Nov 17, 2018 Last Updated 12:17 PM, Nov 15, 2018

Raising the West Papua flag

Published: Sep 22, 2007

An eyewitness watches the Irian Jaya independence movement grow.


Andrew Kilvert

Raising the West Papua flag is one of the key forms of resistance to Indonesia's 30 year rule over the province of Irian Jaya. Usually done in remote areas out of sight of the authorities and with all the trappings of nineteenth century colonialism, flag raisings are considered to be spiritual as well as political events by many Irianese. Reminiscent of the Papua New Guinea cargo cults which treat the symbols of colonial wealth and power as the actual key to that power, many Irianese people vest the West Papua flag with the power to influence the Indonesian occupation of their country.

Flag raisings are also taken very seriously by the Indonesian authorities. In 1996 Thomas Wanggai died in a Jakarta prison after receiving a life sentence for raising the West Papua flag in Jayapura. His wife received eight years for making the flag.


This year with Suharto gone and the military in flux, flag raisings took place for the first time in many of the urban centres in the province: Jayapura, Nabire, Sorong, Wamena, and Biak.

On July the 1st about 3,000 people assemble in central Jayapura in front of the provincial government building, whilst riot police and the military (Abri) take up positions around the town. The demonstrators begin making speeches and singing the independence anthem Papua Merdeka, 'Free Papua'.

The atmosphere is extremely tense as the flag is paraded up and down the street in front of the government building. Everybody is expecting the shooting to start at any minute. There are false alarms as either a warning shot is fired into the air or a policeman hits his riot shield with his baton. When this occurs the crowd panics and begins to flee. These people are then called back and the demonstration resumes. This happens three times during the afternoon.

As I move among the circle of supporters and spectators surrounding the demonstration, many of those standing close to cover ready to duck the shooting ask me to take pictures of the riot police and Abri. They are asking me to tell the outside world about their desire for independence. Some come up to me and whisper about how good life was under the Dutch and how difficult life is under Indonesian rule.

This rally is comprised of a big mixture of Irianese people, old, young, men and women. Some are educated white collar workers from Jayapura, but many are villagers who have come in for the event. There are even a few people born in Irian Jaya but of Javanese descent, here supporting the demonstrators.

One of the key problems in Irian Jaya is associated with land use and ownership. The Indonesian authorities have refused to recognise indigenous land use. Just as Australia was colonised on the basis of terra nullius, so too the Indonesian authorities consider land not being actively cultivated to be unused, even though it may be being used as part of a cycle of shifting agriculture, or for hunting or medicinal purposes.

The Indonesian response to questions of indigenous land rights is always: 'We are all indigenous Indonesians'.

This was highlighted in last year's Jakarta Festival, where cultural groups from all over Indonesia appeared in their traditional dress and performed dances. The group representing Irian Jaya were not Melanesian at all but Javanese migrants to Irian Jaya, dressed in a crude parody of traditional Papuan costume.


This confusion over culture and identity leads to the ambiguity of the term 'Irianese'. Indigenous Melanesians use it to describe themselves, as opposed to the Javanese. Other terms such as 'Papuan' and 'West Papuan' are considered treasonous and certainly cannot be used in public, although they are used in private.

The term 'Irianese' is supposed to include all people who live in Irian Jaya, including recent Javanese migrants. But in common usage it now means Melanesian. West Papuans who live outside Irian Jaya are much more likely to call themselves West Papuan than people inside. This is not because of differing sympathies but purely for reasons of personal safety.

After the first demonstration in Jayapura, Abri and the officially controlled local media blame the trouble on 'wild terrorist gangs' (GPK) from Black Water, a refugee camp on the Papua New Guinea side of the border.

As the protests continue Abri turn this blame onto the churches of this predominantly Christian territory, whom they accuse of inciting dissent within their congregations.

On July the 2nd there is to be a similar rally in Jayapura exclusively for white collar workers. However the town had been sealed off with barricades and lines of riot police. Jayapura, usually a bustling city, is silent and deserted except for police and Abri.

The following day another rally takes place at the Cenderawasih (Bird of Paradise) University. During the rally an undercover military intelligence agent who has infiltrated the crowd is identified by the students and beaten. After this the military open fire on the crowd, killing third year law student Steven Suripatti and wounding high school student Ruth Omin.

In the days prior to the demonstration many people had been talking about East Timor and its campaign for independence. Some believe that East Timor has already achieved independence. The general sentiment is that if East Timor can secede then Irian Jaya deserves independence as well.


Support for secession from Indonesia is extremely widespread amongst the Melanesian population. A number of factors drives this desire. The history of large scale military action against Irianese villagers in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s has left long standing resentment. This is despite the fact that in the past decade these operations have decreased in scale, although they do still occur, most notably in the remote area where the foreign hostages were taken by independence rebels (Organisasi Papua Merdeka) in early 1996. Even the Red Cross has recently publicly criticised the Indonesian authorities because it has been excluded from providing drought aid to this area.

This military oppression is coupled with a growing resentment against the transmigration projects, which the Irianese see as land theft. So far over a million hectares of lowland sago swamp and rain forest have been cleared to make way for the transmigrants. There are plans to clear another million hectares in the next ten years.

At the current rate of expansion of the Javanese population in Irian Jaya it is believed that the Irianese will be a minority by the year 2010. Jayapura is already an Indonesian city in Melanesia.

A further factor which drives resentment in urban areas is that Melanesians are treated as second class citizens within the social hierarchy, with different rates of pay for the same work often set on the basis of race. At the heart of the resistance though is the simple and extremely widespread belief that Irian Jaya belongs to the Irianese.

Even many Irianese within the police and military support the independence movement. This was certainly evident on the island of Biak, where demonstrators kept the West Papua flag aloft for six days.


During that time the police unsuccessfully negotiated with the protesters to remove the flag. They brought in some of the elders of the community to try to persuade the protesters to remove the flag but they refused, despite the fact that Abri had brought in another battalion from Ambon Island.

At 5:30am on the 7th of July, Abri opened fire on the demonstrators with a combination of rubber bullets and live ammunition. Probably 24 people were killed in the initial shooting. An accurate figure as to the total number of casualties is impossible to get, because on the day following the shooting, Abri went from door to door arresting people and in some cases killing them in their homes.

Some of those arrested by Abri have since been found floating in the ocean, others were seen being put on Garuda flights to Jakarta.

The other contributing factor to the uncertain death toll is that Abri occupied the hospital, and the wounded were unable to seek proper medical treatment. There were also reports that the wounded detained in the hospitals were being denied treatment.

There is a popular belief throughout Irian Jaya that white people are going to come and rescue the Irianese from the Indonesians. This belief can be traced back to Biak mythology which holds that when a person dies they become white. Dutch colonialists unwittingly perpetuated this myth by coming along with remarkable technology (in the eyes of the locals) and an often superior attitude.

Because of their sea-faring history, the people from Biak Island have had the most outside contact of any of the peoples in Irian Jaya. They tend to be fairly sophisticated, often taking the white collar or teaching jobs in the towns. They also tend to travel more, which could account for the spread of the white myth throughout Irian Jaya.

Regardless of the unlikely event that white people will intervene in Irian Jaya, the Irianese themselves have seen a window of opportunity with the departure of Suharto and the resulting confusion within Abri. They are pressing it hard.

November contains another significant date for the West Papua independence campaign, and will likely produce more demonstrations. The issue will continue to ferment until either independence is achieved or until a compromise is reached which recognises indigenous land ownership and goes some way towards redressing the human rights abuses which continue to occur in the province.

Andrew Kilvert is a media student at Southern Cross University, Lismore, Australia.

Inside Indonesia 56: Oct-Dec 1998

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