This time last year I was in Papua New Guinea (PNG) to witness an historical moment: the Governor of its capital, Port Moresby, officially raising, for the first time, the flag of Indonesian-occupied West Papua. Known as the Bintang Kejora or Morning Star, it is the symbol of hope and freedom for people in neighbouring West Papua.
The date was 1 December. On this day West Papuans gather to raise their flag and remember when they were granted Independence from the Dutch in 1962. This freedom was very short-lived, with Indonesia taking control of the western side of the island of New Guinea, claiming it as a province of its own.
Depending on whom you ask, between 100,000 and 500,000 West Papuans have been killed since then, simply for being Papuan. Researchers at the universities of Yale and Sydney, as well as international human rights lawyers, describe it as genocide. West Papua rarely features in the international media, because foreign journalists can be arrested for reporting from there.
If Governor Powes Parkop had raised this flag across the border in West Papua, he would have been in trouble. Under Indonesian law it is illegal and can result in a severe prison sentence. Filep Karma knows this only too well. Karma, an Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience, has been detained in an Indonesian prison for 12 years, condemned for organising peaceful celebrations and raising his flag.
In the blazing midday sun of Port Moresby, I watched Governor Parkop give a speech. He called on his fellow countrymen and women to support their brothers and sisters across the border, saying that the time had come for Melanesians to stand up and speak out against the injustices happening in West Papua. The Governor himself defiantly hoisted the Morning Star from the City Hall, despite pressure from his government not to do so.
After the flag raising the police, who were watching the whole event, arrested three men. They were held in a cell and released a few days later. This was a blatant show of power by the Papua New Guinea police. They want to be seen by Indonesia to be doing something to prevent the growing support for an independent West Papua, as severe pressure has been put on them by Jakarta.
Events took place across Port Moresby. Independence leader Benny Wenda, who lives in exile in Oxford, sang with his wife Maria at a concert organized by the Governor for the people of his city. George Telek and the ‘Rize of the Morning Star’ music collective joined them on stage.
Telek, hugely popular throughout the Pacific, sang his ‘Free West Papua’ song, in Tok Pisin, pidgin. Then the Californian reggae band, Big Mountain (famed for their 1994 hit, ‘Baby, I Love Your Way’), who happened to be in town, joined everyone onstage for an epic rendition of Bob Marley’s ‘Get Up, Stand Up’, flanked by Morning Star flags. A very surreal experience indeed.
Music is integral to the Freedom movement. From the remote mountain villages of West Papua to its white sandy beaches, from the crowded rooms of refugee homes in Port Moresby to festivals in Australia and town halls in Oxford, West Papuan freedom songs sound loud and clear.
While in Port Moresby I visited some of the refugee settlements. The 11,000 West Papuan refugees currently living in PNG, some in horrific conditions, who were driven out of their homes by the Indonesian military, are rarely mentioned by the international community. Many of these refugees have been living in PNG for decades. One elder I spoke to told me how she made the long and unimaginably difficult journey from the West Papuan highlands, through mountains, thick forest and swamps to the border. It took her an entire year of walking.
A year after witnessing the raising of the flag in Port Moresby, I wonder: what has changed? There have been many positive developments in the call for self-determination for the people of West Papua. Just this month, the International Lawyers for West Papua was launched in The Hague and West Papuan refugees have been granted citizenship rights by the PNG government.
However, earlier this year West Papuan activists were attacked by security forces for urging people to boycott the Indonesian elections, and every week there are reports of West Papuans being put behind bars, beaten, raped and tortured for raising their flag, for being Papuan.
This 1 December the Free West Papua Campaign (FWPC), with branches in Holland, Australia and PNG and a wide international support network, is calling on people around the world to raise the Morning Star flag wherever they are.
You can join the International flag raising by taking a photo of yourself with the Morning Star and then posting it on the FWPC Facebook or twitter. Mountaineer Christian Welponer defied Indonesian authorities and raised the Morning Star on the peak of Punjak Jaya, the highest mountain in West Papua. That’s going to be tricky to beat.
There will be demonstrations and flag-raisings throughout West Papua and in cities in Europe, Australia, New Zealand/Aotearoa and throughout the Pacific.
On Monday you can join the London demonstration outside the Indonesian Embassy between 12 noon and 2pm.
And finally, if you want some musical inspiration, I recommend watching the video for the new single by the brilliantly outspoken Blue King Brown. ‘All Nations’ was exclusively launched on the Free West Papua Campaign website, with Morning Star flags a’flying.