Over the past few months, a terrible injustice has been playing out in Indonesia’s legal system: 56 black political prisoners put on trial for treason over last year’s anti-racism protests in West Papua. For seven of those activists, Indonesian prosecutors had sought jail terms ranging from five to 17 years.
In a surprise ruling on Wednesday, the seven were found guilty but none was sentenced to more than a year, meaning that with time already served all should be free in a few weeks. Without a doubt this unexpected result is due to a sudden outpouring of public support in the form of “Papuan Lives Matter” marches in eight cities and solidarity statements from student associations across Indonesia.
This all began with ordinary Indonesian netizens supporting Black Lives Matter, reposting scenes and slogans from protests in the United States. Then, a few Indonesian activists began to ask an uncomfortable question: where was their compatriots’ outrage about Indonesia’s own racism-fuelled conflict with black Melanesians in the contested territory of West Papua?
Indonesians began educating one another in threads that sprung up on human rights abuses in West Papua. Before long, Papuan Lives Matter exploded into social media feeds nationwide.
Indonesians, sensitised to racial injustice by the BLM movement, were responding to mistreatment of West Papuans to a greater degree than they did during the months-long 2019 West Papua uprising. As with the current US uprising, West Papua’s 2019 protests had begun with a harrowing video of racial abuse: Indonesian soldiers shouting “monkeys!” at West Papuan students corralled in a dormitory before police in riot gear stormed in, firing tear gas and arresting not the abusers but their West Papuan victims.
West Papuans reclaimed the epithet, using “monkey” as a symbol of defiance as they took to the streets. During August and September last year, tens of thousands demonstrated not just against racism but for a referendum on independence. Towns across West Papua were paralysed by protests, which spread to many Indonesian cities. The only way West Papuan “monkeys” could be safe from racism, they said, was if they no longer lived with the humans in Indonesia.
If only journalists could cover West Papua’s struggle as thoroughly as they do uprisings in the US or Hong Kong. But they cannot. Reporters Without Borders ranks Indonesia 119th in press freedom, largely due to “drastic restrictions on media access to West Papua”.
The world, and perhaps most Indonesians, were therefore unaware that a staggering 56 peaceful West Papuan activists were detained on treason charges following the 2019 uprising. Thirteen have now been released after serving their full sentences, but 43 remain behind bars.
In contrast, soldiers and police who racially abused the students, triggering the uprising, escaped punishment, while three Indonesian civilians who joined in were sentenced to just five, seven and ten months’ jail. “Indonesian law is racist” was the refrain posted in response by many West Papuans.
As the Papuan Lives Matter movement picks up steam, Indonesians are holding webinars about West Papua on a daily basis. More than a dozen student bodies across Indonesia have expressed their public support for the release of West Papuan political prisoners.
Solidarity among Indonesian people is growing as never before, while the state is fighting back. Government representatives denied similarities between the plight of black people in the US and West Papua. The country’s biggest public university disavowed its student body’s webinar on West Papua.
Webinars on West Papua are harassed: speakers receive dozens of calls from unknown numbers, their social media accounts are subjected to hacking attempts, trolls hijack the comments section, or Zoom-bombing disrupts discussions.
Racism towards West Papuans dates from annexation by Indonesia in 1962, followed by international acquiescence in 1969, when just 1026 West Papuans out of a population of 800,000 were handpicked and coerced into legitimising Indonesian control through the so-called Act of Free Choice. Leaked US cables show diplomats justifying this colossal betrayal with the racist belief that “stone age” Papuans were incapable of exercising their democratic right.
Change is in the air. After half a century, the world is starting to listen to West Papuans demanding that racism against them needs to end once and for all through a true referendum on independence.
Veronica Koman is an Indonesian human rights lawyer in exile in Australia. Ronny Kareni is an Australian-based West Papuan musician and activist.