The Flag Not the Issue: Papua Needs Development

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  • Young students prepare for Papuan Independence Day celebrations. Photo: Yoshi Roem.

    Young students prepare for Papuan Independence Day celebrations. Photo: Yoshi Roem.

    By: Leanne Nebe | Translation by Melinda Chang. Leanne Nebe traveled to Indonesia with the support of the Australian Government’s New Colombo Plan Mobility Scheme.

    Marani, a strategic communications student from Wamena, has a MorningStar (Bintang Kejora) flag t-shirt, but his parents won’t let him wear it in public.

    “Be careful when wearing that shirt there. Wear it at home only, not outside,” Marani says while imitating his mother’s voice. “She’s afraid there is some kind of government device that will see and capture you for wearing it.”

    Marani wants to bring clothes like this to Tangerang, where he studies but is constrained by fear.

    “On the one hand I do have this fear of being caught wearing this shirt, but on the other hand, why? It’s just a shirt. But on the first of December, I will still post on Instagram ‘Happy Independence Day,’ because for me the Morning Star Flag is a Papuan people’s flag.”

    According to the Free Papua Movement, West Papuans continue to be persecuted for raising the flag in public, which is seen as a separatist symbol. More than 300 people were reportedly arrested in Surabaya in flag-raising demonstrations on December 1, 2018.

    Papuan Independence Day arrests in 2018. Infographic by Melinda Chang 

    While the Morning Star Flag has become a controversial symbol and source of conflict between Papua and the Indonesian government, activists and experts agree that the flag is a minor issue compared to concerns about development and a Papuan voice in political decision-making.

    Amnesty International’s (AI) national campaign manager, Puri Kencana Putri, says the real problems and root causes of tensions are the need for intimate infrastructures such as clean water supplies, education facilities, and transportation.

    “What we have is a tricky and problematic situation,” she says.“The government should first of all try to understand what the actual underlying problem is.”

    A scathing 2018 AI report highlighted human rights violations and the need for systems to ensure police accountability and impartiality in the courts. 

    Putri proposes that the Indonesian government needs to have a clear approach to address human rights issues in West Papua within the next five years, and suggested the President invitePapuan students and citizens meet at the Presidential Palace.

    “If the government is still using draconian laws, the unrest and protests will still be there. We need to put hope into West Papua instead of more problems.”

    Marani has hope in the re-elected President Widodo and thinks he has a kind heart when it comes to West Papua.

    “I feel that Jokowi really cares about us genuinely, unlike previous leaders, and he’s really trying to make a difference,” he says.

    Marani, recognizes that West Papua may have short-term teething problems with the government, but like Putri, believes dialogue can lead to a solution.

    “I just don’t think West Papua and the rest of Indonesia can collaborate in the long term. We have autonomy. We just need the government to listen to our problems first. Infrastructure and development are what we need.”

    Victory Marani reflects on the future of Papuans. Photo by Leanne Nebe 

    Prof Dr. Bambang Laksmono, head of the Papua Research Centre at the University of Indonesia, similarly identifies development is a key issue for the people of West Papua.

    “Everyone needs development,” Laksmono said.

    “West Papuans are angry because certain generations feel marginalized, they felt like they didn’t benefit from government reform during the Suharto era. We now have youngsters who are confused and upset, fuelled by what they see is a continual disappointment.”

    When it comes to the issue of raising the Morning Star flag, its use still puts the government in a difficult position, Laksmono says.

    “The problem I see is that if the government allows this kind of ‘flexible identity’ to occur, then this could ultimately permit space for other identity flags, and the promotion of other religious ideas.

    “Freedom is a politically powerful tool, but in this context, back in 1969, West Papua did hold a referendum for Independence, and they ultimately chose Indonesia.”

    Minister for Home Affairs Prof Muhammad Tito Karnavian, who spent two years as Head of Police in Papua, is concerned by the secession movement. He says Papua is important to Indonesia’s history, and should the Papuans separate from Indonesia, this would have a domino effect, with other provinces possibly also wanting to secede.

    Some Papuans describe the 1969 referendum as a sham, due to the participation of only 1,026 leaders picked by the military to vote on behalf of the whole population.

    Tito, however, notes that the referendum was conducted during the years in which the government of President Suharto was consolidating the Indonesian nation and sees it as a significant symbol of integration.

    “After the Cold War was over, in the case of Papua, they had a strong, legal international platform for integration, which is why in 1969 they voted to stay with Indonesia.”

    However, he does not outright reject the voicing of independence, holding of demonstrations or use of the Morning Star flag.

    “As long as it is respectful, as long as you are peaceful in your demonstrations, the police, are not really strict, he says.

    “Basically, it is simple. Do not close the road system, do not create a public disturbance, have respect for ethics and morale, and respect other people’s rights and keep the unity of the country. As long as there is no threat to National Security, there is no problem.”

    “I love Papua. I love the people there. There are so many nice, sincere people there, and I want to help them,” he says. “If there was ever any conflict or tribal warfare, I’d try to get there as quickly as possible, to help mediate or reconcile any issues, and doing this gave me a great feeling of happiness.”

    Considering the issue of development, Tito is critical of Papuan bureaucrats’ handling of money.

    The Jokowi Government continues to invest money into West Papuan development projects too, but where that money goes is another cause for concern, with speculation that high levels of corruption from local Papuan bureaucrats are to blame for misappropriation of financial resources.

    “There is gross mismanagement from the committee of Human Resources based in Papua,” Tito says, "but the Indonesian Government is working on helping Papuans manage this money appropriately, so we know exactly where it is going."

    Ultimately, when it comes to development issues, internal bureaucratic problems can be blamed in the short-term, however, it is the poorer communities in Papua who are suffering and are unaware of the administrative problems affecting their province.

    The internal governments may continue to blame each other, but when it comes to Papuan people such as Marani, who is relatively unaware of local administrative processes, minimal change can be seen.

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