Protests of racial injustice and police brutality that started in the United States have found relevance even in the Indo-Pacific. For over a week, the United States has seen protests stretch across the nation, from large cities to small towns, prompting many to engage in hard conversations about systemic racism and privilege.
The protests have become a rallying cry for human rights activists in Indonesia as they shine light on the decades-long history of oppression toward the country’s Papuan population. Indonesian activists have adapted the popular hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, instead using #PapuanLivesMatter to illuminate instances of racial discrimination against Papuans, whose dark skin and Melanesian origin sets them apart from the rest of archipelago’s 270 million.
Despite being the most undeveloped areas of Indonesia, the provinces of Papua and West Papua are home to the world’s largest gold mine, with a simmering separatist movement along the edges, tightly monitored by the Indonesian military. The provinces came under Indonesian control after a highly contested, United Nations-sanctioned “Act of Free Choice” vote in 1969, creating a small but steady separatist movement that has persisted for decades.
The underdevelopment of the provinces leads many Papuan students to seek scholarships to study on the Indonesian island of Java. Upon arriving, they face challenges and obstacles due to the color of their skin. Indonesian dormitory hosts often refuse to rent rooms to Papuan students, citing claims of perpetual drunkenness and reckless behavior as justification. Indonesians are hesitant to engage with Papuans, fearing any type of confrontation. This type of ostracization leaves Papuans marooned in their own country, isolated and fearful, every day facing an upward battle to merely exist.
Inspired by the activism and organizing of Minneapolis protesters after the death of George Floyd, Indonesian activists have taken it upon themselves to reignite the hard conversation around racism against Papuans. A website titled, “We Need To Talk About Papua” has been created, and large news sites have posted videos highlighting the Papuan experience. Many draw parallels between the protests following Floyd’s death with the rallies against racism that followed a Papuan student being called a “monkey” by a security guard in East Java.
Though Indonesian activists share similar overarching goals with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in the United States, they cite lack of awareness as one of the primary reasons they are further behind than BLM. In an online discussion, Indonesian human rights lawyer Veronica Koman suggested that it is time to increase awareness of the discrimination Papuans face beyond the small circle of activists and into Indonesia’s general public. In a statement to The Jakarta Post, Veronica said, “Let’s start speaking up for Papua. The government hasn’t been able to perpetuate impunity in Papua because the people haven’t spoken out.”
Betty Nen is a Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington. She is a recent graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Madison with majors in Political Science and Southeast Asian Studies, and a returned David L. Boren National Security Scholar to Indonesia.