JAKARTA, Indonesia — In several cities across West Papua, Indonesia’s last frontier of separatist instability, hundreds of demonstrators raised the Morning Star independence flag Tuesday in protest of what they say is more than 40 years of colonial occupation by Indonesia.
Police confirmed that at least 13 people had been arrested for raising the flag, a crime that carries a sentence of up to life in prison. Amnesty International estimates that dozens of other Papuans had been arrested previously this year for hoisting the flag, some of whom were beaten during and after their arrests.
Amnesty International also reported that at least one person had been killed, beaten to death by police, in April during another independence demonstration. Local media reports seeping out of the remote province Tuesday said police violently dispersed a protest in the capital of Jayapura. Other reports said police opened fire on or near a crowd, but that could not be independently verified.
The protests marked the 48th anniversary of when the Free Papua Movement first declared independence from the Dutch.
Information from within the resource-rich province of Papua, which occupies the western half of the island of New Guinea, is often difficult to come by. The foreign news media is banned from traveling to Papua under threat of deportation or even prosecution. Two Dutch video journalists who shot a Papuan protest in March were arrested, detained and swiftly deported.
But reports in the last year suggest there remains a sustained separatist presence in Papua and violence appears to be increasing. Several clashes between the Indonesian military and independence fighters preceded Indonesia’s national parliamentary elections in April, tensions that were only further stoked by the arrival in March of Nicolas Jouwe, the 85-year old founder of the Free Papua Movement who now lives in the Netherlands.
Jouwe came at the request of Indonesian authorities, who said at the time they hoped to begin discussions on a possible settlement of the decades-old conflict, one of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s central campaign pledges. No discussion ever took place.
Indonesia took over Papua from the Dutch in 1963 and in 1969 formalized its control over the region after a vote of some 1,000 Papuan community leaders that was widely thought to be rigged. The United States, which viewed Indonesia as an important ally against communism, backed the vote. A small group of armed rebels and other independence advocates have waged a low-level separatist campaign ever since.
Indonesia has long struggled to quell independence movements across the sprawling archipelago. East Timor became independent in 2002 after 24 years of Indonesian control and several years of United Nations administration. After East Timor voted for independence in 1999, Indonesian militias led a scorched-earth campaign that killed more than a 1,000 civilians and burned an estimated 70 percent of the country’s infrastructure.
A separatist movement in the northern-most province of Aceh battled the Indonesian military for almost 30 years before agreeing to a peace deal after the crippling tsunami in 2004.
The central province of Maluku has also sustained a small independence movement throughout the years. Two people were just arrested last week for raising separatist flags, days before the president traveled to Ambon, Maluku’s capital, to usher in the province’s World Peace Week.
Papua, however, represents the last real threat to the country’s unity. Papua is home to the world’s largest gold mine, owned by the American company Freeport-McMoran. Shootings, which have killed several people, including one Australian, along the road leading to the mine have plagued the company in recent months. Police have blamed separatists for those attacks.
Despite its massive store of natural resources, Papua’s development lags far behind that of the rest of the country. It still lacks basic public health programs, reliable electricity and water supplies.
As a concession to independence advocates, in 2001 legislators in Jakarta passed an autonomy law aimed at giving the region more local control and a greater share of mining, gas and timber revenues. Human rights groups, however, say the law has never been fully implemented and a portion of the funds have gone missing in a web of corruption.
In a letter to a newly appointed police chief in Papua, Amnesty International called for an investigation into the series of arrests and beatings at pro-independence rallies.
“We would like to raise to your attention a pattern of unchecked human rights violations by police in the Nabire district over the last year,” the organization wrote. “We would like to request that you take the lead in ensuring that independent, impartial and effective investigations into these reports be conducted immediately.”
Human Rights Watch called for an investigation into the beating of two men arrested in November who flew a makeshift version of the Morning Star flag in front of a crowd of no more than 35 people. More than 170 people are currently in jail throughout Indonesia for raising flags and other peaceful protests, according to Human Rights Watch.
“President Yudhoyono needs to end the arrests of people for simply raising a flag,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “These prosecutions fly in the face of Indonesia’s commitments to free expression.”