Demonstrators, many in traditional tribal dress, in Jayapura on Tuesday seeking a vote on independence for the Papua region.
Thousands of people rallied for independence from Indonesia in the country’s Papua region on Tuesday, after days of political violence that killed at least 21 people.
In cities and towns in the provinces of Papua and West Papua, demonstrators, many of them in traditional tribal dress, marched amid heavily armed police officers and soldiers, the police and witnesses said.
The protesters demanded a referendum on independence for the region and the repudiation of a 1969 vote that was backed by the United Nations and formalized Indonesian control.
“For 40 years, the Indonesian government has never fairly applied the law or upheld human rights,” Viktor Kogoya, the chairman of the self-styled Jakarta consulate of the West Papua National Committee, which organized the protests, said in Jakarta. “The Papuan people have never had justice.”
The protests were largely peaceful, although activists and church workers accused the authorities of fomenting a climate of fear to deter people from demonstrating. Anonymous text messages had circulated for days warning of a looming “massacre.” And people in several towns said groups of unidentified men in civilian clothes, suspected of being part of the security forces, could be seen lingering in the streets from early in the day.
The protests followed the deaths of at least 17 people in interclan political fighting in the region’s remote central highlands last weekend, as well as a predawn raid on Monday in which unidentified assailants blocked traffic outside the Papua provincial capital, Jayapura, killing four people, including a soldier.
The West Papua National Committee has accused elements of the security forces of provoking or staging the violence to foil the protests. The rebel Free Papua Movement has denied involvement in the Jayapura attack, according to news reports.
A spokesman for the Papua police, Colonel Wachyono, also stopped short of blaming the rebels for the attack in Jayapura, despite the discovery of a separatist flag at the scene. “We can’t conclude yet if it’s any organization,” he said. “After we do our investigation, we’ll report who it is. If it’s been staged or if it’s purely criminal, we’ll uncover it.”
The protests on Tuesday were scheduled to coincide with a conference in Britain advocating Papuan independence through legal challenges to Indonesian rule. Many Papuans, who are ethnically distinct from most other Indonesians, chafe at what they see as heavy-handed and exploitative rule from Jakarta.
Measures intended to promote greater autonomy, including a major injection of government financing in the resource-rich region, have not ended calls for independence or a sporadic, poorly armed insurgency.