TIMIKA, Indonesia (Reuters) - Indonesia’s chief security minister said he will fly to Papua late on Wednesday after violent protests, including stone-throwing and the torching of some buildings, spread to more towns in the easternmost region over perceived discrimination.
Police fired tear gas to disperse a crowd in the town of Fakfak, West Papua, after protesters torched parts of a market, an office building and blocked roads to the airport, CNN Indonesia reported.
Media estimated thousands of people were involved in the protest, though Dedi Prasetyo, spokesman for Indonesia’s national police, said only 50 people had taken part in setting fire to several stalls in the market.
The situation had been contained, Prasetyo said, without elaborating.
In Timika, a city in the neighboring province of Papua, where the giant Grasberg copper and gold mine operated by the Indonesian unit of Freeport McMoran is located, thousands of protesters threw rocks at a parliament building, houses, shops and a hotel.
Freeport operations were not disturbed but the company said it was advising employees and their family members to limit unnecessary travel, Riza Pratama, Freeport Indonesia spokesman, told Reuters.
Wiranto, the chief security minister, told reporters in the capital, Jakarta, he was flying to the region to try to ease tensions.
“I’m going to Papua to bring a sense of empathy, peace and to invite everyone to unite again as a nation,” he said.
Papua and West Papua provinces, the resource-rich western part of the island of New Guinea, were a Dutch colony that was incorporated into Indonesia after a widely criticized U.N.-backed referendum in 1969.
While a separatist movement has simmered there for decades, with frequent complaints of rights abuses by Indonesian security forces, the recent anger appears to be linked to racist slurs against Papuan students who were detained last week.
The students were taken to a police headquarters after being accused of disrespecting the Indonesian flag in front of their dormitory during an Independence Day ceremony.
The students were called “monkeys” during the incident, activists said.
There have also been sometimes violent protests since Monday in the towns of Manokwari, Sorong, and Jayapura, where some protesters had been seen carrying a Morning Star flag, a banned symbol used by independence supporters.
Police have sent 1,200 additional officers to West Papua, Muhammad Iqbal, a national police spokesman, told media.
Mohamad Lakotani, the deputy governor of West Papua, said police reinforcements had been sent to Sorong, Manokwari and Fakfak.
“This is just to anticipate things, so that the demonstration or mass concentration does not develop into something anarchic,” he said.
Internet speeds in the area had also been slowed as part of the efforts to prevent hoaxes spreading, a spokesman at the information and communication ministry said.
Activists have criticized the government’s response to the unrest in Papua.
The rights group Setara Institute said police and military reinforcements would exacerbate violence and it urged President Joko Widodo to send an envoy to open dialogue with residents there.
Reporting by Samuel Wanda in TIMIKA and Agustinus Beo Da Costa in JAKARTA; Additional reporting by Wilda Asmarini; Writing by Tabita Diela and Gayatri Suroyo; Editing by Robert Birsel
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