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Raising West Papua’s Flag on 1 December

Raising West Papua’s Flag on 1 December revives the hope of freedom

It is over half a century since the West Papuan Morning Star flag was raised with pomp and ceremony on 1 December 1961 in the capital Hollandia (now Jayapura). The flag and accompanying national anthem had been chosen by Papuans in a democratic process and accepted by the colonial Dutch as part of their programme for granting independence. The flag was then flown alongside the Dutch flag on official buildings. A halcyon time? No, Indonesia ramped up its claim to the territory with military incursions and an attempted torpedo boat assault.

West Papuan freedom aspirations were dashed in August 1962 when the Dutch reluctantly agreed that Indonesia could take over after a brief UN transition period. The US played the key role in brokering the agreement, but New Zealand went along with it. Why? New Zealand had never previously accepted Indonesia’s argument that it had a right to rule over all the territory that was once part of the Dutch East Indies. But Indonesia seemed to be turning to the communist world and the people of West Papua became pawns in a strategic game of chess.

Remarkably, West Papuan activists have never given up on the dream of freedom. Although their struggle now takes peaceful forms they continue to confront largely unaccountable security forces, especially on 1 December. Hopefully, the recent release of West Papua’s most famous political prisoner, Filep Karma, is a good sign. He had served 11 years of a 15 year jail sentence for raising the flag. Change is urgent in the face of serious threats to Papuan survival: environmental devastation, demographic change and even tighter military control.

The forest fires in Indonesia, described as the greatest environmental disaster so far this century, did not spare West Papua. Satellite images taken by NASA shows the territory peppered with fire hot spots and blanketed by smoke. The finger of blame points at the palm oil industry and at the exponential increase in plantations especially in Merauke where a giant agri-business project is planned. Resource exploitation in West Papua is also epitomised by the Freeport McMoran gold and copper mine, notorious for its gigantic earth works which disfigure the landscape and pollute the rivers.

In the last few years, indigenous Papuans have become a demographic minority in their homeland. In past years transmigrants came on state-sponsored schemes and now each week ship loads of new migrants arrive in the capital’s port. Estimates put the Papuan population at 42% of the total, but if current trends continue they may be down to 29% by 2020. West Papua is already more militarised than elsewhere in Indonesia and troop numbers, bases and command posts look set to increase. The military is pressing civilian President Joko Widodo to grant it more authority to preserve ‘public order’.

It is hopeful that West Papua is far less hidden and its problems are front of mind in many Melanesian and Pacific nations. When the 16-nation Pacific Island Forum met in September it resolved to ask Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister to consult with Indonesia about accepting a Pacific fact-finding mission to the territory. A few months earlier the five-member Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) granted the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) umbrella group official observer status. A significant breakthrough considering Papuans have been excluded from Pacific regional bodies for over 50 years. . Pacific Prime Ministers like Tonga’s Prime Minister Akolisi Pohiva and the Solomon Islands’ Manasseh Sogavare have since spoken out for West Papua at the UN.


After years of trying teams from both Maori TV’s Native Affairs team and Radio New Zealand were allowed in, a historic breakthrough. Maori TV’s excellent documentary did not shy away from covering the human rights issues. (http://www.maoritelevision.com/tv/shows/native-affairs/S09E030/native-affairs) They also took us to the highlands where ‘kumara is king’ to meet with the Dani tribe and learn about an agricultural empowerment project supported by OXFAM Aotearoa. Radio NZ journalists did their best to meet with the whole spectrum of opinion from the Governor down. These reports have opened a new window, not just here, but also around the Pacific where both these media outlets are widely followed.

In West Papua earlier this year the young people collected 55,555 signatures on a formal ID-card validated petition in support of the MSG bid. Hundreds were arrested but their efforts spurred their brothers and sisters around the Pacific to rally and march in support. West Papuans can now tell their story of persecution digitally; not just video recordings of abuses but also inspiring independence music which helps to expand the taro roots networks.

Reports are coming in that hundreds of young people were arrested in West Papua for demonstrating on 1 December and riot police fired tear gas at a solidarity rally in Jakarta.

Around New Zealand several peaceful events were held to mark 1 December, including a moving cultural performance and solemn flag-raising conducted by the Maori and Pasifika women of Oceania Interrupted. The event was held at Otamariki Park Otara.

Maire Leadbeater
West Papua Action Auckland
Box 68-419
Auckland
maire@clear.net.nz

ENDS

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