JAKARTA – Indonesia has cut off internet access in unrest-hit Papua over fears that a stream of offensive and racist online posts would spark more violent protests in the region, but critics slammed the move as a threat to free speech.
Riots and demonstrations brought several Papuan cities to a standstill this week, as buildings were torched and street battles broke out between police and protesters in Indonesia’s easternmost territory.
A rebel insurgency against Jakarta’s rule has simmered for decades in the resource-rich but impoverished island, which shares a border with Papua New Guinea.
The riots appear to have been triggered by the arrest of dozens of Papuan students in Java over the weekend, who were also pelted with racist abuse.
Indonesia had slowed internet service in recent days to clamp down on hoaxes and provocative comments targeting Papua’s ethnic Melanesian population.
It shut down service completely late Wednesday, although many users still managed to get around the block.
“The amount of racist and provocative content was very high… and it went viral,” communications ministry spokesman Ferdinandus Setu told AFP.
Amnesty International hit out at the measure, saying that “this blanket internet blackout is an appalling attack on people’s right to freedom of expression.
“This is not a time for censorship,” said Usman Hamid, the group’s executive director in Jakarta.
“These tensions are not an excuse to prevent people from sharing information and peacefully speaking their mind.”
Calm appeared to have been mostly restored Thursday after Indonesia sent in 1,200 extra police and military to Papua. A few dozen protesters were arrested.
Several police officers had been injured, and there were unconfirmed reports of wounded demonstrators. No deaths have been reported.
The unrest came after reports that authorities tear-gassed and briefly detained some 43 Papuan university students in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-biggest city, on Saturday — the country’s independence day.
Police in riot gear stormed a dormitory to force out students who allegedly destroyed an Indonesian flag, as a group of protesters shouted racial slurs at them, calling them “monkeys” and “dogs.”
In Jakarta on Thursday, more than 100 demonstrators scuffled with police near the presidential palace as they called for Papuan independence.
Some were dressed in traditional clothing and with their faces painted in the image of Papua’s banned flag.
“Papuan students are treated like second-class citizens,” university student Mika Dabe told AFP.
“Our dignity and pride have been trampled on.”
In riot-hit Sorong, Indonesia’s chief security minister Wiranto on Thursday appealed for calm, as he referred to Papua as the nation’s “golden child.
“Indonesia’s unity is nonnegotiable,” the minister, who goes by one name, told reporters.
“Don’t let negativity divide us.”
Wiranto had flown to Papua with the head of the military and Indonesia’s national police chief, while President Joko Widodo was expected to visit next week.
In Bali’s capital Denpasar, dozens rallied and carried placards that read “Stop Racism” and “Stop Genocide.
“It was discriminatory and racist,” said rally coordinator Jeeno Dogomo, referring to the Surabaya arrests.
“But the riots weren’t just triggered by the Surabaya incident. They were also caused by what’s happened in the past and the abuse that Papua has suffered.”
Papua has been the scene of a low-level insurgency aimed at breaking away from Indonesia, which took control of the former Dutch colony in the 1960s after an independence referendum widely viewed as a sham.
Security forces have long been accused of committing rights abuses against Papuans who say they have not shared in the impoverished region’s vast mineral wealth.