SURABAYA, Indonesia – About 300 West Papuan demonstrators calling for independence for the restive Indonesian region faced off with counterprotesters Saturday in the country’s second-largest city.
The demonstrators in Surabaya chanted “Freedom Papua” and held banners demanding a referendum for independence to mark Dec. 1, which many West Papuans consider the anniversary of what they say should have been their independence.
“We are demanding the truth of our history,” a speaker shouted at the crowd at the rally, which was organized by the Papua Students Alliance. “Referendum for independence is the right solution for the people of Papua.”
The crowd, including many wearing headbands with the morning star flag as a separatist group symbol, was blocked from marching to the city center by scores of counterprotesters from several youth organizations in Surabaya, the capital of East Java province. Some confronted the pro-independence protesters with sharpened bamboos.
“You may rally to voice your aspiration, but don’t bring the separatist issue,” said a speaker from the rival group. “Papua is a part of Indonesia forever, and we are willing to die to defend the unitary state of Indonesia.”
Members of the two camps pushed each other, but several hundred anti-riot police prevented the two groups from clashing, said East Java police spokesman Frans Barung Mangera.
The protest ended after about two hours. No one was detained by police, Mangera said.
The Free Papua Movement, a separatist group in Indonesia’s restive Papua province, declared independence from Dutch rule on Dec. 1, 1961. That was rejected by the Dutch and later by Indonesia.
Papua, a former Dutch colony in the western part of New Guinea, was incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 after a U.N.-sponsored ballot that was seen as a sham by many. A small, poorly armed separatist group has been battling for independence since then.
For years, a low-level insurgency has plagued the mineral-rich region, which is ethnically and culturally distinct from much of Indonesia.
Indonesia’s government, which for decades had a policy of sending Javanese and other Indonesians to settle in Papua, is now also trying to spur economic development to dampen the separatist movement.