It wasn't quite the miracle they had been hoping for, but rebels of the Free Papua Organization (OPM) were yesterday celebrating a partial victory. During a visit to Papua at the weekend, Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid agreed the easternmost province would revert to its former name of West Papua. However, he ruled out any hope of the OPM achieving its dream of independence.
"As for an independent Papua state ... I will not tolerate efforts to build a country within a country," he said. Mr. Wahid's arrival in the capital, Jayapura, at the weekend was preceded by rumors the President, with the help of divine intervention, would grant West Papua independence for the new millennium.
The rumors were fuelled last month by the peaceful raising of the independence movement's flag, the morning star, on December 1. In the past, raising the flag meant on-the-spot arrest - or death, with the most violent incident occurring at Biak in July, 1998, when 26 people were killed by Indonesian military. But on December 1, the military kept out of view, prompting OPM spiritual leader Chief Theuys Eluay to declare the peaceful event a miracle.
A week later, his declaration was shattered by local police chief Lieutenant-Colonel David Sihombing demanding Chief Theuys be arrested. Last week, the chief roared into town in a convoy of trucks, bare-chested, wearing a bird-of-paradise headdress and sarong. Flying the morning star flag from his truck, Chief Theuys publicly presented himself to the police for questioning.
His dramatic arrival and the adoption of religious imagery by the OPM reflects a sea change in West Papuans' struggle for freedom. Today, the fight has evolved into a passive, non-violent, religious cult. The new approach draws on an ancient cargo cult - the Mansren Myth. Cargo cults were a common Melanesian reaction to the impact of war technology during World War II.
Under the myth, Lord Mansren was a god who liked wine and caught the morning star (Venus) stealing his brew. In thanks for being released before sunrise, the morning star gave Mansren a magic wand and canoe to create West Papua. Mansren taught goodwill but was disappointed by the people's behavior and so left. The Dutch colonized West Papua in 1860, imposing forced labor and taxes. In reaction, there emerged a Papuan belief that if they practised devout behavior, Mansren would return to oust the Dutch.
Cult followers believe raising the morning star flag will promote the good behavior that will bring Mansren back, and provide supernatural help to his followers against invaders. The belief is strong, and during WWII was often fatal. In July, 1942 on Biak Island, leader Koronus Boseren and his followers carved wooden guns and blessed themselves with holy water, believing Lord Mansren would turn their sticks into firearms. They then attacked the Japanese and were massacred by the hundreds.
After Indonesian independence in the 1950s, the Dutch moved to Netherlands New Guinea and supported West Papuan independence by first building a Papuan militia. In 1961, The Netherlands established the independent nation of West Papua with the morning star flag, and promised full independence on December 1, 1971. Indonesia invaded in 1962 and a war with the Dutch was threatened. Later, the UN stepped in and set out a mandate for an election to be held to determine whether West Papuans wanted to remain with Indonesia.
Disgruntled Papuan militia took their guns and flags into the jungle. Naming themselves the OPM (Free Papua Organization), they swore to oust the Indonesian colonists. In 1966, around Manokowari, the morning star was raised and fierce fighting took place until 1968. The next year, Indonesia conducted the UN-backed Act of Free Choice, choosing 1025 delegates who voted to accept Indonesian rule on behalf of 800,000 Papuans. The vote forced the OPM back into the jungle.
On July 1, 1971, OPM leader Brigadier-General Seth Rumkorem led an attack on the border town of Waris. They raised the morning star, seized the local two-way radio and proclaimed a free and independent nation of West Papua.
In the 1980s, flag-raisings underwent a Papuan cultural revival. On February 9, 1984, a lone OPM supporter tried to raise the morning star outside parliament in Jayapura. He was shot dead. Later, 10,000 refugees fled to the PNG border. In 1988, Papuan leader Thomas Wangai received a 25-year sentence for raising the morning star at Jayapura stadium.
It was Wangai's death, tortured in jail in March 1996, that sparked the pro-independence flag-raisings in the 1990s. The actions of Chief Theuys and his militia parallel the actions of the Mansren cultists.