The Free Papua Movement

A series of rallies in Indonesia’s West Papua and Papua provinces is a reminder of the independence movement.

Twenty-one people are dead after a series of rallies in Indonesia’s remote West Papua and Papua provinces where, much to Jakarta’s annoyance, a nagging independence movement refuses to go away.

Protesters in traditional tribal dress defied a heavily armed police and military presence and marched across cities and towns, while sympathy meetings were held in London demanding a referendum on independence and repudiation of a 1969 vote.

That vote was backed by the United Nations and formalized Indonesian control over the region. However, Papuans claim only a thousand people participated after being bullied to the ballot box by Jakarta.

This week, protesters carried the Morning Star flag – the banner for independence – an offence in Indonesia, where displaying symbols of separatism is considered an act of treason.

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Of the dead, 17 were killed Saturday when fighting erupted between clans who backed rival candidates in upcoming district elections. Another four were hacked to death during an ambush Monday, with authorities from different government departments blaming the Free Papua Movement for all the deaths.

Indonesia has a long history of dealing with independence movements. More often it’s seen as a Javanese empire that rules its fringes – where ethnic differences are greatest – with a heavy hand, but only achieving mixed results as witnessed with East Timor and Aceh.

Jakarta granted resource-rich Papua special autonomy status a decade ago, including increased local control over tax revenues derived from local mining operations such as the massive Freeport McMoRan gold and copper mine.

However, protesters claim greater autonomy has been too little too late, with unemployment and poverty rates remaining stubbornly high while relations with Jakarta are persistently antagonized by allegations of human rights abuses blamed on Indonesian security forces and heavy migration into the provinces.

Spearheading calls for greater independence is the West Papua National Committee. It says police had blamed the Free Papua Movement – which has fought a motley low level conflict for independence over the last four decades – for the deaths to tarnish their legitimacy.

However, the authorities in Indonesia are facing the same headaches as governments elsewhere in the region when it comes to convincing a sceptical public with access to the internet and social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and independent online news sites.

This was evident during recent rallies in Kuala Lumpur calling for electoral reform, last year’s bloody stand-off between Red and Yellow Shirt protesters in Bangkok and the 2007 anti-government protests organized by Buddhist monks in Burma.

All three governments lost miserably in the court of public opinion, while in Thailand the prime minister was trounced at last month’s elections with the opposition winning by a landslide.

Events in Papua have a long way to go before they can threaten Jakarta at a similar level. However, the government’s previous efforts at defusing internal strife have been patchy at best, and perhaps it’s time it paid a little more attention to the Papuan independence movement.