Police fire tear gas as anti-racism protests continue in West Papua’s Sorong

Protesters in the West Papuan city of Sorong chasing after riot police on Aug 20, 2019. Photo: video screengrab from Twitter/@VeronicaKoman
Protesters in the West Papuan city of Sorong chasing after riot police on Aug 20, 2019. Photo: video screengrab from Twitter/@VeronicaKoman

Protests resumed in parts of Papua and West Papua today following yesterday’s riots in the two easternmost Indonesian provinces that were sparked by alleged racist abuse against Papuan students in Java, with the West Papuan city of Sorong still reportedly experiencing scenes of violence and chaos this afternoon.

According to an account given by Transmedia journalist Jersy Allen to CNN Indonesia, Sorong Mayor Lambert Jitmau was addressing a crowd of protesters who had gathered outside his office, urging them to not be provoked into violence or damage public property, when some of them began throwing bottles and rocks at the mayor, triggering a riot. 

“The police’s mobile brigade unit immediately secured the mayor for evacuation,” Jersy reported.

Jersy added that police fired tear gas to disperse the protesters.

Yesterday, at least 250 inmates held in Sorong Penitentiary escaped after mobs of protesters reportedly pelted rocks at the prison building, provoking the inmates to tear down a wall and escape.

Elsewhere in the city, protesters reportedly set up road blockades and engaged in confrontations with the riot police. A video shared by human rights activist Veronica Koman, taken in Sorong today, shows riot police officers fleeing as they are chased by protesters.

Yesterday’s riots in major Papuan and West Papuan cities — including in the latter’s capital of Manokwari, where the local parliament building was torched by protesters — were triggered by reports that authorities had tear-gassed and detained some 43 Papuan university students in the Southeast Asian nation’s second-biggest city, Surabaya, on Saturday, which was also Indonesia’s independence day.

Local media and Papuan activists said police in riot gear stormed into a dormitory and used tear gas in a bid to force out students who allegedly destroyed an Indonesian flag. The officers reportedly cursed out students using the words “monkey” and “pig” as they were being rounded up.

National Police spokesman Dedi Prasetyo did not deny reports that police had used tear gas, but said the students in Surabaya were only “questioned” briefly before being set free.

Television footage on Saturday also showed a different group of protesters demonstrating against the students and shouting racial slurs about Papuans.

President Joko Widodo’s office says the country’s leader is set to visit the two provinces sometime next week to speak with locals and alleviate tensions. 

Papua, which has been the scene of a decades-long insurgency against Indonesian rule, shares a border with independent Papua New Guinea (PNG), just north of Australia.

A former Dutch colony, Papua declared itself independent in 1961, but neighboring Indonesia took control of the resource-rich region following a UN-sponsored independence referendum that was widely viewed as a sham.

Indonesia routinely blames separatists for violence in Papua and conflicting accounts are common.

The country’s security forces have for years been dogged by allegations of widespread rights abuses against Papua’s ethnic Melanesian population including extrajudicial killings of activists and peaceful protestors.

Hundreds also protested in Jayapura, the region’s biggest city, yesterday.

With additional reporting by AFP


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