The Morning Star

Pacific & Asia
Ikaika M Hussey

Rosa Moiwend sits in the lobby of a posh Berkeley hotel, cradling a small piece of nylon between two well-worn hands.

“This could get us arrested,” she says. “Sometimes we just paint it on the ground, and the police get upset. But we tell them it’s just paint.”

She’s holding a flag, the Bintang Pagi or “Morning Star,” a red, white and blue banner of Dutch origin which has become a symbol of West Papuan independence from Indonesia. For 50 years, West Papua groups have sought independence from Indonesia, following centuries of colonization by the Dutch. Hundreds of people have been victims (and some survivors) of brutal arrests, extrajudicial killings and political imprisonment, by troops trained by the United States, often in Hawaii. The incidences paint a picture of an insecure, brutal Indonesian regime bent on maintaining its control of the western half of New Guinea, international companies eager to retain access to abundant natural resources, and the most disastrous human rights issue in the Pacific.


Siegfried Zollner has lived as a missionary in Papua for more than 50 years, part of a coalition of churches and human rights activists campaigning to end the violence in Papua. He recounted in their latest report on human rights in Papua how he witnessed the establishment of Indonesian control over the territory from a unique vantage point – via static-filled radio from a remote Papuan village.

“From the very beginning, Indonesia treated the free and proud owners of the Land of Papua as enemies of the State, and as second or even third-class citizens,” he writes in the report. “The Secret Service placed their spies everywhere. The political elite among the Papuans – who on the whole were well-disposed towards the Dutch – were sought out, imprisoned, tortured, and murdered. Those who had been open to Indonesia at first were deeply disappointed.”

In the early 60’s the Dutch placed what was then West New Guinea on the U.N. list of Non-Self-Governing Territories, a committee that was tasked by the General Assembly to transition the former colonies to independence. Countries on that list are supposed to go through a process of education and voting, but like many there – Tahiti, Puerto Rico, Guam, Hawaii – the process dead-ends at real geopolitics.

From his radio, Zollner heard the news: the United Nations, which had taken over administration of the former Dutch colony, would hand West Papua over to Indonesia as part of the “New York Agreement.” Indonesia wanted West Papua, and the U.S. wanted Indonesia to stop accepting arms from the Soviets. It was a deal which secured natural resources for mineral-poor Indonesia, and also kept Indonesia tightly within the bounds of the American lake. The deal needed a vote, so one was had in 1969, involving 1,022 men, who voted to integrate with Indonesia.

Indonesia inherited several things from the Dutch: tremendous natural resources; diverse and divergent ethnic groups; and a penal code, designed in the 19th century to maintain foreign rule over the East Indies. In that code, police officers are allowed to act without retribution. The penal code was declared illegal under international law, but that hasn’t prevented its use. Megawati, the daughter of Sukarno, pledged to stop the use of politically-motivated arrests and extrajudicial to quiet the uprest in West Papua. But the arrests continue.

One of those imprisoned was Filep Karma, a civil servant who was arrested in 1998 and then again in 2004 for raising the Morning Star flag at a demonstration in Jaiyapura. He and another campaigner, Pakage were arrested. In the days that followed, the Indonesian security forces occupied Karma’s community of Biak. Karma has said in previous reports that the Indonesian military killed at least 100 people. According to reports from the trial, the judge in his trial mocked his Christian beliefs and issued a sentence of 15 years, three times longer than the prosecution’s request. In response, 26 members of the U.S. Congress to wrote a letter protesting the sentence. “Mr. Karma’s case represents an unfortunate echo of Indonesia’s pre-democratic era,” the legislators said, referring to the Suharto years.

Indonesia insecure

Octovianus Mote told me in a Facebook chat that he was sitting in front of a fire in his Hamden, Connecticut home. Prior to 1999, he worked for 13 years as the West Papua bureau chief for Indonesia’s widely-read Kompas newspaper. He is now a fellow at Yale’s law school. There’s no specific legal mention of a ban on the flag, he says, “But since they identify it as part a political movement to create a separate Papua from the unitary state of Indonesia, anything in that category is forbidden.”

“We cannot sing our national anthem, or raise the flag, or any other identity that is categorized as a symbol of building a West Papua nationality,” Mote said via phone from his Hamden, Connecticut home. “This month, Indonesian military conducted a sweep in the highlands. Where they found any Melanesian music, they destroyed mobile phones, radios, everything.”

“If they find people with Afro hair, they order them right there to cut it. The Indonesian government cannot distinguish ethnic from national identity,” Mote said.

In a 2004 paper written for the East-West Center, Rodd McGibbon examined some of the roots of Papua’s troubles. “Rapid modernization and demographic change have resulted in the displacement and dislocation of Papua’s indigenous population, fueling Papuan resentment and persistent demands for independence,” he writes. That demographic change was the result of state-sponsored transmigration programs to homogenize and integrate the population of West Papua with the greater Indonesian population, followed by market-driven migration. He continues:

Better-educated settlers have dominated the growing market economy and, in the process, sidelined Papuans from the resulting economic benefits. Large-scale flows of migration into the province have also sharpened Papuans’ sense of shared identity. Together these processes of marginalization and mass migration have given rise to a collective sense among Papuans that they are facing a serious threat to their demographic and cultural survival.

The Indonesian state has worked hard to bring Papua into its fold, the evidence of which is the state’s prickly insecurity at the possibility of the opposite. A group of women baked a cake in the likeness of the flag, and gave it as a gift to the local police chief; they were arrested, Rosa said. In November 2010, nine Papuans were arrested for carrying the Morning Star flag to a funeral in Yalennga, in the central highlands of Papua, at the request of the deceased. According to a 2013 report, they were stopped by the military, beaten, tortured, before being given eight year sentences.


West Papua has the dubious distinction of being the home to the world’s largest largest copper and gold mine. A giant pit in the earth, the Grasberg mine is majority-owned by Arizona’s Freeport McMoran. The mine is the single largest contributor of tax revenue to the Indonesian state.

In 1977, the organization Free Papua Movement blew up a major slurry pipe to the mine. In response, the Indonesian military massacred over 800 people.

Today, Freeport’s importance to the Indonesian economy is of such paramount importance that The New York Times reported recently that Freeport had secretly paid $20 million to Indonesian military and police ranking officers to protect the mine.

And this is where the story comes home for Hawaii. Hawaii is the host to Garuda, a joint U.S.-Indonesia military training program. In 2008 Linda Lingle led a delegation to Indonesia which included military training. And the U.S. recently transferred 24 F-16 Fighter jets and “Apache” attack helicopters to Indonesia.

To put this into proper context, it’s worth considering that in it’s young history, Indonesia has never been attacked. It’s military exists to maintain the social and economic order of the world’s fastest-growing Muslim country, and a major American ally.

All that is told in the red hue of the flag. Rosa is being sent as a delegate from West Papua to New York City, where she will be speaking to groups about the situation in her home. The issue hasn’t gained the traction of East Timor (another Indonesian breakaway republic). But she’s hopeful.

“Justice and peace are like a morning star,” she said. “It always comes before the sunrise, meaning the beginning of the day and hope. Red represents the brave heart, heroism and fighting for freedom.”

Photo by Graham Crumb