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Are Morning Stars starting to fade in Papua?

Low turnout for 'republic day' indicates Indonesia's crackdown on independence supporters is starting to bite

Are Morning Stars starting to fade in Papua?

Papuan students rally in Jakarta in August 2019 to protest against the arrest of 40 students in Surabaya in East Java province several days earlier. (Photo supplied)

The 50th anniversary of the declaration of the Republic of West Papua on July 1 was expected to be a special day for Papuans. 

Along with Independence Day on Dec. 1 — the day in 1961 when the Dutch gave Papuans their freedom — the declaration of the republic is a very important one on the separatist calendar.

It dates back to July 1, 1971, when the leaders of the Free Papua Movement (OPM), which has opposed Indonesian rule since the transfer of West Papua by the Netherlands to Indonesia and a “rigged” referendum that officially made it a province in September 1969, unilaterally declared independence.

The declaration was followed by the formation in 1973 of the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB), which became the military wing of the OPM.

In recent years, it has become quite common to see thousands of Papuans, both at home and across Indonesia, take to the streets waving the banned independence symbol, the Morning Star flag, to demand justice for human rights violations and freedom.

However, this was not the case last week despite repeated calls from pro-independence activists to mark the event.

Some have asked whether the low turnout signaled a decline in support for the independence cause

Some had predicted that this year’s special anniversary would see a bigger turnout despite the pandemic fears. But all was largely quiet other than a few statements from members of TPNPB.

In a message published by Suara Papua, the group said it will not stop waging war against Indonesia until Papua gets its independence. It threatened to kill anyone collaborating with security forces and demanded local leaders stop seeking to extend special autonomy status for the region.

Some have asked whether the low turnout signaled a decline in support for the independence cause or was a result of pandemic fears or an increase in anti-terrorism measures in the restive region.

It was unlikely the pandemic because even social media messages were few and far between. 

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Some things have changed since the Indonesian government declared the TPNPB and its supporters as terrorists in April, adding to pressure on separatists brought earlier by Operation Nemangkawi, an anti-terrorism campaign waged by the security forces since 2018.

This pressure was seen on the eve of the July 1 anniversary when government forces stepped up security measures in anticipation of large-scale demonstrations in the region. It sent a strong message to the Papuans and separatist groups that the government would not tolerate acts of defiance.

A few days earlier, the Nemangkawi task force issued a statement claiming a major success over armed separatist groups.

Police Commissioner Muhammad Iqbal Alqudussy said at least eight armed separatists have been killed and 11 others arrested during operations against rebels so far this year. He also revealed government forces had captured the TPNPB headquarters and confiscated an array of weapons.

Despite more than 20 other people being killed, including seven soldiers and two policemen, the task force said it was a successful operation that had restored security and social order to the region.

The violence is far from over as the Indonesian government has decided to extend the Nemangkawi operation.

Things are likely to get worse for separatists as the new terrorism status gives anti-terror unit Densus 88 more scope to operate

Observers and rights activists warned that labeling the TPNPB and supporters of the Free Papuan Movement as terrorists would have a big impact on Papuans.

Things are likely to get worse for separatists as the new terrorism status gives anti-terror unit Densus 88 more scope to operate. As of now, national police chief Gen. Listyo Sigit Prabowo has not used it.

Terrorism experts believe that if Densus 88 is deployed, it will lead to more arrests as it has the authority to arrest even those who only voice support for independence.

In any event, branding the TPNPB as a terrorist group has escalated violence in recent months and resulted in many people laying low and refraining from commenting on anything related to the Papuan struggle.

The quiet passing of the Republic of West Papua anniversary is a testament to this and shows people are fearful of what the Indonesian government will do next.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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