A unprecedented mass demonstration took place on July 8 in Jayapura, the capital of Indonesian-occupied West Papua, Straighttimes.com said that day.
Thousands of people joined a long march, walking 17 kilometres from the Papua People’s Assembly (MRP) to the Papuan Provincial Legislature (DPRP) to reject the “special autonomy” granted by Indonesia in 2001. Protesters demanded a referendum on West Papuan independence and an internationally-mediated dialogue with Jakarta.
As protesters joined the rally from several points in the city, the crowd — claimed by media to number just a few thousand — swelled to nearly 20,000. They occupied the grounds of the provincial legislature under the watchful eye of Indonesian police and army units.
The Indonesian government was caught completely off-guard by the effort. Nevertheless, authorities initially showed remarkable restraint in dealing with the protesters, especially given the long history of repression against anyone that speaks up for independence or dares to raise the Papuan Morning Star flag.
However, organisers said police arrested KNPB member David Frans Huby on the morning of July 8 in Jayapura as he was making a speech asking people to join the rally. Police also prevented groups of people from the nearby Keerom regency from joining the Jayapura march.
The July 8 Jakarta Globe quoted rally organiser Markus Haluk as saying: “Special autonomy has failed to protect the rights of indigenous Papuans. We want to urge Papua’s provincial legislature to hold a plenary meeting to declare that special autonomy is a failure and return it to the central government.”
The Globe said the Papuan provincial legislature cancelled a special meeting that was to be held to process the demands of the protesters. It also said police detained a French journalist for reporting the demonstration while on a tourist visa.
Papuan community media reported that Papuan provincial legislators were divided on how to deal with the rally and its demands. Legislators supportive of the MRP-sponsored declaration and the mass mobilisations backing it said there was a faction of legislators who opposed the movement and were not present at the legislature for the planned special session.
A group of legislators met rally organisers United Papuan People’s Democracy Forum (FORDEM) to discuss allowing protesters to spend the night on the grounds of the legislature.
Rally organisers said fully armed Indonesian police moved in on protesters at 6pm after their deadline for the rally to disperse had passed. The situation escalated to a tense standoff and protest leaders sought negotiations with police.
A meeting was held for several hours, resulting in an agreement with police that protesters could spend the night on the legislature grounds and stay there until 6pm the following day. The special Brimob (mobile police) forces retreated, leaving only regular police units to guard the site.
Almost 20,000 people spent the night at the protest site. Dominikus Sorabut of the Papuan Customary Council (DAP) said: “Security forces attempted to disperse our rally but they are outnumbered. With so many of us here, what can they do?”
Organisers have tried to deflect what they describe as misinformation campaigns aimed at provoking protesters and spreading rumours about some organisers. Sorabut said: “During the past weeks provocative text messages have circulated making various allegations about the intentions of this march.
“However, our action is peaceful and transparent. There are those who seek to provoke by spreading rumours, but this is just a scenario to bring chaos to our movement, and it is not succeeding.”
The regional police chief asked residents of Jayapura not to be provoked.
Meanwhile, the Papuan media reported that rallies took place in other towns in Papua, where protesters echoed the demands made in Jayapura.
Community organisers throughout Papua reported on the situation in the various regions. In Manokwari, police violently blocked the rally and dispersed protesters.
In Merauke, more than 1000 people marched to the regional legislature to present their demands. They rallied against the failure of special autonomy to protect indigenous people, particularly in regard to the planned 80 million-hectare Merauke Food Estate.
In the highlands town of Wamena, shops and businesses closed as thousands rallied. Protesters denounced special autonomy and called for economic justice and self-sufficiency. They marched to the regional legislature.
Rally organiser Yulianus Hisage said: “We are demanding that the Papuan people’s sovereignty be restored.”