Dec 03, 2023 Last Updated 8:29 PM, Nov 27, 2023

Competing Papuan identities

Published: Aug 07, 2019

A battle is looming between an emboldened pro-independence movement and Papuans who are pro-Indonesia

Petrus K Farneubun

Thirteen May 2019 began as a day of celebration for the graduating high school students of Kaimana, a regency in West Papua. Some of the students chose to celebrate by painting Papua’s Morning Star flag on their shirts for the ceremony. This apparently simple drawing would turn their day of celebration into something else entirely, ending with their brief arrest by police.

While the students of Kaimana would certainly have understood the potential risks involved in displaying the flag in this way, perhaps they thought they could get away with it on this occasion, or perhaps they felt that they could find no better way to express their joy than by wearing the flag, and that that in itself was worth the risk.

Reading the news about the arrest in May reminded me of an article, ‘Towards New Papua’, by prominent Papuan church leader Benny Giay, published in Inside Indonesia in 2001. Giay presented a thought-provoking thesis that ‘Papuans are Papuans, not Indonesians’. Therefore, Papuans cannot be made Indonesian. As he describes it, ‘in the Papuan mind, Papuans are Papuans. You cannot turn Papuans into Indonesians. Every Papuan, no matter who they are, believes that Indonesians and Papuans are different. This is borne out by experience.’

Not only does Giay’s account represent the way some Papuans, like the high school students, conceive their identity, but it also sent a strong signal that Papuan resistance against Indonesia would not be waning. The account also represents the complexity of the relationship Papuans have with Indonesians and the Indonesian state. For while Giay’s expression appears to be related to the cultural dimension of Papuan identity, its message has a strong political message. Some Papuans would understand it to be a declaration of a distinct Papuan identity, thereby reviving political opposition against the doctrine of Negara Kesatuan Republik Indonesia (NKRI, or the Unitary State of Indonesia).

Papuan identity revived

Although written 18 years ago, Giay’s argument still resonates in the hearts and minds of many Papuans. A strong conviction around the irreconcilability of Papuan and Indonesian identities is still widely embraced. As a lecturer at the University of Cenderawasih in Papua and as someone who has been living in Papua for over 20 years, I am witness to this. The rejection of the ‘Indonesianisation’ of Papua looms large in the minds of Papuans. This is despite continued development by central and provincial governments, notably in infrastructure and micro-economic empowerment projects, and despite special autonomy having been granted in 2001.

Recent years have shown a revival of Papuan identity across the province. A sign of this revival can be seen in the increased visibility of the Morning Star flag on t-shirts and traditional bags, and the performance of traditional dances and songs.

Children displaced by recent violence in Nduga remain in temporary shelter in Wamena / Hipolitus Wangge

This revival can also be seen on social media, particularly Facebook, a key political tool connecting Papuans and enabling and facilitating the spread of Papuan voices and their promotion of Papuan identity. For instance, in April 2019, the founder of Mambesak Group, which promotes Papua cultural identity through songs, took to Facebook to share stories and commentary on the assassination of Arnold Ap, who was murdered by the Indonesian Military in 1984 because he was considered a threat to NKRI.

On university campuses students continue to express their political and cultural opposition to Indonesia. In their protest marches they carry cultural symbols, wear t-shirts featuring the Morning Star flag, sing Papuan hymns and chant Papuan independence songs and slogans, such as ‘Kami bukan Indonesia, kami bukan Merah Putih; kami Bintang Kejora’ (We are not Indonesians, we are not the Red and White [the flag of Indonesia]; we are the Morning Star).

This anti-Indonesia sentiment may be traced back to 1961 when the first Congress was held and the Papuan National Committee issued its Political Manifesto in Hollandia (now Jayapura). At that time the committee requested, and the Netherlands administration agreed, that Netherlands New Guinea be named West Papua.

The Papuan national anthem Hai Tanaku Papua (Oh My Land Papua) was sung and the Morning Star flag flew for the first time alongside the Dutch flag. These symbols and expressions continue to play a central part in Papuans’ understandings of their identity and political history, and inspire their political movements.

Post-colonial identities

In the post-colonial era Papuan cultural identity was finally recognised with the introduction of the Special Autonomy Law No.21/2001. Article 2 of the law stipulates that West Papua may have regional symbols to demonstrate its cultural identity in the form of a flag and traditional hymns, but that they shall not be positioned as symbols of sovereignty. While this law has provided a legal defence of sorts, in practice it causes problems because raising the Morning Star flag is still considered a criminal offence.

The growing awareness of a Papuan identity, as separate from Indonesia, serves not only as a means but also an end; that is, political independence.

As a means, a Papuan identity is a unifying force for political independence. Papuans continue to demand independence by appealing to cultural difference, asserting that Papua is culturally and ethnically Melanesian, not Malay. This perceived difference was advanced through the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) established on 6 December 2014, which seeks to become a full member of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG).

The ULMWP lobbies for the cause of West Papua’s self-determination, both among Pacific states and at the United Nations. In September 2017 and again in January 2019, the ULMWP presented a petition to the UN signed by 1.8 million Papuans calling for a referendum to decide if West Papua should be re-listed as a non-self-governing territory on the agenda of the UN Decolonisation Committee . This petition garnered wide publicity and was condemned by the Indonesian government.

The pro-independence groups also claim that Papuan identity is under threat due to the influx of migrants to the region for several decades now and the expansion of development, which has led to economic and cultural marginalisation of the Papuan peoples themselves. Seceding from Indonesia is seen as a solution to prevent a further loss of Papuan cultural identity and economic marginalisation.

Growing support for NKRI

At the same time, Giay’s account of Papuan self-identity is being challenged by recent growing support for NKRI in Papua. In the last few years there has been a revival of pro-Indonesia sentiments by Papuans and organisations established by Papuans, in competition with Papuan nationalists.

Papuan support for Indonesia is not new. It goes back to the political developments in Papua under the Netherlands administration, particularly following the Pacific War and anti-Dutch revolts organised by Soegoro Atmosprasodjo, an Indonesian nationalist from Yogyakarta, who played an influential role in planting the seeds of Indonesian nationalism among Papuans. Frans Kaisiepo, who is now an Indonesian national hero, is a good example of Soegoro’s legacy.

The re-emergence of Indonesian nationalism among Papuans in the last few years has added a new political nuance to Papua’s future trajectory.

Infrastructure development in Papua, including this major road project, is a priority of Joko Widodo's administration / Instagram @Jokowi

Some prominent Papuan leaders, notably Nicholas Messett and the late Franzalbert Yoku, who were once at the forefront of the pro-independence fight, have more recently played important roles as spokespeople for Indonesia’s diplomatic lobbying; the two joined Indonesia’s delegations to the Pacific and the UN to counter the lobbying campaigns of the ULMWP. Their involvement is much debated among Papuans.

Richard Chauvel, a prominent expert in Indonesian history and politics (including West Papua), said recently that Yoku, in particular, had been a great asset for Indonesia’s lobbying in the Pacific because of his deep knowledge of Papua New Guinea politics and wide networks.

In addition to Messett and the late Yoku there are Papuans who occupy positions as senior officials in the provincial and district governments and also as elected politicians. This cooperating elite has expressed their support for Indonesia on a number of occasions but they are still, at times, critical of the Indonesian state. A recent example of this criticism was a petition signed after the violence of early December 2018, which killed 16 Indonesian construction workers. Signed by Governor of Papua Lukas Enembe and Nduga Regent Gwijangge, with the support of the provincial parliament and Papua’s People’s Assembly (MRP), the petition called for security forces to be withdrawn from Nduga Regency.

Enembe and his predecessor, Barnabas Suebu, have a long history of being critical of Jakarta policies on Papua, and Suebu is in prison for his indiscretions, charged with corruption.

In support of Indonesia, organisations such as Barisan Merah Putih (Red and White Garrison) and Barisan Rakyat Pembela NKRI/BARA (People’s Garrison for Defending NKRI), whose supporters are both Papuans and non-Papuans, have actively promoted NKRI in the past few years.

The newest of these organisations is Gerakan Rakyat Cinta NKRI (GERCIN), or the People’s Movement for Loving the Unitary State of Indonesia. This organisation is headed by Hendrik Yance Udam, a native Papuan who strongly supports the position that Papua’s integration into Indonesia is legal and finalised and that Papua will remain part of NKRI. This organisation is becoming increasingly popular with members across Indonesia, made up not only of Papuans but also non-Papuan Indonesians. On several occasions, it has held audiences with government and security officials and has participated in activities with them, signalling their close relationship to the authorities.

For example, on the anniversary of Papua’s integration into Indonesia this year, 1 May 2019, GERCIN, joined by Papuan elites and security officials, took to the street in Jayapura wearing t-shirts that read ‘I Love NKRI’.

Local flags and hymns

Meanwhile, the government and security forces in Papua increasingly restrict and prohibit the use of Papuan cultural symbols such as flags, songs and hymns, which according to Jakarta carry Papuan nationalist sentiments and are symbols of sovereignty.

Under President Abdurrahman Wahid (in office from 1999 to 2001), raising the Morning Star flag was permitted as long as it flew beside the Indonesian flag, and lower than it. Then, in 2007 under President Yudhoyono a new regulation, No. 77/2007, banned all Papuan cultural symbols that represent a separatist movement.

The details of the regulation included acceptance that symbols, including flags and hymns, could express and promote a local cultural identity without necessarily symbolising regional sovereignty, but stipulation that hymns in particular must include promotion of national unity and have no association with the hymns of separatist organisations.

Following this and other national regulations issued over a decade ago, the restriction of local symbols continued to increase and has led to numerous arrests.

Papuan separatism will continue to be a very inconvenient fact for Indonesia as it seeks to secure and maintain NKRI. What is also clear is that this independence movement will face a challenge from the growing Papuan support for NKRI – a situation in which the Indonesian government and Papuans must be careful to prevent an outbreak of horizontal conflict between the two Papuan groups: pro-independence and pro-NKRI.

Petrus K Farneubun ( is a lecturer at Cenderawasih University in Papua. He is currently pursuing his doctoral study at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, doing research on Indonesia-China relations under President Yudhoyono.


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