West Papua Rising


The raising of the banned Morning Star flag across West Papua on December 1 made two things abundantly clear: political defiance in West Papua is growing and the Indonesian Government is losing control.

Despite fears that they would be shot if they raised the flag, the Morning Star was raised in Jayapura, Sentani, Manokwari, Sorong, Merauke, Timika, Puncak Jaya, Paniai, Genyem, Wamena and inside Indonesia in Jogjakarta and Jakarta.

In many places the security forces allowed the protests to continue — video footage shows Indonesian police driving as crowds of protesters wave the flag and shout "freedom" — but in Timika the Indonesian military did open fire on unarmed crowds. Four people were wounded (two men and two women). Two of the victims are in critical condition in hospital.

In another part of the country a Papuan shot an Indonesian policeman with a bow and arrow. In Puncak Jaya and Paniai in the remote highlands the two Papuan Liberation Army commanders engaged the Indonesian military and police in fire fights, killing two members of the Indonesian Paramilitary Police (Brimob) in Puncak Jaya and sabotaging bridges and burning government posts in Paniai.

However, most other December 1 rallies were peaceful. Members of the West Papua National Committee, Papuan Peace Network and Congress members marched together holding banners like "Stop committing human rights violations in Papua", "Independence yes, NKRI no" (NKRI stands for the Unitary Republic of Indonesia) and "Federal republic West Papua".

At many of the demonstrations, the Declaration of Independence was read again — this is the same statement that precipitated fatal shooting by police and military last month when it was read out at the Third Papuan People’s Congress.

The killing of peaceful Papuan protesters at the Congress last month — relayed by phone, Facebook, YouTube and mailing lists — has outraged Papuans, leading more to support independence. It has divided political elites inside Indonesia, attracted more third party support for the West Papuan cause, and revealed the ugly face of Indonesian colonial rule in West Papua.

It has widened the circle of dissent and tipped the political scale in the Papuans’ favour.

In Sorong, for example, even Papuan government civil servants and the retired military members joined the December 1 rally, prompting one local organiser to remark that "this really different from previously which always attended by the community".

The Indonesian government may still have a ban on foreign media in West Papua but when people can send SMS news reports in seconds and photos and film in a matter of hours, a ban on media also loses its impact.

As one of the key local organisers for West Papua Media told New Matilda: "The media network across Papua is like a spider web. Now when there is an incident we can quickly get reports across the country and out to the world."

"The mainstream media in Papua is owned by Indonesians. They publish things that terrify the Papuan community," the same source said. "So our most powerful weapon has become our independent media network."

Technically, of course, the Indonesian government is still in control. Jakarta still makes the political decisions and the police and security forces have the capability and personnel to crush any rebellion — armed or nonviolent. But they have lost moral authority. Papuans are no longer willing to go along with the status quo. The mood is angry, defiant and uncooperative.

Senior tribal elders and young people who were shot at last month have decided not to give in to fear. Instead, they went back out onto the streets. A big contributor to this courage has been the leadership of the Congress leaders in prison. In an exclusive interview with New Matilda last week, Forkorus Yaboisembut, the 72-year-old President-elect of the ‘Federal Republic of West Papua’, encouraged Papuans to mark the day peacefully.

These recent events and the attention they received have created a dilemma for the Indonesian Government. Essentially they now have two choices: more repression, or political dialogue. More repression will only increase support for independence and further erode Indonesia’s standing.

If the government does nothing or does not come up with a credible plan for political dialogue they can expect support for independence to grow. The Indonesian government recently announced they would fast track economic development in West Papua. But this won’t cut it. The Papuans are asking for political freedom, not more money.

Papuans I spoke to want to be genuine participants in a political process, not objects of policy, and they have lost faith with their own political class who are increasingly viewed as corrupt and unwilling to stand up to Jakarta.

They are disgusted that police who shoot dead unarmed Papuans and beat tribal elders receive only a warning.

As Papuans return to their homes after 1 December many fear that the Indonesian police and military will return to the practice of targeted repression and that organisers and participants will be hunted down, one by one, community by community.

West Papua may not be free, but Indonesia lost the loyalty of Papuans a long time ago. Now, they are speaking out like never before.

With West Papua Media.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.