Jakarta, Indonesia – Large demonstrations in Indonesia’s West Papua region have turned violent as thousands of protesters, angered by alleged police abuse against ethnic Papuan students, burned public facilities and blocked roads.
In West Papua province’s capital of Manokwari, protesters burned the parliamentary building and local stores, according to police and images obtained by Al Jazeera.
A building previously occupied by West Papua Provincial Governor Dominggus Mandacan was also burned, Indonesia’s national police spokesman, Dedi Prasetyo, told Al Jazeera.
There were no immediate reports of casualties. The demonstrations are still ongoing.
“For now, we are still focusing on collecting the data on the casualties and trying to calm down the masses,” he told Al Jazeera.
Images obtained by Al Jazeera showed the demonstrators, including many young students, waving the “Morning Star” flag, which is seen as a symbol of self-rule by Papuans.
“We are not white and red, we are morning star,” the protesters shouted, in reference to the Indonesian flag and the Papuan banner. Individuals carrying the banned flag could face arrest and imprisonment of up to 15 years.
There are also demonstrations reported in the city of Jayapura, the capital and largest city of Papua, the country’s easternmost province. Hundreds of people riding their motorbikes were seen joining the protest.
Al Jazeera also received reports that angry protesters forcibly took down the Indonesian flag outside the office of Papua Provincial Governor Lukas Enembe.
Indonesia’s West Papua region is divided into two provinces, West Papua and Papua.
The demonstration on Monday 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 the local media, Suara Papua.
Responding to the report, the police locked down the dormitory of the Papuan students and fired tear gas to clear their rooms.
The Indonesia-based news website, Tirto, and other news agencies reported that the students were then subjected to racial abuse. They were reportedly called “monkeys” by bystanders, as they were rounded up by police.
The students were released from police detention on Sunday. But by then, tensions have already risen, with the West Papua National Committee (KNPB) calling on Papuans to join the protest against the government.
The 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 Indonesian 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 in the country, and there have been allegations of human rights violation 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.__Al Jazeera