West Papua: from morning star to mourning

Inspired by the US civil rights movement and the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, the movement for democratic self-determination in West Papua is using new tactics of nonviolent action to advance its cause.
Jason MacLeod
15 December 2010

Raising the "Morning Star" flag is high-risk in West Papua. On December 1, Independence Day, a new tactic emerged in the territory’s forty-seven year long struggle for independence. Small groups of Papuans still raised the banned Morning Star flag. The Indonesian security forces still responded with characteristic overreaction. But this year Forum Demokrasi (ForDem), the same group that organised the July 8-9 2010 occupation of the Provincial Parliament, did something different. In the past week several hundred Papuans dressed in black appeared around the capital Jayapura and in the Sentani district surrounding the airport. Instead of raising the Morning Star flag, ForDem asked people to observe December 1 as a day of mourning, fasting, prayer and to boycott Indonesian owned and run shops. Benny Giay, Moderator of the Kingmi Church, the largest indigenous church in West Papua, and member of ForDem says, “We are fasting, praying and wearing black to mourn the death of democracy in West Papua and to mourn Papuans killed by the Indonesian security forces.”

ForDem leaders Frederika Korain and Benny Giay alongside student activists.The group was responsible for an imaginative change in tactic in the Papuan fight for independence, leading a "dressed in black" action in symbolic mourning for the death of democracy. 

Despite the fact that the Indonesian constitution theoretically supports freedom of expression and that the flag-raisings are nonviolent, raising the Morning Star Flag is still high risk. Agence France Presse reports that in the lead-up to December 1, police arrested and beat up eight unarmed civilians (one woman and seven men) who raised the flag in the highlands. According to a doctor working at the hospital in Wamena, one of the eight later died as a result of injuries sustained in police custody. Then on the day, police from Kapolres Jayawijaya (the regional police command in the central highlands) and soldiers from Kodim 1702 (the Wamena based regional military command) raided the small village of Bolakme where the previous flag raising took place and shot dead two Papuans, Asli Wenda and Elius Tabuni. The police are trained by the United States, New Zealand, and Australia. The military are also trained and armed by the United States and Australia. Questions asked in parliament by the Australian Green Party reveal that Detachment 88, the Indonesian counter-terrorist police force involved in repression of unarmed activists in the Malukus and West Papua receives 44 million dollars of funding from the Australian government alone. When I asked West Papuan student organisers in Jayapura what they thought of this kind of support for the Indonesian security forces they said in unmistakable English: “Australia, New Zealand and U.S government go to hell!”

Flag-raisings concentrate people in one place. Participants and organisers are routinely arrested and charged with rebellion, subversion and hate-sowing against the State, charges that date back to the colonial Dutch era. The antiquated criminal code, elevated by the former Indonesian dictator Suharto in order to repress dissent, is anathema in Indonesia’s new democratic era. The absence of free speech highlights the fact that Indonesian is one country with two systems: democracy in the rest of Indonesia and semi-authoritarian rule in West Papua.

In contrast the ‘dressed in black’ action was dispersed. It was something Papuans could do wherever they lived. Consequently it is lower risk, supports greater participation by ordinary people and could proceed for longer – Papuans wore black for the whole first week of December. 

ForDem’s inspiration is Mkhuseli Jack and his colleagues’ anti-apartheid United Democratic Front in South Africa, the U.S civil rights struggle, and other nonviolent struggles around the world, particular those led by Black and indigenous populations in resistance. ForDem also draws on the long history of unarmed resistance inside West Papua to animate civilian mobilisation. ForDem hopes to maximise the participation of Papuans in a mass civilian-based movement that systematically uses nonviolent action to achieve tangible victories on a path toward greater freedom.

The method is in contrast with other ways Papuans are working for change. Salmon Yumame, former civil servant and private businessman turned civil resistance leader, explains, “There are three distinct approaches to creating social change in West Papua. For years there has been an armed struggle in West Papua but there numbers are few and they are outgunned by the Indonesian military. Then there are Papuan leaders wanting political dialogue.” Benny Giay chimes in: “Dialogue is like boiling a stone. Papuans want political dialogue but Jakarta does not. Jakarta wants Papuans to bury their anger and accept Indonesian rule but Papuans cannot. You can boil and boil the stone but it will never cook.” Yumame continues: “Dialogue as a way of solving the problems in Papua is good but it won’t happen unless we organise nonviolent struggle. Not just a struggle of a few leaders but a struggle by all Papuans around the whole country. And not a struggle that tries to achieve freedom in one go. That won’t work. ForDem needs to be part of a much larger alliance. As Papuans we need to build our power slowly and achieve small goals that make a difference for ordinary people, not just in the cities, but in the villages as well.”

“Freedom is not just shouting slogans on Independence Day” says Benny Giay, “the struggle has to be carried out by all Papuans, not just once a year, but every day. It is a long journey but it is one Papuans have to walk.” 

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