Abigail Rose McCall, Brisbane, Australia – The struggles of Indonesia's Papuan communities have surfaced in various shows of solidarity, with indigenous Australians during the divisive Australia Day celebrations that took place across the "land down under" last month.
In a sense, human rights activists see it as increasingly necessary to craft connections between the two peoples that bypass the positions of both governments and hone in on people-to-people relations. It has been 233 years since the British raised the Union Jack in Sydney Cove and colonized modern-day Australia. Over time, this event on Jan. 26 has evolved into a national day celebration, one that aims to acknowledge the achievements and diversity of Australian communities despite its divisive colonialist beginnings.
This year in Sydney, Indonesian human rights lawyer Veronica Koman marched for the "unceded Gadigal Land" while flying the Australian Aboriginal flag. Since 2019, the pro-Papuan activist has been living in Australia after she claimed to be threatened with an Interpol red notice by Indonesian authorities for allegedly spreading stories about violence in the provinces of Papua and West Papua. "I see similarities between the struggles of West Papuan and First Nation people here. It's the same story of colonization and land dispossession. Aboriginal people are the most incarcerated people in the world, while West Papuans are the most incarcerated people for their political views in Indonesia," she told The Jakarta Post.
Many people still protest Australia Day as one of mourning, referring to the loss experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people on and since that day. This year, the annual Ipsos Poll suggests that while only 28 percent of Australians support changing the date, nearly half (49 percent) believe that the date of Australia Day will only be changed within the next 10 years.
Ronny Kareni, a campaigner with the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) who lives and works from Australia, said these kinds of commemorations and their referencing of Papuan grievances are important. "[A lot of my engagement] is through the First Nations, the tent embassies and the advocacy around building solidarity with various campaign groups and communities and really drawing on the similarities of the struggles," he told the Post earlier this month.
In Meanjin, Brisbane, the Bintang Kejora (Morning Star) flag is permanently hoisted next to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags. As a cultural practitioner, Kareni underlined the importance of viewing the Morning Star outside the national frame. "Through the kinship, through the Dreamtime stories, it has a very significant, deeper meaning than just a national symbol. The star is for fisherman; for hunters and gatherers," he said. "If one goes down to the Northern Territory [in Australia], they have the same story but from where they are. So, it's the songlines that connect; that's a much deeper connection than just the symbol that we see on the flag."
This kind of support and acknowledgment of the Morning Star flag itself brings another set of divides within the Australian community.
Every year on Dec. 1, activists in Australia will fly the Morning Star flag deliberately and specifically "as a symbol of independence and resistance to incorporation into Indonesia", ABC reported.
In recent years, the Indonesian Consulate General in Sydney has "objected to the flag-raising in writing", citing it as a "symbol of separatism". Most non-Papuan civil society groups fall in line with the official Indonesian position, even overseas. A spokesperson for the Australia-based Indonesian community group Projo told the ABC that many Indonesians feel "the reporting of West Papua is one-sided in Australia".
Activism beyond the flag
Part of this reporting is Fijian-born Australian citizen Adi Holmes, who chose to study law in order to engage with the Papuan community's struggles by specifically looking into human rights abuses. Rather than being "one-sided", she contends that the movement itself lacks a clear strategy on "how to organize ourselves for West Papua".
This, she noted, made various calls to action very divisive within Australia. "The authentic West Papuan voice sometimes gets lost – I think we need more of [...] what they really want," she told the Post recently. From Jakarta, Nurina Savitri, a spokesperson for Amnesty International Indonesia, told the Post: "We hope that an act of solidarity can further raise awareness about the racism, prejudice, discrimination and violence that Papuans have had to endure for years."
In Indonesia, where sheer geography and more complex inequalities have historically created critical divides, the easternmost provinces of Papua and West Papua have endured some of the nation's most vulnerable political and social conditions.
At the government level, Indonesia's heavily militarized approach continues to ruffle tensions, and support for human rights remains scarce given Australia's careful detachment and default "rule of law" position on the Papuan question. For Nurina, although making it clear that Amnesty does not take a political position on Papua, the enduring conditions of the people warrant recognition in places like Australia, and acts of solidarity outside government-led initiatives are an important way to "organize" for the populations that are suffering. "Human rights violations have continued to occur in Papua, including in the forms of unlawful killings, suppression against freedom of expression and assembly, as well as criminalization against those involved in peaceful rallies demanding a referendum," she said. "It's important for solidarity movements to serve as a platform for both groups to share their stories and raise awareness about the need for more people to speak up against human rights violations, in order to pressure those in power to protect and fulfill the rights of indigenous people." Two days prior to the Jan. 26 commemoration of Australia Day, three Papuan men were arrested for allegedly flying the Morning Star flag in Merauke's Ilwayab district. Veronica said they were likely to be "charged with treason". As to what the flag means on Australian soil, Kareni suggests using it "as navigation". For him, following the "songlines" between modern Australia and the Papuan region shows a closeness that is different from political alliances and will be more powerful in coming years.
Kareni plans to commemorate this connection with a concert in April. Headlined by Yothu Yindi, a celebrated Australian rock band made up of Aboriginal and balanda (non-Aboriginal) members, his band, Sorong Samurai, will follow. "Looking at the commonality of the First Nations, it's a drawcard, I can see especially with the concert in April when they will call us to come in," he said.
[The writer is an intern under the ACICIS program.]