Thousands of scared residents in Indonesia’s Papua scrambled to board military planes Friday, fleeing urban unrest after one of the region’s deadliest eruptions of violence in years.
Anger over racism against indigenous Papuans by residents from other parts of Indonesia has fuelled weeks of angry protests in the impoverished region, as well as fresh calls for self-rule.
Violence broke out again this week in Wamena city where over two dozen people were killed.
Authorities said that some were burned alive when buildings were set on fire, while others were stabbed during the chaos.
Some 700 Wamena residents – mostly from other parts of the country – were evacuated on Friday to other parts of the country, the military said.
A further 1,500 residents gathered at a local airport Friday in a bid to leave, according to local air force official Arief Sudjatmiko, who added that at least 2,500 people had registered to get aboard flights.
“Our lives are at risk here,” Debora Sibuea, who planned to return to her hometown in Sumatra, told AFP.
“My house was set on fire, stalls were set on fire, even government offices were burned,” she said.
The majority of Papuans are Christian and ethnic Melanesian with few cultural ties to the rest of Muslim-majority Indonesia.
They have become a minority in Papua after years of internal migration from other parts of the country to the mineral-rich region, home to the world’s biggest gold mine.
A low-level separatist insurgency has simmered for decades in the former Dutch colony after Jakarta took over Papua in the 1960s.
A U.N.-sponsored vote to stay within the archipelago in 1969 was widely viewed as rigged, but Jakarta has long refused to consider another referendum.
The fresh violence this week was reportedly sparked by racist comments made by a teacher towards students in Wamena, but police have disputed that account.
The incident, however, came against a backdrop of a long history of reported rights abuses in the region. In August, leaders at the Pacific Islands Forum urged the U.N. Rights Chief to launch a probe on human rights abuses in Papua, with one leader referring to it as the “festering human rights sore of the region.”
According to the Nduga Civil Society Coalition – a Jakarta based NGO – 182 civilians including 92 children have been killed during a crackdown from the Indonesian military in Papua between December 2018 and July. The Indonesian government has rejected the figures as a “hoax.”
In August, protests broke out across Papua and in other parts of the country after the arrest, racial abuse and tear-gassing of dozens of Papuan students, in the city of Surabaya.