Indonesia Imposes Internet Blackout On West Papua

Following days of unrest, the Indonesian government blocked internet access on August 22nd in the provinces of Papua and West Papua (known collectively as West Papua). On August 19th, violent protests started in response to the mistreatment and racial abuse of Papuan students by the police in the Javanese city of Surabaya on August 17th, Indonesia’s Independence Day. Buildings have been set ablaze, roads have been blocked and protesters have been flying the Morning Star flag, a symbol of Papuan self-rule that is banned under Indonesian law.

The Indonesian government has defended its decision, stating that blocking internet access is intended ‘‘to accelerate the process of restoring the security and order.’’ Minister for Communication and Information Technology Rudiantara added that the internet blockade helps ‘‘filter information and prevent the spread of rumours.’’

Not many people seem to share the government’s view and the decision has come under fire. Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network’s (SAFEnet) executive director Damar Juniarto called the blackout ‘‘a serious backward step in democracy and a serious violation.’’ Benny Wenda, the exiled West Papuan independence leader and founder of the Free West Papua campaign, focused more on the unrest itself, opining that the Surabaya incident ‘‘lit the bonfire of nearly 60 years of racism, discrimination and torture of the people of West Papua by Indonesia.’’

Unfortunately for West Papua, the internet blackout suggests that Indonesia’s treatment of the two provinces is not about to improve. Blocking the internet restricts freedom of expression and access to information. It also gives the Indonesian government more control over information. In theory, it should make it more difficult to organize protests although it does not seem to have stopped West Papuans. 

The destructive nature of the protests is regrettable but the racial abuse suffered by the students in Surabaya is worse. Calling Papuans ‘‘monkeys’’ is bad enough, but chanting ‘‘kick out Papuans’’ and ‘‘slaughter Papuans’’ is atrocious and should have no place in 2019. Although there have been demonstrations in Jakarta supporting West Papua, it shows that racism still has a place in Indonesia’s relationship with West Papua. The provinces’ natural resources will always come before the interests of the people in the government’s eyes. 

Papua and West Papua are two of the poorest provinces in Indonesia, despite their wealth of natural resources. The Grasberg mine, the world’s largest gold mine and second largest copper mine, is located in Papua. 

This goes some way to explaining why Indonesia made so much effort to annex West Papua, which was a Dutch colony until the early 1960s. From 1963 onwards, it was governed by Indonesia, and formally became a part of Indonesia in 1969 after a UN-backed referendum. Only 1025 men and women were allowed to vote on whether to accept Indonesian occupation, all selected by Indonesia’s military. 

The referendum has been criticized and there have been calls for another one. In 2017, 1.8 million people, 70% of West Papua’s population, signed an illegal petition calling for another referendum that was carried around the provinces.

President Joko Widodo has urged for calm and forgiveness in response to the protests, but asking West Papuans to forgive what Wenda has termed their ‘‘slow-motion genocide,’’ is a tall order. Decades of mistreatment are not easily forgotten. Full integration of West Papua is not impossible, but it will not happen if its people are treated so much worse than the rest of Indonesia. The recent crackdown is not going to win the government any West Papuan popularity contests anytime soon.