SYDNEY - Violence has swept across Indonesian Papua in the last six weeks, starting with racist taunts against Papuan students in East Java, and moving back to Papua where protests against racism turned into larger pro-independence demonstrations.
On 28 August, police opened fire on demonstrators in Deiyai, a remote district in the central highlands, after an Indonesian soldier was killed by an arrow. Eight Papuans died from gunfire.
The next day in Jayapura, a larger demonstration, organised by the pro-independence West Papua National Committee (KNPB), turned into a riot, with Papuans setting fire to government buildings and migrant-owned shops. Waves of arrests followed.
On 23 September, news of racist remarks by a non-Papuan teacher in Wamena – which police say never happened – spread quickly, and Papuan students turned out in the streets, setting fire to migrant property.
When it was over, more than 30 people were dead, most of them migrants burned to death in their shophouses. Sporadic violence has continued elsewhere in the central highlands, reportedly encouraged by pro-independence groups.
The government at all levels failed utterly to anticipate or prevent these outbreaks. The violence has produced two very different versions of events, playing to two very different audiences.
One, aimed largely at an international audience, is the narrative of Papuan oppression by the Indonesian state, focusing on the brutality of security forces; the history of racism and discrimination; the long list of unresolved human rights violations; and the marginalisation of indigenous Papuans in their own land as they are flooded by migrants from elsewhere in Indonesia.
The second, aimed at Indonesian audience, is a story of hard-working migrants who saw family members burned alive on 23 September in Wamena, the largest town in the central highlands, and homes and businesses destroyed by rampaging Papuan mobs.
Television news programs, with slow mournful music in the background, showed long lines of Indonesians boarding military transport planes for evacuation.
Both of these narratives are true, but they don’t intersect. The domestic audience by and large has little appreciation of the sources of Papuan resentment or of the anger generated, for example, by the difference between the speed with which police documented property destroyed by Papuan mobs on 29 August in Jayapura, and their slowness to acknowledge Papuan deaths at the hands of security forces in Deiyai a day earlier.
Likewise, the international audience hears little about intimidation and violence by independence supporters against migrants. Those killed were mostly from West Sumatra and South Sulawesi; nine Papuans also died, mostly stabbed by migrants trying to fend off the mob. Much of the international reporting has implied that the victims were all Papuan.
Independence leaders claimed after the Jayapura violence that they had no problems with migrants except those working as informers for the security apparatus. In fact, the independence movement has always had an anti-migrant dimension.
The origin of this hostility lies in the Suharto-era transmigration program that brought thousands of Javanese and other Indonesians to Papua, in the interests of both security and economic development, and often settled them on customary Papuan land with no consultation or compensation.
The situation today has changed, however, and this leads to a third narrative that is missing from the other two but that links them together.
This is the story of how Papua over the last two decades has become a province awash in cash in a way that has both spurred the influx of migrants and provided new sources of income for the independence movement, especially in the central highlands.