Blog Post

Anti-Racism Sentiment on the Rise: The Papuan Lives Matter in Indonesia

Monday, July 06, 2020 6:00 AM | Anonymous

By Abrita Kuthumi

Image credit: The Jakarta Post/Dhoni Setiawan

The death of George Floyd brought momentum to the Black Lives Matter movement through protests in not only America but all around the world-- in France, Malta, Ghana, South Korea, China, and more. For some nations, such as Indonesia, the discussions on racism hit closer to home because the Indonesian society has been facing their own challenges on social discrimination with the dark-skinned, Melanesian origin indigenous group known as Papuans. As the Black Lives Matter movement spread globally, it influenced the rise in support for another movement in Indonesia that is being referred to as Papuan Lives Matter.

Between the two social movements, there are major differences given the history, geographic context, and experiences. In the United States, African Americans played an instrumental role towards the foundation of a nation which was built on slavery. Despite abolishing slavery during the 19th century, discrimination continued in every sector that oppressed Black people, including but not limited to unaffordable housing, higher rates of imprisonment, police brutality due to racial profiling, and more. The goal of the Black Lives Matter movement is to eliminate these generational injustices that have followed to the present. 

In the archipelago of Indonesia, Papuans were already inhabiting the islands of Papua and West Papua prior to Indonesian independence from Netherlands in 1949. The Dutch initially sought to have Papua become a separate country but the Indonesian government held a referendum with 1,000 Papuan people who decided to become one under the Act of Free Choice. This act has been called out for its irony given how its “free choice” title does not align with the process in which they were handpicked. Since then, Papuans have faced episodes of racial discrimination, such as the usage of racial slurs from the police which compare the people of Papua as “monkeys” against West Papuan students in 2019. The lack of economic resources in a land rich of natural resources is another major issue. While this does not apply to all, some of the Papuans seek independence from Indonesia. Although different narratives, the two movements share the act of speaking out against the social and economic disadvantages faced due to racial discrimination within each society. 

If Papua gains its independence, then Indonesia most likely loses its mining deposits. Therefore, the government of Indonesia has been active in quelling any protests that may concern the separatist movement. In 2019, 56 peaceful West Papuan activists who were protesting against racism in Jayapura, Papua were arrested and charged with treason under articles 106 and 110 of the Indonesia criminal code, which respectively states, “the attempt undertaken with intent to bring the territory of the state wholly or partially under foreign domination or to separate part thereof shall be punished by life imprisonment or a maximum imprisonment of twenty years” and “the conspiracy to one of the crimes described in Articles 104-108 shall be punished by a maximum imprisonment of six years.” Despite demands of releasing the Papuan activists and criticisms for restricting freedom of speech and assembly, the Balikpapan District Court in East Kalimantan proceeded with a sentence of 10-11 months in jail. 

This scene of oppression is nothing new yet the level of awareness within the local community that considers the issue of racism with Papuans to be low. However, given how people in Indonesia have supported the Black Lives Matter abroad but have been showing a lukewarm response to the racism within its own boundaries, Indonesian activists have called Indonesians out. 

“ [...] where was their [Indonesians netizens] compatriots’ outrage about Indonesia’s own racism-fueled conflict with black Melanesians in the contested territory of West Papua?”

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