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A historic flag-raising event signals an awakening to West Papua’s plight

December 5, 2013

1) A historic flag-raising event signals an awakening to West Papua’s plight

West Papua’s claim to self-determination is gaining grounds internationally. But for this to become a reality, more Melanesian leaders must show brave and principled leadership

For the first time in history, the Morning Star flag was flown at a Papua New Guinea (PNG) government building in Port Moresby.
West Papua’s national flag flew alongside the PNG flag at City Hall on Sunday as part of celebrations to mark 1 December, which West Papuans consider their national day. It commemorates 1 December 1961 when the New Guinea Council – West Papuan parliament under Dutch colonial rule – raised the Morning Star flag for the first time, signaling the recognition by the Dutch of West Papua’s national symbols and statehood. Soon afterwards, Indonesia invaded and has brutally controlled the territory ever since. Every year on 1 December, flag-raisings and protests against Indonesian rule take place in West Papua and around the world.
But for PNG this was a first. And it was not without controversy.
Port Moresby governor Parkop raised the flag in defiance of a request from the prime minister not to do so. The day before, the visiting West Papuan leader in exile Benny Wenda and I – both on the official invitation of Parkop for the specific purpose of briefing parliament and attending associated events – were warned by a state official that we would be arrested, prosecuted and deported if we attended.

Jennifer Robinson received this letter from PNG officials. We refused to be intimidated and attended without incident. But police broke up the planned march, and I watched as three of the event organisers were arrested. The crowd sang as they were escorted by police, jubilant and defiant, to police vehicles. Parkop announced they were “heroes” and that their arrest was “a small price to pay” for such a historic event.
This sort of harassment and intimidation – and much worse – is common in Indonesia: peaceful protests like this in West Papua are met with violence and arrests. But it is unprecedented across the border in PNG. According to Parkop, it was "due to undue pressure from the Indonesian government".
At the same time, state officials all conceded that great sympathy exists for West Papua in PNG. Some alleged the harsh government response was not the result of Indonesian pressure and the fear of its military expansionist history but instead came from Australia, which is more invested in an Indonesian West Papua than any other state (PNG is heavily reliant on Australian aid, which raises questions about independent foreign policy).
But wherever the pressure comes from, Parkop has exposed 50 years of silence in PNG. Upon receiving an award for his efforts to protect West Papuan refugees and raise their claim to self-determination, he stated "we in PNG are not responsible for Indonesia’s occupation of West Papua but by our silence – and due to our fear – we are rendered complicit in Indonesia’s crimes against our fellow Papuans.” In so doing, Parkop has created a clear choice for PNG politicians: you can remain scared and silent, or you can stand up and support a dignified response to the issue of West Papua’s self-determination.
What isclear is that West Papua is fast becoming a domestic political issue for PNG, as it has already become in Vanuatu: the previous government lost power because of its failure to support West Papua’s cause, and the new government has raised West Papua in international forum. Government-sanctioned flag raisings attended by cabinet ministers took place in Vanuatu last weekend, and the prime minister met a West Papua rebel forces leader.
Speakers at the event in Moresby emphasised the fact PNG takes its own independence for granted, having been “handed it on a silver platter by Australia and the UN” while West Papua was betrayed by the Netherlands, Indonesia and the UN in the fraud was the Act of Free Choice. The 1969 vote was supposed to be a free and fair vote of the people to determine their future, as was required by international law. Instead, just 1,026 West Papuans (of an estimated population of a million) were forced to vote, under threat of violence, for annexation with Indonesia. It is no wonder that the vote is known to Papuans as the “Act of No Choice” and is universally condemned by academics and former UN officials alike. Parkop was uncompromising in his criticism, “I want to tell the Indonesian government that their claim to West Papua is based on fraud and lies."
Privately, Indonesia concedes that the military approach has failed; the transmigration and development approach has failed: ultimately, West Papuans do not – and will not ever – consider themselves Indonesian. Parkop believes that letting West Papua go would be good for Indonesia, providing an opportunity to redeem themselves in the eyes of their Melanesian and Pacific neighbours.
Events this week in Moresby represent a re-assertion of West Papua and PNG’s shared Melanesian identity through music, culture and reclamation of their ancestral lands. Indonesia’s myth of national identity has long been expressed by the geographical limits of the claimed nation. But this week, Wenda reclaimed his ancestral lands and the unity of the Melanesian peoples of New Guinea by launching his “Sorong to Samarai” campaign, calling on PNG and the states of Melanesia to throw off the shackles of their former – and current – colonial rulers. An independent island of New Guinea, West Papua and PNG, wealthy as they are, would fundamentally shift power relations in the region.
In the past weeks, very quietly, another historic but more significant and enduring event occurred: leadership from all factions in West Papua met in PNG to unite and develop a resolution for the future. The unanimous declaration – named the Gabagaba Resolution after the village where it was drafted – clearly articulated the desire for independence from Indonesia. The resolution was presented to PNG government ministers, calling upon PNG to provide equal protection to West Papuan refugees and to raise West Papua’s claim to self-determination internationally.
But for this to become a reality, more Melanesian leaders must show the kind of brave and principled leadership we are now seeing from Parkop in PNG or Vanuatu prime minister Moana Carcasses. It was clear that Parkop made a choice to speak out so forcefully, in the hope that .

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