police, the army and members of nationalist groups goading Papuan university students with racist taunts, calling them “monkeys.” 

The slur (and other name-calling) sparked protests throughout the country, condemning the mistreatment and racial abuse against Papuan citizens. However, the national discourse on racism only took on a brief hold, as student-led protests against controversial bills in Indonesia and now, the COVID-19 pandemic, dominated headlines in the months that followed. 

“However, with racism being highlighted in the US, it’s also creating a positive impact among [Indonesian] millennials, especially those who are on social media, as they show that they care about the racist treatments against Papuans,” Precylia said. 

Indeed, various informative posts are circulating online among Indonesians this week, underlining the fact that racism against Papuans is a persisting problem and that most Indonesians simply don’t bother to address it.

#BlackLivesMatter and anti-racism movement in Indonesia

Lisa Duwiry, a 35-year-old Papuan living in Jakarta, told Coconuts over email that the #BlackLivesMatter movement has sparked important online discussions in Indonesia, especially on Twitter. 

“It makes me happy, even if not everyone is speaking up, at least there is curiosity on why Papua is also being discussed because of the conversations on #BlackLivesMatter, and from that curiosity they can learn,” Lisa said. 

“How there is similar treatment happening in Indonesia that is not only based on a violation of the law, but is because people from Papua are considered as inferior, backwards, lagging behind, and unequal.”

Lisa, who is working closely with Korowai kids in Papua province, further pointed to parallels in the abuse of power from Indonesian law enforcement officers against Papuans and that many Indonesians treat Papuans as second-class citizens, with that of white supremacy in the US.

 “When it comes to Papua, racism is already part of the law.”

The video of George Floyd’s murder, which shows him handcuffed and lying face down while Derek Chauvin, a white American police officer, knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes and effectively killing him, reminds Papuans of how 22-year-old Obby Kogoya was allegedly unjustly treated by the police back in 2016.  

A photo from that incident, which shows Obby as he was captured and his nose pulled back by police officers, has been circulating in recent days.

Obby was later sentenced to four months in prison for committing violence against the police, though activists said he was actually a victim of police brutality at the time. 

Ronny Kareni, a Papuan musician and activist, said that #BlackLivesMatter shows the importance of an anti-racism movement in Indonesia. 

“Firstly because, when it comes to Papua, racism is already part of the law,” he said, noting that the law and those who enforce it in Indonesia do not side with minority and marginalized groups, which he says is an everyday reality for Papuans. 

Founded in 2013 in the US, #BlackLivesMatter has noted on its website how it is an expansive movement that is also “working for a world where Black lives are no longer systematically targeted for demise.” 

In an interview with Coconuts, Papuan author and journalist Aprila Wayar reaffirmed that Papuans identify as black, while noting that they also identify under the subrace of Melanesian.

Confronting racism in the archipelago 

It seems that we have forgotten our own history as victims of racism, Aprila said, alluding to the period of Dutch colonialism in Indonesia.  

“I think Indonesians today have forgotten its own history of liberation. [They] forget how it feels to have been colonized with different kinds of curses and hate speech for 350 years,” she said, adding that the country’s history books and literature showed how racism eventually triggered the independence movement in Indonesia. 

“We need to learn together from this piece of history,” she continued. 

All the Papuan people Coconuts spoke with for this article have stressed the importance of elevating Papuan voices in the discourse. 

“Try to listen, that’s the key – listen to what Papuans want. If [you] feel that Indonesia has always given the best for Papua, why should you be afraid of letting indigenous Papuans determine their own fates?” Lisa said. 

“We are victims of state policy that are biased against us as members of a minority and marginalized group.”

Ronny echoed a similar sentiment separately, calling on the younger generation to also learn about the history of Papua, to avoid equating the movements in Papua to separatism or treason. 

“State violence against Papuans is very discriminatory. Especially as there is no space to express anti-racism [values], [advocate for] traditional land rights or basic human rights. Those are seen as acts of separatism,” he said, noting that Papuans advocate for self-determination. 

Precylia added that people ought to stop treating troubling news from Papua as fake news, highlighting that “the truth is often covered up, but lies continued to be published.” 

Those active in the movement to support the Papuan cause are all too familiar with the lack of Papuan voices during public discussions, which is why Aprila also emphasized the importance of reading the works of Papuan writers. 

“Listen to Papua from our side as victims. We are victims of state policy that are biased against us as members of a minority and marginalized group,” she said.



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