BANGKOK — Protests erupted across the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua this week after reports circulated that students from the region were harassed by the police and insulted with racist slurs in the East Java city of Surabaya.
Thousands of people took to the streets in the two distant provinces, torching a provincial government building and clashing with police officers after a video circulated showing the students in Surabaya being called “monkey” and other names as the police surrounded their dormitory.
The Indonesian authorities attempted to halt the protests by sending about 1,000 police officers to Indonesian Papua as reinforcements and by disrupting internet service in Papua Province, a tactic they used earlier to quell election protests in Jakarta.
Papua, the western part of the island of Papua New Guinea, declared independence in the 1960s but was annexed soon after by Indonesia, a move resented ever since by many Papuans, who are ethnically Melanesian.
Since the takeover, the Indonesian government has suppressed the Papuan independence movement and punished people who raised the Papuan independence flag by sentencing them to long prison terms.
The Indonesian part of the island is rich in natural resources, including copper, gold, oil and timber, but the standard of living in the Papua provinces is among the poorest in the country.
Papua is home to the Grasberg mine, the world’s largest gold mine, which has long been run by the American company Freeport-McMoRan. After years of pressure from Indonesia, the company sold a controlling interest in the mine to a state-run company.
Many Papuans also resent the construction of a major highway that will open Papua Province to further exploitation of its resources. At least 19 construction workers on the project were killed in December in attacks that the police attributed to separatists.
The Surabaya incident occurred on Saturday, Indonesia’s independence day, when someone complained that the Papuan students had desecrated an Indonesian flag that had been hanging outside their dormitory.
Police officers surrounded the students’ residence and fired tear gas into the building as people hurled racist taunts at those inside. More than 40 students were taken into custody, but they were all released later for lack of evidence.
At the height of the protests Monday, demonstrators in West Papua set fire to a local parliament building in Manokwari, the provincial capital.
Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo, called on the Papuans to forgive the transgressions against them, but he made no apology for the racial slurs.
“I know there are offenses,” the president said Monday. “Therefore, as a countryman it is best to forgive. Emotions are understandable, but forgiving is better. Patience is better.”
His security minister, Wiranto, a former general who like many Indonesians goes by one name, pledged a “complete and fair” investigation of the events in Surabaya.
A search was underway for more than 250 prisoners who escaped when their prison was set on fire by protesters.