Incongruously dressed in a jacket and tie, then-education minister Wardiman Djojonegoro, a native of the conservative East Java island of Madura, and his five safari-suited aides left a lasting impression when they stepped off a plane onto a jungle airstrip on the southeast coast of Papua.

Standing apart and uncomfortable, the small party showed little inclination to join foreign workers from the nearby Freeport copper mine as they mingled with local tribesmen, wearing little more than penis sheaths, who had gathered for an auction of acclaimed Asmat wood carvings.

It was long ago now, but it was difficult to ignore the way Wardiman seemed repelled by what after all were his fellow Indonesian citizens who, 20 years later, are up in arms again over the latest case of racism and abuse, this time against Papuan students.

Shouting “monkey” and other insults, police and civilians stormed a dormitory in the port city of Surabaya on August 19 after the students allegedly defiled an Indonesian flag found in a ditch in the aftermath of celebrations marking the nation’s 74th independence anniversary.

Spread on social media, the incident incited the worst riots in Papua in decades with mobs attacking government buildings in Manokwari and Jayapura, the respective capitals of West Papua and Papua provinces, and the district centers of Sorong, Fak Fak and Timika.

Protesters take to the street to face off with Indonesian police in Manokwari, Papua on August 19, 2019. Photo: AFP/Stringer

Manokwari’s provincial parliament was torched and 250 prisoners escaped from the prison in Sorong, a city of 220,000 on the western tip of Papua, as police fired teargas and water cannons to prevent the demonstrations from spiraling out of control.

Young Papuans have long been the subject of discrimination on Java, the archipelago’s main island and center of power. But little has been done by either Jakarta or the two regional administrations to address that and other long-standing issues which go to the heart of the separatist Free Papua Movement’s (OPM) demands for independence.

The Papua People’s Council, a coalition of tribal chiefs, issued a declaration on August 21 calling all Papuan students home from across the country unless they receive firm reassurances from security forces and local authorities that their rights will be protected.

The statement reported fresh cases of “racism, violence and persecution” in the Java cities of Malang and Semarang, and the South Sulawesi capital of Makassar.

The government is now under pressure to make good on its promise to invite a representative of the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) to visit Papua, something the former commissioner, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, was prevented from doing last year.

A Papuan at a protest in front of Jakarta’s Palace, August 22, 2019. Photo: AFP Forum via Nurphoto/Donal Husni

Meeting in Vanuatu three days before the riots, the 18-nation Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), of which Jakarta is a dialogue partner, issued a communique reaffirming recognition of Indonesia’s sovereignty over Papua, but also noted an escalation in violence and continued allegations of human rights abuses.

That was a clear reference to ongoing military operations in the Central Highlands district of Nduga, where elements of the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB), the armed wing of the OPM, massacred 19 laborers working on the 4,300-kilometer Trans-Papua Highway last December.

Analysts suspect the military, which President Joko Widodo appears to rely on for advice, is opposed to the UN visit. The security agencies have long believed that discussing core grievances will inevitably lead to demands for a referendum on Papua’s future.

In the meantime, what Pacific leaders called a “festering sore” will continue to attract international attention, in much the same way as East Timor became late Indonesian foreign minister Ali Alitas’ “pebble in our shoe.”

Papua Governor Lukas Enembe has said he did not believe Kofifah’s apology reflects the true sentiments of the East Java people, apparently referring to claims that Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) militants were among the Surabaya assailants.

Indonesian policemen disperse protesters in Timika, Indonesia’s restive Papua province, on August 21, 2019. Photo: AFP/Sevianto Pakiding

“Why, after 74 years, do Indonesians still have a colonial mindset,” he complained, pointing to the successful lives many of the young Papuans have carved out for themselves despite the discriminatory obstacles placed in their way.

Analysts note that some of the blame also falls on Papua’s provincial governments, which preside over some of the country’s lowest economic growth rates and are listed by the National Audit Agency as among the most corrupt.

Widodo’s initial response to the violence was tepid, leaving chief political minister Wiranto, an ex-military chief implicated in the bloodshed that attended East Timor’s 1999 vote for independence, to condemn the riots and soft-soap its causes.

As Jakarta did with East Timor, Wiranto ignored a legacy of human rights abuses and suggested the Papuans should be grateful for the 100 trillion rupiah (US$7 billion) he claimed the government had poured into the territory, saying it meant West Papua and Papua were “not step-children but golden children.”

Even Widodo, who belatedly demanded punishment for the racist mob which sparked the unrest, seemed to miss the point by calling for dialogue on boosting development in the country’s easternmost provinces and ignoring the underlying grievances.

As well-intentioned as it may be, the Trans-Papua Highway Widodo is championing may turn out to be a double-edged sword, opening up the interior and improving living standards but bringing with it an invasion of migrants, mostly from South Sulawesi, into tribal homelands.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo posing with his motorbike as he embarks with a delegation to get a first hand look at the proposed Trans-Papua highway, from Wamena in the insurgency-hit region of Papua. Photo: AFP/Indonesian Presidential Palace Handout
Joko Widodo before embarking by motorcycle on the under-construction Trans-Papua highway in a file photo Photo: AFP

Unless handled carefully, the resulting tensions could light a fire in the highlands where most of the one million indigenous Papuans live. If past is prelude, that would be met with the same military approach that has caused past human rights abuses.

Unlike other members of the security apparatus, former defense minister Juwono Sudarsono, the first civilian to hold the post, believed nothing would change until the government and Indonesians in general learned to treat Papuans with respect.

The August 19 raid, which saw 43 Papuan students detained and then released, showed little has changed. Almost certainly, the violence will lead to renewed calls for a referendum on Papuan independence, something the government will likely never entertain.

The uproar will benefit the pro-independence United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP), which has been lobbying the PIF to support a UN resolution seeking a re-examination of the 1969 Act of Free Choice that formalized Indonesian control over the territory.

Indonesian diplomats worked hard at the Vanuatu meeting to head off that move and ensure the PIF communique accepted Jakarta’s sovereignty over Papua. But it is clear a growing number of Pacific islanders, particularly in Vanuatu and Fiji, are increasingly sympathetic to the cause of Papuan independence.