Published in Jakarta Post
Dec. 1, which many supporters of the West Papuan freedom movement regard as West Papua’s national day, marks the date in 1961 when the New Guinea Council — the West Papuan parliament under Dutch colonial rule — raised the Morning Star flag for the first time.
The debate whether it was a plot by the Dutch colonial rulers to stir up conflict between the Indonesian government and the West Papuan indigenous people, or a genuine promise to grant independence to West Papua, no longer benefits anyone living in Papua.
Every year the Morning Star flag is raised or displayed in some areas, sometimes followed by a clash. Especially after the reform movement in 1998, the flag-raising has become a routine occasion for conflict between supporters of the Free West Papua movement and the security forces, especially in Papua and West Papua. The cycle of conflict symbolized by the flag-raising is akin to a hamster spinning around in his wheel, which is not funny at all for the hamster.
One of the iconic figures in such flag-raising incidents is Filep Jacob Samuel Karma, a Papuan independence activist who helped raise the Morning Star flag on Dec. 1, 2004, in Jayapura. He was then arrested and charged with treason and given a 15-year prison sentence. The case is just a small part of the bigger problem of West Papuan grievances.
Filep was finally released on Nov. 19 this year after 11 years behind bars. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention classified Filep’s detention as “arbitrary”, while Amnesty International designated him a prisoner of conscience.
The government has sought to reduce secessionist sentiment through democracy and the acceleration of economic and social development. However, it has failed in cultural recognition or to make sincere efforts to help Papuans live a better life since the beginning of Indonesian administration in West Papua, especially after the 1969 Act of Free Choice.
After the national reform movement of 1998, the two most significant democratic changes in Indonesia have been free and fair elections and decentralization or regional autonomy, and in the case of Papua and West Papua, special autonomy.
But economic wellbeing has increased demands for political participation, including the preference for an independent West Papua. Public dissatisfaction has been addressed to elected mayors and regents, governors, councilors, and also successive presidents.
At the extreme level, the combination of factors supporting conflict such as neglecting historical facts, social injustice, a heavy-handed security approach and mounting distrust has metamorphosed into a violent secessionist movement.
Indonesia’s “success stories” in resolving domestic conflicts in former East Timor and Aceh were a combination of external and internal efforts triggered by very harsh events. In East Timor, the human rights violations and international pressure intertwined with domestic democratization, while in Aceh, the tsunami, external support and domestic realization of the futility of war by both the central government and the Free Aceh Movement led to an agreement to end the conflict.
With such a limited experience of purely government initiatives in resolving its domestic conflicts, Indonesia needs to strengthen its democracy as the foundation for generating the initial moves in resolving the conflict in Papua.
With the success of “procedural democracy” through local elections at national, provincial and local levels — the latest on Dec. 9 — elected rulers should be able to create a stronger connection with their voters by recognizing the preferences of the people. “Substantive democracy” should be felt by all citizens of Indonesia.
After 32 years of authoritarian rule, it is proving difficult to build structures of civic participation based on mutual trust in West Papua and Papua. Although the reform movement turned 17 years old this year, the West Papua issue not only remains but also may reach the state of a “routine conflict”, where the only communication that the conflicting parties understand is violence or to agree to disagree.
The most difficult part of secessionist problems in a democratic state is the contradiction between freedom of political expression of the secessionist group and national integrity or sovereignty.
Part of the core of objective national interests of all countries is related to sovereignty over an internationally recognized physical geographic boundary.
According to Joseph Frankel in his 1970 book, National Interest, objective national interests are those that relate to a nation-state’s ultimate foreign policy goals.
These are permanent interests, comprising factors such as geography, history, neighbors, resources, population size and ethnicity. A secessionist problem within a democracy deteriorates in the absence of alternative channels of communications apart from incessant argument, diplomatic dispute, violent conflict and symbolic conflicts like the flag-raising issue.
Once in a philosophy research class, a professor showed a picture of an abstract geometric painting with lighting and shadows. However, as the professor explained, the cold dark matter was actually a garden shed. The shed had been blown up with explosives and all the debris was flying or lying on the floor.
The illustration not only suits the “explosive conflicts” that Indonesia has undergone since its independence, but also reflects the emotion of the conflicting parties. It doesn’t matter where we stand, everybody hurts. The trouble in rearranging the modern democratic Indonesia is somewhat like organizing historical facts, justice, emotions, sadness and bitterness, all in an atmosphere of residual conflict. The effort of the artist to arrest the moment where the pieces of the garden shed are still in the air is like carefully capturing the tangible and intangible factors of the social and political problem.
In former East Timor, how many social, political, and economic parts of interwoven fabric did Indonesia detonate? In Aceh, the most explosive event was the tsunami by Mother Nature. No one would like to experience another cold dark moment in Papua.
The writer is a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester, UK. The views expressed are his own.