Papuans turn monkey slur into a revolutionary symbol

A protester (left) wears a gorilla mask at a demonstration in Jayapura on August 19 (photo: Pepuho Ell). A protester (right) brandishes a saber and carries an anti-racist sign in Bintuni on August 19 (photo: Thinus Kareth).
A protester (left) wears a gorilla mask at a demonstration in Jayapura on August 19 (photo: Pepuho Ell). A protester (right) brandishes a saber and carries an anti-racist sign in Bintuni on August 19 (photo: Thinus Kareth).

A wave of violent protests are currently shaking the Indonesian region of Papua, where an independentist movement has been growing for the past few decades. But this time the protesters have a new mascot -- a monkey. Independentists have reappropriated the term -- often used as a racist slur against Papuans -- and transformed it into a symbol of the growing revolution.

On the morning of Monday, August 19, protesters gathered in Jayapura and Manokwari, the capital cities of Papua and West Papua respectively. While the protests in Jayapura were peaceful, according to residents who spoke to the FRANCE 24 Observers team, the situation was much more tense in Manokwari, where an AFP journalist counted several thousand demonstrators.

Protesters march through the streets of Jayapura on August 19, 2019.


Protesters in Manokwari brandish the Morning Star flag on August 19, 2019.

Some of the protesters were waving the Morning Star flag, which is a symbol of Papuan independence.

Papua, which neighbours Papua New Guinea, declared itself independent in 1961 but it was acquired by Indonesia in 1963 and then officially annexed in 1969. A majority of the inhabitants of this resource-rich region are calling for a referendum on self-determination, which would allow them to protect their land from mining and deforestation.


"Protesters started setting fire to the barricades"

Mientje Torey runs a hotel right next to the local parliament in Manokwari. She was filming when the protesters began to ransack the parliament building.

Torey filmed this video from her hotel in Manokwari on August 19, 2019.

Around 8am, about 20 or 30 protesters started setting fire to the barricades in the streets and throwing rocks at the local parliament building. Pretty soon, the building was on fire. I left soon after because the situation was extremely tense. I was terrified that the fire would reach my hotel, which adjoins the parliament building.

This video also shows smoke and flames engulfing the local parliament building in Manokwari on Monday, August 19, 2019.

When I returned to the hotel later that day, one of my employees said that protesters had come into our lobby and broken into our till in an attempt to steal money. The parliament building, next door, was completely gutted by fire. The next morning, I saw employees carting away the rubble.

On the same day, violence also broke out in Sorong, a town about 300 kilometres to the west of Manokwari. Protesters there managed to take over part of the airport, according to the West Papua chief of police, Herry Rudolf Nahak. They also burned down the town prison, allowing 258 prisoners to escape.

This video, filmed during protests in Sorong on August 19, shows police officers fleeing protestors. The demonstrators are hurling heavy objects at the officers and strike several of them.

Protests continued the next day, Tuesday, August 20, in several towns across Papua. The following day -- Wednesday, August 21 -- several hundred protesters gathered in the town of Fakfak, located 300 kilometres to the southwest of Manokwari. They burned down a market and, according to the police, looted several shops and cash points. Later that day, police announced that 900 officers and 300 soldiers would be deployed to Manokwari and Sorong.

The Tumburuni market in Fakfak went up in flames on August 21.


The video that sparked it all

This sudden -- and sometimes violent -- uprising was sparked by a video. In the days before the protests, people across Papua were sharing a video showing both soldiers and members of a civilian militia calling a group of Papuan students “monkeys”. The video was filmed on August 17 in Surabaya, the country's second-largest city.

This video shows uniformed soldiers and members of a civilian militia in front of a dormitory for Papuan students on Kalasan Street in Surabaya on Saturday, August 17, 2019. They repeatedly use the insult “monyet”, which means “monkey”.

These students were accused of having thrown the national flag into the sewer the night before Indonesian Independence Day. Security forces briefly arrested 43 students before letting them go.

Earlier this week, Indonesian President Joko Widodo called for calm and the government announced the opening of an investigation into the incident.


"Racism is part of our daily lives”

The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke to a wide range of people from Papua, who agreed that, more than anything, the uprising over the past few days was the result of Papuans being sick and tired of the racism they say they suffer in the rest of Indonesia.

Zuzan Griapon is a student and Papuan independence activist who lives in Yogyakarta, on the island of Java. Griapon told the Observers that Papuans experience racism on a daily basis.

We constantly have to deal with prejudice from our classmates. They think that we are all gangsters and alcoholics.

An identical incident to the one in Surabaya took place here in Yogyakarta back in 2016. A group of soldiers and civilian militia members gathered in front of our dormitory, shouting that we were “dogs” and “monkeys".

I’ve also faced discrimination on campus. Back in 2016, a group of us Papuans went to a park on campus. We were just sitting down when a security guard came up to us and said, “Why are you sitting here? You shouldn’t be here.” All around us, Indonesian students were enjoying their picnics peacefully. I went to the university to complain and they made it understood that they didn’t want me to make a fuss about it.

"The monkey has become our revolutionary symbol”

Victor Yeimo is the spokesperson for KNPB, the National Committee for West Papua, a Papuan organisation that’s campaigning for a referendum on self-determination. Yeimo also coordinated the protest in Jayapura on Monday. He agreed that there is widespread racism against Papuans.

There is nothing out of the ordinary about the incident in Subaraya -- it was just the straw that broke the camel's back and created a spontaneous protest movement.

Every Papuan who travels to another Indonesian region in Indonesia is likely to experience racism. You really see it when our team, West Papua FC, plays-- the crowd often descends into racist chants and insults.

The most common insult is "monyet", which means “monkey” in Indonesian. When I was a student in Surabaya, between 2003 and 2007, other students called me that in class. When we protested in the street, passers-by would hurl the same insults at us.

Today, we’ve decided to beat the racists at their own game by making the monkey a symbol of our revolutionary movement. We are saying to them: “If you see us as animals, at least let us live in peace in the jungle and give us back our independence. And leave our jungle in peace, stop the mines and the deforestation [Editor’s note: An estimated 22,000 km2 of primary forest has been destroyed since the 1990s, according to the GCF Task Force].

READ ON THE OBSERVERS >>  'Cameras, not weapons': young Papuans denounce the exploitation of their homeland

This Papuan protester dressed up as a monkey during a protest in Kaimana, a town located about 300 km to the south of Manokwari on August 20, 2019.

"I’ve never seen the Papuans so angry”

There are currently no figures on how many people took part in the movement that has shaken Papua since August 19. However, Indonesian lawyer Veronica Koman said that this is the first time that Papuan protests have reached this magnitude.

There have been big protests in the past. Back in 2016, thousands of people were arrested during demonstrations. But this year it's very different -- I’ve never seen the Papuans so angry. About 95% of my Papuan friends changed their profile pictures to monkeys on social media to show their support.

I think only a significant gesture on the part of the government would lower the tension. The president’s call for calm isn’t enough -- he didn’t apologise. Papuans want a seat at the table to negotiate a referendum on self-determination. For them, it’s the only way to recover their lost dignity.

This article was written by Liselotte Mas (@liselottemas).