Image by AK Rockefeller on flickr

Image by AK Rockefeller on flickr

With Joko Widodo pardoning political prisoners, James Giggacher asks how much will change in Papua.

This weekend has seen some possibly big developments in Papua, where Indonesia President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo has released five political prisoners in the disaffected provinces.

He’s also promised long-shut out foreign journalists full access to the region, which has been home to a decades-long separatist movement.

The call for independence has seen an almost 50-year insurgency between poorly-armed locals and government forces in the eastern edge of Indonesia’s sprawling nation-state. Claims that locals are unfairly targeted by Indonesian security forces are not uncommon.

The five prisoners – Kimanus Wenda, Jefrai Murib, Apotnalogolik Lokobal, Numbungga Telenggen and Linus Hiluka – were arrested in 2003 for a raid on a military arsenal. In a ceremony at Abepura prison in the provincial capital Jayapura, Jokowi shook their hands and gave them their tickets home – letters of clemency waiving their remaining jail time.

“Today we are releasing these five detainees to stop the stigma of conflict in Papua,” Jokowi said. “We need to create a sense of peace in Papua. This is just the beginning.”

Building on earlier assurances to improve the livelihood of locals who are heavily reliant on development assistance from Jakarta, these latest moves seem to indicate that Jokowi is loosening Indonesia’s tight grip on the mineral-rich Papua.

But as with most things, the devil is in the detail – or lack of it.

While the release of prisoners in the name of peace might be a welcome move, there is one big unanswered question; what is now the status of the Morning Star flag and other explicit rallying points of pro-independence sentiment?

The Morning Star has become the potent symbol of Papua’s calls for independence – a ‘freedom flag’ that sings to the soul with all the lyrical and symbolic stir of a tartan-clad Mel Gibson facing down an army of English pikemen and Welsh archers in Scotland. It was the flag that flew when the colonial Dutch finally clogged it back to their dikes way back in 1961.

Jakarta takes a dim view of it at the best of times.

In 2013, six men were arrested for raising the flag to mark the 50th anniversary of Indonesian occupation of the territory. They faced a possible 15 years in jail. One of the men was so badly beaten by police his trial was delayed.

So the question remains; with the Morning Star shining a light on Papua demands to break away from the sovereignty-sensitive Jakarta, will prosecutors and judges continue to charge and convict Papuans who peacefully raise flags (whether for treason or some lesser charge)? If yes then nothing has changed and there will continue to be political prisoners.

Even if all current prisoners are released, they are likely to be replaced by new ones in no time. As recently as April a delegation of pro-independence Papuans was charged with treason as they landed in Jayapura airport after a mysterious meeting with Minister of Defence, Ryamizard Ryacudu.

According to rights monitors, who have slammed the arrests as spurious, the five men have been charged with treason under article 106 of the criminal code for wanting to secede from the Republic of Indonesia and could face anywhere between 20 years and life in prison.

This also raises the question of what happens if the raising of the flag and pro-independence speeches doesn’t see Papuan activists arrested. Will Jokowi and his government have the stomach for louder calls for independence in Papua? There’s also the question of how he will react to foreign leaders calling for change in Papua.

In all of this, Jokowi once again shows that substance cannot be substituted for a smile and a photo-op.

He’s not given any indication on how he would like authorities to react the next time the Morning Star flag is hoisted again – as it will inevitably be.

Unlike in 1998, when the release of the New Order’s political prisoners was accompanied by the abolition of the notorious Anti-Subversion law, there has been no discussion of how judges and prosecutors should interpret the treason articles that Papuan activists are currently jailed for. This is therefore about more than a question of political prisoners; this is about legal processes and how activists end up in jail in the first place. This is about reformasi – or lack thereof.

Releasing current prisoners does not resolve the policy question of how the government responds to non-violent pro-independence speech. And it hardly draws a map to long-term reform.

If the current 90 or so prisoners currently locked up re-engage in peaceful protest will they be thrown back in jail? Or is clemency contingent on becoming a loyal citizen? Authorities appear to assume the existence of an implicit bargain: prisoners are released, but Papuans should in return stop voicing pro-independence sentiments.

It is very possible that Jakarta will try to have it both ways – release some, or even all, current inmates, but continue to declare the Morning Star a “banned” flag, and allow security forces to act against pro-independence activists.

The fact that they gave clemency to this particular group, who were involved in an ammunitions raid in 2003, rather than a flag raising, is telling.

The five had already served 12 years of their 20-year sentence, and it is very possible they were up for release soon in any case.

It would seem that in Papua, there is a long way to go before anyone can pin their flag to the mast of reform.

James Giggacher is editor of New Mandala and associate lecturer in the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs.