It may not look very scary to you or me, but to the Government of Indonesia a simple bag is a dangerous threat to the ‘unity of the nation’.

Earlier this year two West Papuan women, Yohana Pekei and Nelly Pigome, were interrogated by Indonesian police and intelligence agents because they make bags and sell them for a few cents to help support their families. What makes these bags so threatening is the star woven into their design. The Morning Star is the symbol of West Papua’s dreams of independence from Indonesia.

Successive Indonesian regimes have considered raising the Morning Star flag itself as ‘rebellion against the state’, with 10- or 15-year jail sentences commonplace for ‘offenders’. Now, thanks to a recently introduced law, it is a criminal offence even to ‘display, sell or use… any flag or logo used by separatist movements’. With Indonesia’s colonial governor in West Papua, Barnabas Suebu, ordering the police to enforce the new law, Yohana and Nelly’s bag is now illegal. When a state does not enjoy the support of the entire population of a territory it claims as its own, it cannot dare to allow even the smallest sign of dissent.

On 1 May this year West Papuan independence activists marked the 45th anniversary of Indonesian occupation. Ten years after the fall of the dictator Suharto, an event which was supposed to herald a new era of openness and democracy, Indonesia is plumbing new depths in its attempts to keep its grasp on West Papua. In December, prosecutors seized 60 copies of a book by Papuan academic Sendius Wonda entitled The Sinking of the Melanesian Race: The Political Struggle in West Papua. Rudi Hartono, Chief of Indonesian Intelligence (BIN), claimed that the book ‘could spark unrest and divide the Papuan community’. He said that the BIN would continue raiding bookstores in their search for more copies.

The book and the bag are indicative of a truth which the Indonesian Government does not want to hear, even from its own sources: that the vast majority of West Papuans want independence. Unlike foreign academics or journalists, Muridan S. Widjojo is given free access to West Papua by the Indonesian military. He is a senior political sciences academic at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, yet in February 2007 he admitted with remarkable candour: ‘We have to realize that deep inside, almost every Papuan wants to be free from Indonesia.’

Even Barnabas Suebu echoed these sentiments prior to his current period in power as Governor. In 2000 West Papua was enjoying the so-called ‘Papuan Spring’ – the brief period of openness which followed the collapse of the Suharto dictatorship. It was an era destined to be cruelly closed with the November 2001 assassination of West Papuan independence leader Theys Eluay by Indonesian Special Forces. Speaking to Tempo magazine in 2000, Suebu declared: ‘I predict [that if a referendum is held] there will be a greater preference for independence. So, this is a serious matter. I hope no-one will say again that this is the wish of a trivial few. The people of Papua insist on independence, but Jakarta rejects it.’

A Papuan bag and a Papuan book. Indonesia is indeed very scared... of the truth.

Richard Samuelson
Free West Papua Campaign