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Flying the flag of reform?

May 19, 2015

New Mandala – May 12, 2015

Flying the flag of reform?

James Giggacher — This weekend has seen some possibly big developments in Papua,
where Indonesia President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo has released five political prisoners
in the disaffected provinces.

He’s also promised long-shut out foreign journalists full access to the region, which
has been home to a decades-long separatist movement.

The call for independence has seen an almost 50-year insurgency between poorly-armed
locals and government forces in the eastern edge of Indonesia’s sprawling
nation-state. Claims that locals are unfairly targeted by Indonesian security forces
are not uncommon.

The five prisoners — Kimanus Wenda, Jefrai Murib, Apotnalogolik Lokobal, Numbungga
Telenggen and Linus Hiluka — were arrested in 2003 for a raid on a military arsenal.
In a ceremony at Abepura prison in the provincial capital Jayapura, Jokowi shook
their hands and gave them their tickets home — letters of clemency waiving their
remaining jail time.

"Today we are releasing these five detainees to stop the stigma of conflict in Papua,"
Jokowi said. "We need to create a sense of peace in Papua. This is just the beginning."

Building on earlier assurances to improve the livelihood of locals who are heavily
reliant on development assistance from Jakarta, these latest moves seem to indicate
that Jokowi is loosening Indonesia’s tight grip on the mineral-rich Papua. But as
with most things, the devil is in the detail — or lack of it.

While the release of prisoners in the name of peace might be a welcome move, there
is one big unanswered question; what is now the status of the Morning Star flag and
other explicit rallying points of pro-independence sentiment?

The Morning Star has become the potent symbol of Papua’s calls for independence —
a ‘freedom flag’ that sings to the soul with all the lyrical and symbolic stir of
a tartan-clad Mel Gibson facing down an army of English pikemen and Welsh archers
in Scotland. It was the flag that flew when the colonial Dutch finally clogged it
back to their dikes way back in 1961.

Jakarta takes a dim view of it at the best of times. In 2013, six men were arrested
for raising the flag to mark the 50th anniversary of Indonesian occupation of the
territory. They faced a possible 15 years in jail. One of the men was so badly beaten
by police his trial was delayed.

So the question remains; with the Morning Star shining a light on Papua demands to
break away from the sovereignty-sensitive Jakarta, will prosecutors and judges
continue to charge and convict Papuans who peacefully raise flags (whether for
treason or some lesser charge)? If yes then nothing has changed and there will
continue to be political prisoners.

Even if all current prisoners are released, they are likely to be replaced by new
ones in no time, a delegation of pro-independence Papuans was charged with treason
as they landed in Jayapura airport after a mysterious meeting with Minister of
Defence, Ryamizard Ryacudu.

According to rights monitors, who have slammed the arrests as spurious, the five
men have been charged with treason under article 106 of the criminal code for wanting
to secede from the Republic of Indonesia and could face anywhere between 20 years
and life in prison.

This also raises the question of what happens if the raising of the flag and
pro-independence speeches doesn’t see Papuan activists arrested. Will Jokowi and
his government have the stomach for louder calls for independence in Papua? There’s
also the question of how he will react to foreign leaders calling for change in Papua.

In all of this, Jokowi once again shows that substance cannot be substituted for
a smile and a photo-op. He’s not given any indication on how he would like authorities
to react the next time the Morning Star flag is hoisted again — as it will inevitably

Unlike in 1998, when the release of the New Order’s political prisoners was
accompanied by the abolition of the notorious Anti-Subversion law, there has been
no discussion of how judges and prosecutors should interpret the treason articles
that Papuan activists are currently jailed for. This is therefore about more than
a question of political prisoners; this is about legal processes and how activists
end up in jail in the first place. This is about reformasi — or lack thereof.

Releasing current prisoners does not resolve the policy question of how the
government responds to non-violent pro-independence speech. And it hardly draws a
map to long-term reform.

If the current 90 or so prisoners currently locked up re-engage in peaceful protest
will they be thrown back in jail? Or is clemency contingent on becoming a loyal
citizen? Authorities appear to assume the existence of an implicit bargain:
prisoners are released, but Papuans should in return stop voicing pro-independence

It is very possible that Jakarta will try to have it both ways — release some, or
even all, current inmates, but continue to declare the Morning Star a "banned" flag,
and allow security forces to act against pro-independence activists.

The fact that they gave clemency to this particular group, who were involved in an
ammunitions raid in 2003, rather than a flag raising, is telling. The five had already
served 12 years of their 20-year sentence, and it is very possible they were up for
release soon in any case.

It would seem that in Papua, there is a long way to go before anyone can pin their
flag to the mast of reform.

[James Giggacher is editor of New Mandala and associate lecturer in the Coral Bell
School of Asia Pacific Affairs.]

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