Indonesia has deployed more troops to the restive West Papua region as demonstrations spread to several communities in the region, with reports of a prison break, injuries and more attacks that belie earlier assurances by the government that the unrest had been contained.
President Joko Widodo’s chief security minister, Wiranto, told reporters on Tuesday that Jakarta is deploying more troops to the region to anticipate protests on Wednesday, when demonstrators are expected to hold bigger rallies across Indonesia’s far east region.
Wiranto did not say if the government deployed military or police officers. But a video obtained by Al Jazeera showed hundreds of military and police personnel arriving in Manokwari, capital of West Papua province. It where the most violent of protests first took place on Monday, leaving government buildings and business establishments burned to the ground.
Major General Sisriadi, a spokesman for Indonesia’s armed forces, told Al Jazeera on Wednesday that the military has sent 300 troops to Manokwari. Before the protests, one military battalion was assigned in West Papua province, while four military units were stationed in Papua province.
West Papua region is divided into two provinces, West Papua and Papua.
Images sent by a source to Al Jazeera on Wednesday showed Papuan protesters in Fakfak, a regency in West Papua province, raising their pro-independence flag.
Showing the flag in public is prohibited. According to Indonesian law, individuals carrying the banned flag could face arrest and imprisonment of up to 15 years.
Another image showed a coastal area in Fakfak on fire. Reports said the local market was set on fire.
On Wednesday afternoon, reports said that military and police reinforcements have arrived in Fakfak.
Meanwhile, in Timika, West Papua province, angry protesters took to the streets on Wednesday as soldiers with riot gears and rifles look on.
On Tuesday, angry protests spread to at least six areas of West Papua, with reports of injuries.
A police officer to Al Jazeera that one officer in Jayapura received a bullet injury. Jayapura is the capital of Papua province.
Meanwhile, a female protester was shot in her ankle in Manokwari, according to Victor Yeimo, the spokesperson for West Papua National Committee (WPNC), which initiated and organised the protests.
In Sorong, the largest city of West Papua province, protesters blocked the roads and gathered in front of the mayor’s office on Tuesday.
Another video obtained by Al Jazeera showed a group of men armed with sticks giving chase and throwing rocks at police officers, who were clearly outnumbered. In the video, one officer was seen falling and getting hit.
The protesters also set on fire the local prison building. The prisoners, numbering up to 250, took advantage of the chaos and escaped on Tuesday.
Mario Christy Siregar, the police chief of Sorong regency, told Al Jazeera that there were no serious casualties.
“None [was injured]. [Everything is] under control,” he insisted.
In an interview with Al Jazeera late on Tuesday, Indonesia’s national police spokesman, Dedi Prasetyo, said the police observed maximum tolerance and that no protesters were hurt.
“None of the police uses any bullet,” he said.
In other parts of West Papua region, such as Nabire, Biak, Bintuni Bay, Kaimana, and Yahukimo, people joined the rally, peacefully, and shouted, “Papua! Freedom! Papua! Freedom!” and “We are not red and white. We are morning star.”
Red and white refers to the Indonesian flag, while the morning star is a political symbol for West Papuans who are fighting for their independence.
West Papua residents explained to Al Jazeera why they are joining the rallies, as protests enter its third day on Wednesday.
“The Papuan people continue to protest because they want independence as a solution. We believe that only by getting the independence makes our self-esteem equal to other nation’s,” said Victor of the West Papua National Committee (WPNC).
On Tuesday evening, Victor had appealed to the international community to keep a close eye on the West Papua region, “especially after the deployment of hundreds of military and police”.
Benny Wenda, the chairman of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, expressed deep concern over the situation of Papuan students in Indonesia.
“Racism goes hand-in-hand with colonisation and repression. Like the black people of South Africa, fighting against apartheid, our struggle against racism is also a struggle for self-determination,” he said in a statement released on Tuesday.
“President Widodo’s words are not enough: Papuans will not stop fighting until we achieve equality, self-determination and a referendum on independence,” added Benny, who is now being accused by an ally of President Widodo of being behind the protests.
East Java Provincial Governor Khofifah Indar Parawansa also apologised to the Papuan students for their arrest and racial abuse by bystanders. There have been reports that the students were called “monkeys”.
As the unrest continues, the Indonesian government slowed down the internet in several areas in the West Papua region.
Arnold Belau, the chief editor of Suara Papua, the leading online news in the region, said the internet in Jayapura has been off since Monday. Jayapura is the capital of Papua province.
Communications and Information Minister Rudiantara confirmed to Al Jazeera that the government has applied a “throttling mechanism” to filter the information and prevent the spread of rumours during the protest.
The minister explained that throttling only applies in three areas – Jayapura, Manokwari and Sorong – between 12 noon and 8pm.
“We need to do that not only due to the national security but also to avoid hoax from spreading to provoke (the masses),” he argued.
Throttling is the intentional slowing or speeding of the internet by companies providing the service.
The minister also teamed up with the national police to examine postings on social media. Police said they have found several social media accounts they believe had provoked the masses and caused the riots in Manokwari.
The minister was referring to two reported hoaxes mentioned on its official website. One of them is a post by Veronica Koman, a human rights lawyer focusing on West Papua issue, on the arrest of two Papuan students in Surabaya, East Java.
However, the ministry has been under fire after the public found out that it mistakenly quoted Veronika’s tweet, from “arrested” to “kidnapped”.
Veronica, who is seeking an apology from the ministry over the accusation, said that the throttling measure violates freedom of expression and the right to access information of West Papuan people, instead of preventing the supposed hoax.
By blocking the internet, people are only able to see television in which Jakarta can control the narrative, added Victor, the spokesperson for WPNC.
Racial slurs, rights abuses
The demonstrations on Monday in West Papua erupted following the arrest last week of ethnic Papuan students living in Surabaya and Malang in Java island.
The students were accused of throwing the Indonesian flag into a sewer – allegations that they have denied in an interview with Suara Papua.
Responding to the report, the police locked down the dormitory of the Papuan students and fired tear gas to clear their rooms.
Police also reportedly detained Papuan students who were demonstrating in Malang, also in Java island.
The students were released from police detention on Sunday. But by then, tensions had already risen, with West Papua groups calling on people to hit the streets.
West Papua region was a Dutch colony until the early 1960s when Indonesia took control, cementing its rule with a controversial referendum that followed.
The government in Jakarta maintains that West Papua region, which occupies the western half of the island of Papua New Guinea, is part of Indonesia because it was part of the Dutch East Indies, which forms the basis of the country’s modern-day borders.
A low-level armed rebellion by indigenous Papuans, who now make up about half the population after years of migration by people from other parts of Indonesia, has been rumbling ever since.
West Papua is the poorest region of Indonesia and there have been allegations of human rights violations taking place since then.
In December, violence also erupted in the province, killing at least 17 people and triggering a military crackdown.
Some 35,000 civilians have been forced from their homes as the security forces attempt to flush out the rebels from the forested mountains.