Around 300 Papuan activists calling for independence protested in the country’s second-largest city of Surabaya to call for a referendum on independence.
A lawyer representing the Papuans, Veronica Koman, said 537 people were arrested in several cities.
They chanted “freedom for Papua” to mark December 1, 1961, when ethnically distinct Papuans say they were denied independence.
“We are demanding the truth of our history. A referendum for independence is the right solution for the people of Papua,” an activist told the Papua Students Alliance event in the East Java provincial capital.
The crowd, including many wearing headbands with the outlawed morning star flag, was blocked by a counter protest from several youth groups, including members of the nationalist Pancasila Youth, some of whom carried sharpened bamboo sticks.
The Jakarta Post reported that at least 17 people were injured, with photos circulating on social media of wounds.
A representative of the nationalist counter-demonstration told the media: “You may rally to voice your aspiration, but don’t bring the separatist issue. Papua is a part of Indonesia forever and we are willing to die to defend the unitary state of Indonesia.”
Large numbers of police officers tried to keep the groups apart, said East Java police spokesman Frans Barung Mangera.
Papuan activists often focus their rage on the huge Grasberg gold and copper mine (pictured), which is owned by US-based firm Freeport McMoRan to demand a share of the profits.
A human rights activist in New Zealand, Maire Leadbeater, said the country should rethink its policy towards West Papua after the weekend’s violence.
“If New Zealand would stand beside Vanuatu and support self-determination for the West Papuan people, it would make a major difference. I challenge anybody to tell me that’s not so,” Leadbeater said. “There are a number of Pacific nations already speaking up. What’s lacking is the big, powerful, rich nations like New Zealand.”
The Free Papua Movement declared independence from the Netherlands in 1961 but it was rejected by the Dutch colonialists and later by Indonesia after Jakarta occupied the sprawling, resource-rich region in the western half of New Guinea in 1963.
In 1969, Jakarta held a UN-sponsored referendum that was dismissed as fixed by Papuans and a low-level insurgency has rumbled on ever since.
The Jakarta government encouraged ethnically Indonesian settlers to move to Papua and is now looking to placate the separatists by stimulating the economy.
The foreign-owned Grasberg mine in Papua. Picture credit: YouTube