JAKARTA, Indonesia >> At least 20 people were killed today, including three shot by police, in violent protests by hundreds of people sparked by rumors that a teacher insulted an indigenous student in Indonesia’s restive Papua province, officials said.
An angry mob torched local government buildings, shops and homes and set fire to cars and motorbikes on several roads leading to the district chief’s office in Wamena city, said Papua police chief Rudolf Alberth Rodja.
Papua military spokesman Eko Daryanto said at least 16 civilians, including 13 from other Indonesian provinces, were killed in Wamena, mostly after being trapped in burning houses or shops.
He said at least one soldier and three civilians died in another protest in Jayapura, the capital of Papua province.
About 65 civilians were injured in Wamena and five police officers were critically injured in Jayapura, he said.
Television video showed orange flames and black smoke billowing from burning buildings in Wamena.
Rodja said the protest was triggered by rumors that a high school teacher in Wamena who is not from Papua called an indigenous Papuan student a “monkey” last week.
He said a police investigation did not find any evidence of racism against the student, and that false rumors have been spreading among students in other schools and native communities.
“We believe this false information was intentionally designed to create riots,” Rodja told reporters in Jayapura, the capital of Papua province. “This is a hoax and I call on people in Papua not to be provoked by untrue news.”
Papua police spokesman Ahmad Musthofa Kamal said students from another school in Wamena who refused to join the protest brawled with another group of students.
Video circulated on the internet showed dozens of people, many armed with machetes, standing in front of their shops and homes to protect them from the angry mob.
Joko Harjani, an airport official, said the protest forced authorities to close the city’s airport until the situation returns to normal.
The protest came days after Indonesian authorities managed to get the province under control after weeks of violent demonstrations by thousands of people in Papua and West Papua provinces against alleged racism toward Papuans. At least one Indonesian soldier and four civilians were killed in that violence.
The previous protests were triggered by videos circulated on the internet showing security forces calling Papuan university students “monkeys” and “dogs” in East Java’s Surabaya city when they stormed a dormitory where Papuan students were staying after a torn Indonesian flag was found in a sewer.
The videos prompted hundreds of Papuan students who study in other Indonesian provinces to return home and force a local state university to accommodate them.
Daryanto said a mob of angry students attacked a soldier and several police officers in Jayapura with machetes and rocks, forcing security forces to respond with gunfire, killing three civilians. The soldier died on the way to a hospital. At least five police officers were in critical condition.
Conflicts between indigenous Papuans and Indonesian security forces are common in the impoverished Papua region, a former Dutch colony in the western part of New Guinea that is ethnically and culturally distinct from much of Indonesia.
Papua was incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 after a U.N.-sponsored ballot that was widely seen as a sham. Since then, a low-level insurgency has simmered in the mineral-rich region, which is divided into two provinces, Papua and West Papua.
In recent years, some Papua students, including some who study in other provinces, have become vocal in calling for self-determination for their region.