One day before Indonesia’s Independence Day on August 17, racial discrimination was experienced by Papuan students in Surabaya, East Java. The problem was triggered by the accidental damage to an Indonesian flag that fell into a drainage ditch in front of a Papuan student dormitory. At that time, it was alleged that Papuan students had deliberately damaged the flag.

As a result, the dormitory was surrounded by a nationalist organization and some individuals dressed in the Indonesian National Armed Forces uniform. They broke the dormitory fence, then cursed and shouted “monkey” and other slurs at the Papuan students. They also threatened to kill the students instead of talking diplomatically to clarify what had actually happened. Video of the incident was spread quickly in Indonesian society.

Indonesian society, particularly Papuans, responded furiously to this racism. The governor of Papua province firmly stated to the media that Papuans are not a monkey race, they are members of the human race. Likewise, the racism in Surabaya triggered massive demonstrations in several regions of Papua and West Papua provinces, including Jayapura, Sorong, Manokwari, Nabire, Fakfak and Mimika. They burned the West Papuan parliament building in Manokwari and damaged public facilities in Fakfak, in the same province. Some Papuans even demonstrated at the Presidential Palace in Central Jakarta. They demanded that the Indonesian government heavily punish those who committed racial discrimination.

Papuans are ethnically quite different from other Indonesians, particularly because of their skin color. They have long targeted been with negative stereotypes and racial abuse.

In 2016, a Papuan student in Yogyakarta was chased, arrested, and beaten by the police for no apparent reason. The most heartbreaking fact was a photo being spread showing the student’s nose being pulled by the police and his hands in handcuffs. However, law enforcement against racist and human-rights violations against Papuans is often biased and incomplete.

The Indonesian government has been too soft in dealing with acts of racism against Papuans. According to the country’s Race and Ethnic Discrimination Law, anyone who commits racial or ethnic discrimination may be sentenced to a maximum of five years’ imprisonment and/or a maximum fine of 500 million rupiah (about US$35,000). However, this provision is not being implemented properly and is not deterring perpetrators, as the authorities do not act quickly and decisively against racist acts.

The police instead focus on people who spread racist videos, as they consider these may be provocative or fraudulent. Ironically, the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology blocked Internet access in Papua and West Papua on August 21, under the reason to prevent the spread of provocative action in cyberspace and to accelerate the process of restoring security. But he government’s actions seemed to suppress Papuans’ freedom to express their frustration over racial discrimination to the media or the international community.

It is evident that Indonesia needs a specific law governing racism and even an independent team specifically charged with handle racism cases. This is important because acts of racism could trigger serious social conflict or even separatist movements.

The integration of Papua into Indonesia has a long history, going back to the Dutch colonial era. It began with a resolution called the Political Manifesto of the New Guinea Council on December 1, 1961. The resolution declared that Papua would have its own national flag called the Morning Star and its own national anthem titled Hai Tanahku Papua (“Hi, My Land is Papua”). This integration aimed to prove to Indonesia, the Netherlands and the international community that the people of Papua were committed to determining their own future.

Then the integration of Papua and Indonesia was carried out with the 1962 New York Agreement. After being discussed at the UN General Assembly in September 1962, the transfer of governmental authority from the Netherlands to Indonesia was approved. Nevertheless, the implementation of this agreement was rejected by the Papuan elite. However, the result of the integration was not final, because according to Article XVIII of the New York Agreement, the determination of the future of Papua was to be carried out no later than eight years after the agreement was signed.

Furthermore, in 1969, there was a referendum called the Act of Free Choice for Papuans, but it did not involve all the Papuans. This violated the provisions stipulated in the New York Agreement that the determination of Papua’s future would be carried out with a one-man, one-vote system. Moreover, the implementation of the Act of Free Choice was interfered with by the Indonesian military, which aimed at winning votes for the integration of Papua into Indonesia. Shortly after the result of the referendum was brought to the UN General Assembly, Indonesia successfully occupied Papua.

This integration process remains one of the triggers of the Papua conflict to this day. Therefore, there are still many Papuan separatist groups who have consistently opposed the unification of Papua with Indonesia, even getting support and recognition from several international communities. For example, in England this year, Oxford City Council honored Papuan separatist Benny Wenda with its Freedom of the City award. Wenda’s movement wants West Papua to be independent of Indonesia. However, such awards have been criticized by Indonesia as it believes Wenda has supported the use of violence to achieve political goals.

The Indonesian government is facing a very serious problem arising from racism. Given the history of Papua, the incident in Surabaya could revive a conflict that actually had been forgotten by some Papuans. The Papuan demonstrations in several parts of Indonesia were the largest in years. If the central government fails to respond to this problem, it could give momentum to Papuan separatist groups to intensify their activities, as they have history on their side. The government should educate the Indonesian people about the Papuans, explain that they are part of Indonesia, and restore Papuans’ trust in law enforcement against racism.