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George Floyd protests inspire campaigns against racism across Asia

US police killing spotlights oppression of Papuans and Duterte's anti-drug war

Protesters raise placards, including one that says Black Lives Matter, during a protest June 4 in Quezon City against a Philippine anti-terror bill that drawn concern from human rights activists.   © Reuters

JAKARTA -- The #BlackLivesMatter campaign has rippled from the U.S. into Asia, triggering echoes of solidarity and reviving calls to confront the continent's own problems of racism and injustice.

The global movement ignited by the killing of George Floyd, an African American man, by a white police officer in the U.S. city of Minneapolis has drawn local youth and celebrities in Indonesia and other parts of Asia.

They have expressed support on social media, as partial lockdowns tied to the coronavirus prevent many people from taking to the streets.

But the movement also has resuscitated protest against what is seen as decades of state oppression and discrimination against Papuans -- native inhabitants of Indonesia's restive easternmost provinces, Papua and West Papua.

The #PapuanLivesMatter hashtag is gaining traction on social media, more than any past campaign for the rights of Papuans.

"The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis must be a reminder that discrimination and intimidation also happen to native Papuans in Indonesia, and most of the cases are yet to be resolved," said Usman Hamid, executive director of the Indonesian chapter of rights group Amnesty International.

"For years, hundreds of native Papuans have suffered racism and brutality by law enforcers," Hamid said. "While being involved in peaceful rallies, many of them were arrested and charged with treason."

Unlike the majority of Indonesians, who are of Malay origin, native Papuans are Australo-Melanesians with darker skin. The Papuan provinces are the most underdeveloped areas of Indonesia, despite being rich in resources. For decades, the region has faced scrutiny from a military seeking to squash separatist movements.

Coincidentally, the Jakarta State Administrative Court last week issued what activists hailed as a "landmark ruling" against Indonesia's internet blockade during riots in the Papua provinces during August and September 2019.

The government had defended the move as necessary to quell the riots, which followed racial abuse against Papuan students inflicted by security officers and civilian groups in another Indonesian city.

In Singapore, where the majority of the population is ethnic Chinese, some "old wounds" have resurfaced amid the Black Lives Matter movement. On his Facebook page, local playwright Alfian Sa'at recalled a "blackface" incident in 2016 at Raffles Institution, one of the city-state's more prestigious public schools.

At that time, a group of Raffles students celebrated the birthday of their classmate, an Indian boy, by wearing blackface and holding up props like a "whitening kit" and wads of money.

The 10 students in the photo have since written an apology letter. And Sa'at, who also attended Raffles, said he mostly thrived during his time there.

"But these days I look back and wonder what I could have suppressed or tolerated merely to survive as a minority in that space," said Sa'at, who shared his own experiences as "the only Malay in the room."

"Because there is something about the racism from 'educated' teens that is different from the standard name-calling one encounters," he said.

Sa'at's Facebook post has received over 5,000 likes and was shared 4,600 times in just a few days. It also invited a response from Singaporean Education Minister Ong Ye Kung, who acknowledges that "such acts of racial insensitivity or micro-aggression against a person of another race exist in every society, including Singapore."

In India, many are accusing some Bollywood stars of "hypocrisy" after the actors took to social media in support of anti-racism protests in the U.S. These stars also have promoted skin-lightening "fairness creams" back home.

"This is in no way to take away from racism and [I] understand that colorism is a different issue," said one popular tweet. "[But] it doesn't sit right with me that back home one promotes fairness creams while speaking about how all colors are beautiful. It's opportunistic."

Protesters hold Black Lives Matter signs during a demonstration against racism and police brutality in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, outside the Consulate General of U.S. in Hong Kong on June 7.   © Reuters

In the Philippines, the issues of police brutality and impunity raised by Floyd's death have turned the spotlight once again on President Rodrigo Duterte's anti-drug war, in which thousands of suspects have been killed.

On Facebook and Twitter, Floyd's death has been compared with the killing of 17-year-old student Kian Delos Santos by police during an anti-drug operation three years ago in Manila. Three officers were found guilty of the murder in 2018, but that has been the only known police conviction in Duterte's anti-drug campaign.

The comparison was amplified last week by a report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, which said the drug war has been conducted with "near impunity" and cited the killing of Delos Santos.

One viral post quoted the last words of the two slain individuals: Floyd's "I can't breathe," and Delos Santos' "Please stop. I still have a test (exam) tomorrow."

In Hong Kong, the city's League of Social Democrats, a political advocacy group for human rights, organized a small demonstration Sunday outside the U.S. Consulate. Images from their Facebook page featured protesters -- both locals and expats -- holding banners reading "BLM" and pictures of Floyd.

Similar small rallies have been spotted in Seoul and Tokyo supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, with some participants raising concerns over growing problems of racism at home as the homogenous South Korean and Japanese societies begin opening more to foreigners.

Additional reporting by Cliff Venzon in Manila, Coco Liu in Hong Kong, Dylan Loh in Singapore, and Kiran Sharma in New Delhi.

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