IRIAN JAYA SYMBOLIC RITUAL FLAGGED FOR TROUBLE

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By Vaudine England

JAYAPURA, Irian Jaya (August 13, 2000 – South China Morning Post)---At dawn and sunset on the main street in Jayapura, capital of Irian Jaya, a disciplined exercise in one-upmanship takes place as the flag of Indonesia is raised and lowered alongside the Papuan "Morning Star" independence flag. As if by chance, there are significant moments when only the Papuan flag is flying, just around the corner from a police post which has yet to intervene.

The ritual, which takes about 20 minutes from start to finish, shows the uneasy or deliberately obtuse standoff now existing between advocates of independence for Irian Jaya, and the state which claims sovereignty over the vast, rich land.

In charge of events are a handful of black-clad militia, the Satgas Papua, who first halt the busy traffic streaming through the administrative capital. Normally assertive drivers wait patiently, at a signal from one Satgas Papua member standing in the middle of the road.

Three women members of the militia form a front line of marching steps in front of the two flagpoles. In a large circle across the street, other Satgas members stand to attention.

First, the Papuan flag, which bears a coincidental similarity to that of Cuba, is raised. Satgas members salute solemnly. As the Indonesian flag is being raised alongside, they stand more at ease.

About an hour later, groups of Indonesian soldiers and policemen are jogging around the same street for their early morning exercise. They ignore the combination of flags and concentrate instead on flexing muscles and shouting songs as they go by, in an effort to show who is truly boss.

At sunset, the ritual has more marked attributes.

According to current instructions from Jakarta, Papuans are allowed to raise one of their flags per district in the province, so long as it is slightly smaller and hangs slightly lower than the Indonesian flag.

Happily for pro-independence followers, these two flagpoles on Jalan Irian in Jayapura are the same height. Thus, as the traffic is brought to a halt, and a regular crowd gathers to watch in sympathy, it is the Indonesian flag which is lowered first, by the women.

Then the Papuan flag is raised by men to the full height of its pole, allowing several minutes of public appreciation of the sight of only the Papuan flag flying at full strength.

This ritual is drawn out for as long as politely possible. Satgas members maintain their reverential salute while passers-by stand still to join in.

The marching routine, the uniforms, the solemnity and public support suggest that central government efforts to roll back recent concessions on flag raising will run into trouble. It also mirrors the long-standing importance of flags to the Papuans. Back when the Dutch colonialists were being forced out, Papuans hung the Dutch tricolor flag upside down. Once the Papuan flag was designed, it took on mystical importance.

"It was believed that the flying of flags bearing the star would attract supernatural help for the struggle against foreign mortals. The belief has continued to the present day, with flag raisings being the commonest form of non-violent protest against Indonesian rule," wrote Robin Osborne in Indonesia's Secret War - The Guerilla Struggle In Irian Jaya.

The most bizarre recent example of Papuan flag politics was the crowded drama inside Jayapura's port compound, when Satgas Papua members were refusing entry to refugees from the war-stricken Maluku Islands. The Indonesian military, naval and police commanders, along with dogs, soldiers and riot troops, were in orderly lines, along with Satgas Papua men and women in uniform. Flying directly above the heads of Jakarta's "Brio," the feared riot police, was a large Morning Star flag.

Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid says such flag raising is allowed until Jakarta's special session of parliament comes to an end on August 18, but after that, it will be forbidden. Several bloody incidents have already occurred, however, in which local police have found themselves unable to stomach the open defiance.

Papuans have been shot at attempted flag raisings recently at a range of locations. In one neighborhood just outside Jayapura, police chose simply to cut down the two metal flagpoles in front of a car showroom, rather than see the flag ritual played out.

If implemented, Mr Wahid's decision will create more violence, and leave a symbolically important gap in many Papuans' days, opening up new chances for conflict.

In the meantime, on pavements where street-traders are setting up stalls for the evening rush, Papuan flags are on sale, and on display. A remarkable variety of permutations is on show: flags incorporated into crucifixes for the largely Christian populace, flags to attach to car aerials, flags to sew on bags or T-shirts, even flags small enough to stick on to mobile phone cases or pens.

Slum shacks on the waterfront show miniature flags above their doors. And even cars carrying Indonesian government number plates can be seen flying the flag on their radio aerials.

KABAR IRIAN ("Irian News") Website: http://www.irja.org/ 

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