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Black Lives Matter in Indonesia, Too


In the indelible photograph of Obby Kogoya, the black Indonesian university student is flat on his stomach on the road; a policeman’s hand claws at his nostrils and another cups his chin while he screams in obvious pain. He is framed by a dense tangle of arms and legs of police who have ganged up to arrest him for participating in a peaceful protest. Even if you have never been to Indonesia, let alone the university town of Yogyakarta in Central Java where Kogoya went to school, the image of craven police brutality against a young black man will be familiar.

The echoes with the plight of African Americans is not lost on Indonesians from Papua and West Papua, the country’s two easternmost provinces, which are populated mainly by dark-skinned Melanesians and home to a long-standing separatist struggle. Recently, Papuans have been juxtaposing the photo of Kogoya, who was arrested in 2016 at age 21, with George Floyd, the 46-year-old black man killed by Minneapolis police in late May.

“In Papua, we have a lot of names like George Floyd,” said Elvira Rumkabu, a Papuan international relations lecturer who lives in the regional capital of Jayapura. “It’s interesting to see just how much Papuans are relating to #BlackLivesMatter. Papuans share the anger of black Americans … and we are demanding now that people around the world, but especially Indonesians, realize we have same suffering here.”

That Black Lives Matter is proving so resonant halfway around the world should be no surprise. Over the past two weeks, countries from New Zealand to the U.K. have seen protests in solidarity with Floyd. But the case of Indonesia, and of Papua, is one of the movement’s most powerful ripple effects. Seven years after it started in the United States, Black Lives Matter’s framework for understanding systemic racism and violence against black people is providing a novel way to understand a little-known, little-reported, heavily militarized and racialized conflict in the world’s fourth-most populous country.

Many foreigners don’t even realize there are black Indonesians, but they make up the majority of the 4.3 million people who live in Papua and West Papua. These are Indonesia’s easternmost provinces, on one end of New Guinea island, which is split between Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. The two provinces were annexed by the postcolonial Indonesian republic in 1963.

Today, Indonesian Papua is tightly patrolled by the Indonesian military, and it remains almost forbidden to both foreign journalists—who rarely get permits and when they do are heavily surveilled—and domestic ones, whose reports are subject to draconian anti-defamation laws. Papua is also home to the world’s largest gold mine, Grasberg, which was until recently operated by an American company, Freeport. Under an increasingly heavy-handed military presence, Papuans have faced sundry human rights abuses: police killings and beatings, the intimidation of indigenous leaders, forced conversions, and the detention of peaceful activists. And when Papuans go to other islands in Indonesia, they face racism, surveillance, and dormitory raids.

There is a complex mix of factors in play. On one hand, the militarized posture toward Papua is similar to many states’ attitudes toward separatism, which is typically quelled with extreme force—think of India-administered Kashmir or Catalonia in Spain. But it is enmeshed with broader racism, so Papuan identity is besieged from two sides. Colorism is pervasive in Indonesia and affects dark-skinned people not just from Papua but also from such eastern provinces as Flores and Maluku. The reasons for this include both the colonial hangover common to many Asian countries—Indonesia was under Dutch rule until 1945—and domestic majoritarianism coming from lighter-skinned ethnicities like the Javanese and Sundanese. Fairness creams and beauty products are ubiquitous, the vast majority of television and film actors are light-skinned, and black skin is heavily stigmatized.



Papuan students take part in a rally in Surabaya, Indonesia, on June 16, demanding that the Indonesian government free seven Papuan protesters who were charged with treason for their involvement in anti-racism protests in 2019. JUNI KRISWANTO/AFP via Getty Images

“Yet, Papua is mainly thought of as a political issue, so we don’t always talk about racism, even though racism is of course at the root of the Papua conflict,” Rumkabu said. “Yes, yes, we are black people. Black is Papuan, Papuan is black.”

But Indonesia’s public sphere is now seeing nothing short of a sea change. On social media, ethnic Papuans, prominent non-Papuan activists, and thousands of Indonesian “netizens” are all suddenly talking about Papua, often tagging their discussions with the hashtag #PapuanLivesMatter. An issue that was once confined to local dissidents and niche activists suddenly has gone national.

“I have personally never witnessed so many people from my generation speak about Papua and with so much passion,” said Jordinna Joaquin, a 17-year-old who edits Kudeta magazine in Jakarta. On June 1, the publication posted a graphic saying “We need to talk about Papua” that immediately went viral. The editors were flooded with feedback, and the post, which collated reading material and talking points about the Papua conflict, got more than 12,000 likes and was shared widely. It echoed the millions of stylized posts that have flooded American social media in recent days with information about bailout funds, reading lists, talking scripts, and more. Joaquin noted that the COVID-19 quarantine made it possible for her team to both create these resources quickly and spend vastly more time on social media, “where all these conversations are taking place.”

Papuan diaspora outside of Indonesia has been galvanized by #BlackLivesMatter, too. The prominent independence leader Benny Wenda, who resides in exile in Oxford, started tweeting with the hashtag May 31.

“The George Floyd case is opening the world’s opinion, and it’s helping us come together as a human family,” he told Foreign Policy. “This brutality is not only happening in the USA but the whole world.” In his decades of activism—many of his family members were freedom fighters—he said he has never seen human rights in Papua so connected to a global movement.

“The response has been really overwhelming,” said Veronica Koman, an Indonesian lawyer and veteran Papua rights activist who now lives in de facto exile in Australia. Koman’s advocacy has often felt lonely, and the Indonesian government has tried to arrest her for spreading what it claims are hoaxes. She said she had gotten used to Papua being a somewhat niche concern until this month.

“It actually started with social media, especially on Facebook, which most Papuans use, and they commented immediately on the George Floyd case and how they could relate to what was happening,” Koman said. They especially picked up on how it was filmed on a smartphone, which has become more prevalent in documenting police brutality in Papua, too, she said. “In both cases, this accumulation of [police] impunity exploded.”

The discourse also quickly spread to non-Papuan Indonesians, Koman said. While the Floyd protests captured world news headlines and attention, Indonesians started to speak out on police brutality against dark-skinned people in their own backyard.

Koman organized a livestreamed panel on June 1 on #BlackLivesMatter and Papua with two Papuan activists, Cisco Mofu and Mikael Kudiai, where they spoke for more than an hour about their everyday experiences with racism and discrimination, crude media portrayals of Papuans, and how their experiences with the police are similar to those of black Americans.

“George Floyd died like an animal,” Mofu said, and his death was recorded “second by second. … I think that’s not so different from what happened at the dorm in Surabaya in 2019.”

He was referring to an incident last year in the Javanese port city of Surabaya, where a university dorm of 43 Papuan students was attacked by Islamist militia groups for displaying Papuan flags; the local police then doubled down by tear-gassing the students and trapping them there overnight. At least five were injured. Photos and videos went viral across Indonesian-language media, leading to protests across Papua.


Papuan students take part in a rally in Surabaya, Indonesia, on June 16.JUNI KRISWANTO/AFP via Getty Images

But American media has an easier time documenting and amplifying accounts of police brutality than Indonesian outlets do, said Mofu, which makes direct action in Indonesia much harder. Police brutality to Papuans living outside Papua, like Kogoya in Yogyakarta and the university students in Surabaya, is also much easier to report than brutality in the region itself. The countless violent incidents inside Papua, like the murder of activist Yawan Wayeni in 2010, are much harder to document or publicize. Although Indonesia has much stricter gun control laws than the United States, Indonesian police have killed Papuans with such tools as water cannons and by physical force. 

Still, the 2019 protests after the Surabaya incident were a turning point for discussing racism against Papuans, Rumkabu said. “#BlackLivesMatter has been echoing around Papuan circles for a while, but now the time is just right because of last year’s widespread anti-racism protests,” she said. “That was a very important moment for us, and that’s why the Floyd protests are resonating so much now.”

Indonesian Papua is extremely diverse, comprising more than 250 tribes, and there are different factions of Papuans who advocate for different goals, from complete independence to more equitable and less militarized relations with Jakarta. But regardless of their political position on separatism, something that unites Indonesian Papuans more broadly is their experience with racism, and that, primarily, is what Black Lives Matter helps enunciate.

In Koman’s panel, Kudiai spoke at length about the pervasive, casual racism that Papuans face, beyond police brutality, including being called “monkeys,” which protesters have since used as a rallying cry. Mofu noted how media portrayals foreground physical attributes like dreadlocks and dark skin to otherize ethnic Papuans.

“Other Indonesians really don’t realize that everyday racism is such a big part of Papuans’ experience, and the fact that people are listening to them now is really a new development,” Koman said.

The George Floyd protests have reverberated worldwide after months of social distancing and sheltering in place because of the coronavirus. Thousands of people have marched in Paris and London, German footballers have called for justice, and solidarity protests have taken place as far away as Australia, where activists have used the moment as a chance to examine police brutality against indigenous citizens. Even the specific issue of Papuan black lives has taken on an international dimension; on June 3, protesters in The Hague, Netherlands, which is home to a large Indonesian community, held signs mentioning Papua and picturing Kogoya.

Indonesian American writer Teta Alim, who lives in Washington, D.C., recently posted to Instagram an infographic about human rights in Papua and recognized the unique parallels between where she lives today—America’s capital, which has seen thousands of protesters on the streets for days on end—and her home in Indonesia.

“Had I made this post last year, it might have not got the attention it did now, but this response has been completely overwhelming,” said Teta, who edits the magazine Buah on the Indonesian diaspora. The willingness of young Indonesians to educate themselves about human rights in Papua shows a desire to forge a diaspora identity “beyond batik and rendang,” said Teta, referring to the Javanese textile and Sumatran stewed meat dish, exported staples of mainstream Indonesian culture. “Indonesian identity also means thinking about social justice there.”

Of course, there are limits to the usefulness of a site-specific American movement and hashtag in a Southeast Asian archipelago. “Racism is one part of our fight,” Wenda said, “but not the only one. Being black, being Papuan, being Melanesian is really difficult. Indonesia is not only against us because we are black but also because we fight for independence.”

Some feel that the newfound space for discussing human rights in Papua may have come too late, given the intense campaign of demographic transformation that Jakarta has applied to the region over the decades.

“Non-Papuan Indonesians are finally asking us how to support us, our quest for justice, our healing, and so on,” Rumkabu said. “And that’s great. But I find it hard to be hopeful in the long run. Because inside here, honestly, people are struggling even more than before.”

She took a gloomy view of Jayapura, whose population, she said, is so full of nonindigenous Papuans today that it “looks like Yogyakarta.”

Ever since annexing Papua in the sixties, Jakarta has tried to change the makeup of the provinces by transplanting workers and bureaucrats en masse from other islands, especially Java. There is even a phenomenon of “Papua dakwah,” or proselytization, where Islamic preachers have been energetically working to convert the majority-Christian Papuans to Islam.

“The goal is to ‘Indonesianize’ us, and after that, I feel there will be even less room to talk about race,” Rumkabu said. “Within one or two years, people who look like me will be a minority in Jayapura.” A growing number of elected officials are also nonindigenous Papuans, she said, sometimes backed by murky resources from other islands.

And ever since the widespread 2019 protests, police banned mass rallies that could lead to “anarchist acts” in Papua, so there is almost no way to protest on the ground like Americans are doing over George Floyd. This state of affairs, combined with overlapping COVID-19 social distancing orders, means that Papuan Lives Matter remains almost totally online for now. And that, in turn, limits its reach within Papua, where mobile and internet service outside its major cities, especially in the highlands, remains spotty.

The work is just beginning, as nearly everyone involved in this new discourse agrees.

“This conversation isn’t about us talking louder,” Joaquin said, “but about amplifying Papuan narratives and doing our best to hand over the mic to them.”

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