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Twenty-eight-year-old Yulius Pigai of West Papua’s remote Deiyai regency is the latest native Papuan shot dead by Indonesian police.

Shell casings allegedly found at the site of the shooting in West Papua, Indonesia, 2017. © 2017 Paniai Customary Council

The police account of the incident is that police opened fire using rubber bullets on rock-throwing protesters who “ran amok” and ignored repeated demands to disperse. Police say that three other protesters were wounded in the incident allegedly sparked by the refusal of PT Putra Dewa Paniai construction company workers to transport a local villager to a hospital.

Papuan villagers have a different story. They say that the police opened fire on the protesters without warning and that, in addition to killing Pigai, wounded seven people, including two children. Papuan social media is rife with photographs of shell casings allegedly found at the site, implying that police fired live rounds rather than rubber bullets. Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights (KOMNAS HAM) has announced an investigation.

We will probably never know what really happened in Deiyai. That’s because the government obstructs the watchdog function of a free press by severely restricting access for foreign media to Papua despite a May 2015 pledge by President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to lift those restrictions. Indonesian journalists in Papua, particularly native Papuans, who dare to report on “sensitive” topics, including security forces’ abuses are highly vulnerable to official harassment, intimidation and violence. The result: competing allegations of official wrongdoing about security force violence that are immune to media scrutiny.

Papuans have learned that official promises of independent investigations by agencies including KOMNAS HAM go nowhere. Exhibit A is the official response to the December 8, 2014 security force killing of five Papuan youths in Enarotali in Papua’s Paniai regency. Despite three separate official investigations into the shootings, bolstered by Jokowi’s December 2014 pledge to thoroughly investigate and punish security forces implicated in those deaths, there has been zero accountability.

On Wednesday, the English-language Jakarta Post newspaper published an editorial, “Open Papua to the World.” The editorial argued for lifting media restrictions in Papua stating, “By maintaining this restriction, the government is operating like a paranoid regime, afraid the outside world may find the skeletons it hides in its closet.” Until the government follows that advice, killings of Papuans such as Yulius Pigai will continue without accountability.


An earlier version of this Dispatch misspelled the first name of the victim. The Dispatch has been changed to reflect this.

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