On November 28, East Timorese celebrate the anniversary of the day in 1975 when their country was declared an independent nation and they raised their flag for the first time. On December 1, West Papuans also remember the day in 1961 when they declared independence and their flag, the Morning Star or Bintang Kejora, was first raised. However it is likely that any celebrations there will be broken up with brutality by Indonesian security forces.
The newly independent nations of East Timor and West Papua were both crushed by Indonesia shortly after declaring independence. Australia turned a blind eye on both occasions, and continued to ignore the brutality by which Indonesia sought to keep control of both countries.
Max Stahl’s film documenting the massacre of over 250 East Timorese who were walking with East Timor flags to the Santa Cruz cemetery (described by Ross Eastgate here on Flat White) was a turning point for East Timor, not because the Santa Cruz massacre was worse than any previous massacre by Indonesian forces (it wasn’t) but because the film was seen by the international community, and Australia and other nations could no longer pretend that all was well in Indonesian occupied East Timor.
Not so well known is the Biak massacre, on the Island of Biak, West Papua, where, in July 1998, local people raised the Morning Star flag and peacefully demonstrated for the right to vote on their political future.
There was a rumour that a UN team was about to visit Biak, however instead of sympathetic visitors from the UN, Indonesian security forces arrived and opened fire on the unarmed men, women and children assembled near the water tower in Biak town where the flag had been raised.
Around 200 people were captured, loaded on to military trucks, taken to a naval base, then transferred to Indonesian naval ships, taken out to sea, stabbed, mutilated and dumped overboard. Bodies were found later drifting in the water or washed up on beaches. The Indonesian claim that they were victims of a tsunami that had hit Papua New Guinea hundreds of kilometres to the East of Biak is not credible as the bodies found had their hands tied, and many had been mutilated (genitals cut off). Many of the women were tortured and raped.
The Indonesian Government has never acknowledged the Biak massacre and no one has ever been prosecuted for the atrocious crimes. The international community has ignored it, partly because, unlike the Santa Cruz massacre, there was no Western journalist there to film it, although there are many reports from survivors, relatives and local people. Some of these were recorded at a Citizen’s Tribunal held on the fifteenth anniversary of the massacre.
Apparently Australia expressed ‘grave concern’ at reports of the massacre, but the Indonesian Government continued to deny that anything other than gentle dispersal of a mass demonstration had occurred.
I’ve visited the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili and also visited, the Island of Biak. At Santa Cruz cemetery, the relatives of the victims are free to come to mourn. On Biak, there is no memorial to the dead, and it’s pretty certain that weeping relatives at the water tower would be dispersed roughly by Indonesian police.
I was too much of a scaredy-cat to lay a memorial at the water tower where the shootings had occurred, but I went with my husband to a deserted beach close to Biak town and placed a bag patterned with the Morning Star flag, a shell necklace and flowers on the rocks in memory of the Papuans who had been murdered and dumped at sea for raising their flag.
Since the Biak massacre there have been many arrests and acts of brutality against West Papuans for raising their flag or expressing a wish for a referendum on independence, and many West Papuan leaders have been either imprisoned or killed.
Similar incidents have occurred in Maluku (the Moluccas) the most notorious being the torture and imprisonment of a group of 19 South Moluccan dancers who unfurled the Republic of South Maluku flag while dancing in front of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The leader, schoolteacher John Teterisa was sentenced to life imprisonment, and the other dancers were given sentences ranging from 10 to 20 years. Some of these dancers have since reportedly died in jail.
In October 2015 a task force was set up by the former coordinating political, legal and security affairs minister Luhut Pandjaitan to investigate cases of human rights abuses (killing and torture) committed by Indonesian military police. However to date the taskforce has failed to bring any perpetrators of human rights abuses to justice. Well what a surprise. Accountability, justice, morality and ethics are obviously unknown concepts to many members of the Indonesian security forces.
Australia is apparently involved in counter-terrorism training exercises with various Indonesian military and/or police units. Given the Indonesian tendency to categorise peaceful demonstrators expressing a wish for a referendum or waving a Morning Star flag as terrorists, it is to be hoped that our government does not become complicit in persecuting people peacefully expressing their political beliefs.
Members of the West Papuan diaspora around the world, (including in Australia and the UK) raise the Morning Star flag every year on 1 December.
Wouldn’t it be great if this year the Indonesian Government showed some respect to the Papuans under its control and allowed them to freely raise their Morning Star flag in their own land, without being either arrested or killed?
Dr Esther Anderson is a member of the Australia West Papua Association. She is also Convenor of Friends of Same, Manufahi (an Australia-Timor Leste friendship group).