West Papua’s Rise and Defy

by Alex Rayfield

West Papua Rising – Analysis

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 Papuans fearing 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 Yogyakarta and Jakarta.

The Indonesian government may have banned the Morning Star, stepping back from a constitutional commitment to free speech, but when tens of thousands of people display the flag and it is raised across the country, and when people sing the banned national anthem, “Hai Tanahku Papua” in open defiance of the police, that law is effectively ripped up. What good is law77/2007 outlawing the flag and national anthem if people don’t obey it?

In many places police were powerless to do anything. Video footage shows Indonesian police driving as crowds of protesters wave the Morning Star flag and shout freedom.

Members of the West Papua National Committee, Papuan Peace Network and Congress members marched together holding banners like “STOP COMMITTING HUMAN RIGHT VIOLATION IN PAPUA”, “INDEPENDENCE YES, NKRI NO” (NKRI stands for the Unitary Republic of Indonesia) and “FEDERAL REPUBLIC WEST PAPUA”.

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At many of the demonstrations, the Declaration of Independence was read again in defiance of police and military who looked on. This is the same statement that precipitated fatal shooting by police and military last month when it was read out at the Congress.

A senior foreign correspondent based in Jakarta told me that prior to December 1st police in West Papua were briefed during a phone hook-up not to respond with violence. Not because they love Papuans. Not because they suddenly become supporters of democracy. Not because they decided to serve and protect instead of beat people to a bloody pulp; but because virtually everyone in West Papua has a cell phone.

As one of the key organisers for West Papua Media operating inside West Papua remarked, “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.”

It is that media network that has helped turned the Congress and December 1st into a watershed moment.

The killing of nonviolent Papuan protesters at the Congress last month – relayed by phone, facebook, you-tube 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 protest, 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 is also meaningless.

The Papuan people have become the media.

But communication tools don’t make a revolution. They are simply that, tools; necessary to get around the ban on journalists, but not sufficient by themselves to bring about change. That will require old fashioned community organising, urging even larger numbers of people and other sectors of society – inside Papua, Indonesia and internationally – to become involved, and raising the political and economic costs of the occupation.

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, uncooperative and militantly peaceful.

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. They raised the flag. They re-read the declaration of independence. And a big contributor to this courage has been the leadership of the Congress leaders in prison. Forkorus Yaboisembut, the 72year old President of the Federal Republic of West Papua encouraged everyone to celebrate December 1st in whatever way they could, and to do so with determined nonviolent discipline.

However, there was still violence. In Timika the Indonesian military opened fire on unarmed crowds when Papuans raised the Morning Star flag. 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 Goliat Tabuni and Jhon Yogi, the two Papuan Liberation Army commanders from those areas, 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. The overwhelming response by the Papuans, however, was mass unarmed political defiance.

Papuan frustration at the lack of change is as intense as it has ever been. At the same time the Indonesian government’s options are narrowing. For years the Indonesian government could ignore problems in West Papua. It was not worth expending political capital on. But West Papua is quickly becoming Indonesia’s Achilles heel.

Congress and December 1st has created a dilemma for the Indonesian Government. Essentially they 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 freedoms, 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 shot dead unarmed Papuans and beat 72 year old tribal elders get a written warning and nothing happens to the soldiers who killed people.

Now as Papuans return to their homes after December 1st 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 yet be free, but for many Papuans, Indonesia lost their loyalty a long time ago. Now it seems the government is losing their obedience as well.

Alex Rayfield is an independent freelance journalist writing with West Papua Media.

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