In the midst of violent clashes between Indonesian authorities and pro-independence activists in West Papua, peaceful campaigners face life in prison for raising the flag of freedom.
On 3 September 2019, Sayang Mandabayan’s plane had just touched down at Rendani Airport in Manokwari, West Papua. As she walked through the terminal, airport authorities stopped her and took her to a small room. There her bag was searched, revealing 1,500 flags bearing the Morning Star of West Papua, which she was carrying on her way to a peaceful protest. Police immediately detained Mandabayan and transported her to a small gaol cell in Manokwari Police Detention Centre, where she has remained since.
In Indonesia, the seemingly innocent act of possessing the flag of the Free Papua Movement is considered a crime. Under Government Regulation 77, possession of provincial logos or flags is illegal, with the punishment determined by ministerial decision.
Herman Wainggai of the West Papuan Human Rights Center, who first brought the incident to light, says that Mandabayan has since been charged with subversion – equivalent to treason. The maximum penalty that may be given to pro-independence activists under the Indonesian Penal Code is life in prison. Mandabayan has three children, one of them still in need of breastfeeding. She has been permitted to keep her youngest child with her in the cell, however, it is uncertain whether she will be allowed access to her other children.
Photos obtained from Mandabayan’s supporters depict her sitting cross-legged on the bare concrete of her gaol cell, feeding her baby. Andreas Harsono of Human Rights Watch has visited many political prisoners gaoled in Indonesia and says the conditions inside detention centres such as Manokwari are “horrible”. Harsono describes tiny cells, a lack of running water, inadequate bedding and medical care, poor food quality and overcrowding. Many inmates suffer from skin diseases as a result.
According to Harsono, Mandabayan has now been fired from her position as a councilwoman for the Perindo Party of Sorong, due to her arrest. She is a prominent member of several non-violent pro-independence groups in West Papua, which call for the right to self-determination for their people.
The area known collectively as West Papua covers the western half of the island of New Guinea. It has been occupied by Indonesia since 1962 after the Netherlands relinquished their former colony the previous year. Following negotiations between the two countries, the United Nations oversaw an Independence Referendum in 1969. Around 1,000 West Papuans – approximately 0.1% of the Indigenous population at the time – were permitted by the Indonesian Government to vote. The decision to join Indonesia was unanimous.
The region, now delineated as the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua, was granted special autonomous status. However, 50 years later, many West Papuans continue to call for a second referendum on the issue of independence.
Violence has escalated in the provinces over the past month, beginning with an incident where West Papuan students were taunted with racist slurs and power to the building in which they were barricaded was cut. Police later entered the building and reportedly fired tear gas at the students, some of whom were injured.
The situation sparked widespread outrage and protests, quickly intensifying to the point where several Government buildings were burned down, numerous deaths were reported and internet services to the region were cut by the Government.
Harsono reports that Mandabayan's arrest is one of 15 that have occurred in the past two weeks for the offence of carrying the Morning Star flag. This number includes another woman, Naliana Wasiangge and two presidents of university student groups.
It is estimated that more than 1,000 West Papuan activists each year are arrested for raising the flag, and until recently, most of them were only detained for around 24 hours. The 15 activists reported by Human Rights Watch are still in detention and awaiting trial. Based on his knowledge of previous cases of this nature, Harsono says it is unlikely that Mandabayan and her fellow activists will receive a fair trial.
President Joko Widodo has been responsible for the release of many political prisoners after rising to power in 2014. However, Harsono says “Indonesia is going back to square one with the arrests in recent weeks”.
He believes that this is due to two main factors: the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the passage of discriminatory legislation, as well as an increase in military authoritarianism. A large percentage of Indigenous West Papuans identify as Christian and are considered a minority in the two provinces.
Meanwhile, Wainggai says Indonesian police have banned Mandabayan’s friends and family from further visits. On their last visit to her cell, she gave a handwritten letter to her supporters, with a message:
'To my fellow West Papuan women. I hope you keep speaking and not backing down.'
Sarah Jacob is an Australian freelance writer. She has a background in conservation science and education, and writes on environmental and human rights issues.
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