Human Rights Watch today urged Indonesian authorities to call off an ultimatum to independence supporters in Irian Jaya (West Papua) to take down all West Papuan flags by Thursday, October 19.

In the past two years, a broad-based and increasingly well-organized West Papuan independence movement has emerged, holding province-wide congresses and petitioning the Indonesian leadership to hold a popular referendum on independence. The raising of the Papuan flag has been at the center of many of the protests. Papuan civil society leaders say that the flag symbolizes the frustrations of Papuans with decades of discriminatory and often brutal misrule by Jakarta.

The ban is a provocation and could well lead to renewed clashes between Indonesian security forces and Papuans," said Joe Saunders, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch. "And more violence can only be expected to strengthen the resolve of independence leaders, feeding a vicious circle."

In place of the ban on the flag, Human Rights Watch called for renewed dialogue and a principled approach to Papuan independence demands. It emphasized that Papuans in favor of self-determination, and Indonesian officials who think self-determination should not even be on the table, can at least agree on ground rules rooted in respect for basic civil and political rights. Those rules should include distinctions between raising flags on private as opposed to public property, and between peaceful expression of support for independence and violent acts.

Tension has been rising since October 12, 2000, when Indonesian cabinet secretary Marsilam Simanjuntak announced that the "Morning Star" flag, emblem of the pro-independence movement, would henceforth be banned. On the same day, police chief Daud Sihombing in Jayapura, Irian Jaya's capital city, threatened that all flags would be forcibly removed if not taken down voluntarily by October 19. The deadline falls the day after Indonesia's financial donors are scheduled to complete meetings in Tokyo on a new round of aid commitments to Indonesia.

The ban on the flag and ultimatum to Jayapura residents mark a dramatic turnaround from more tolerant policies in effect for the past year, and from Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid's promise that the peaceful expression of pro-independence views would not be punished.

Over the past two years, the Indonesian government has responded inconsistently to the Papuan flag issue, sometimes letting the flags fly and sometimes moving in and forcibly taking them down. In a number of cases, forcible removal of the flag has led to bloody clashes, the most recent of which, on October 6 and 7 in the highland town of Wamena, included riots in which more than twenty-five people were killed, most of them non-Papuan migrants killed by a Papuan mob.

Human Rights Watch stressed that Papuans are right in claiming that they should be able to express peacefully whatever views they like, but said that this does not necessarily mean that they have a right to use government resources to do so.

"On private propery, there should be no government interference with pro-independence expression, including raising the Morning Star flag," said Saunders. "But the government has the final say over what happens on government property, including its flagpoles. To date, there has been no clear articulation in Papua of this important distinction."

The international rights group also called for a clear distinction between expression of controversial views and violent acts: no one should be imprisoned for expressing views the government does not like, but those who engage in violent acts, even if they claim to be acting in furtherance of political goals, should be punished in accordance with internationally recognized standards of criminal justice. This applies to Papuan militia leaders as well as to police and soldiers who use excessive force in dispersing pro-independence rallies or removing flags. Human Rights Watch said that Indonesian authorities should demonstrate their commitment to this principle by bringing to justice security personnel and commanders responsible for atrocities committed against Papuan civilians during the Soeharto era.

Under Soeharto, who ruled Indonesia for thirty years until forced to resign by popular protests in 1998, Papuan flag-raising ceremonies and other pro-independence manifestations were aggressively suppressed. Demonstrators were forcibly dispersed and assaulted, leading activists were subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention, torture was common, and hundreds were killed.

Papuan cultural self-expression was also strictly controlled. Indigenous Papuans, who are Melanesians and darker-skinned than the numerically and politically dominant Javanese and than members of most other ethnic groups in Indonesia, were second-class citizens in their own homeland. While Indonesian rule brought unprecedented economic development, it also resulted in an influx of immigrants from other parts of Indonesia and caused resentment among Papuans as the benefits went disproportionately to foreign investors and such immigrants.When Soeharto was forced from power in May 1998, many of these long repressed sentiments could be made public for the first time.

The strength of pro-independence sentiment was unmistakable as early as February 1999, when one hundred leading Papuan leaders met with then-President Habibie to initiate what was being hailed as a "National Dialogue" on Papuan concerns. But the leaders presented President Habibie with a single demand: independence. This clearly shocked and displeased the Habibie government, which had encouraged the National Dialogue up to then, and the process was soon suspended.

In April 1999, the government reverted to the methods used during the Soeharto era, attempting to round up independence supporters and censor discussion of the subject. The crackdown included bans on expression, assembly, and association, arbitrary arrests, and widespread intimidation of independence supporters. With nationwide demands for democratization still mounting across Indonesia, however, opposition voices could not be easily silenced. The result was an uncertain atmosphere in which, even as the crackdown was underway, Papuan leaders continued to assert their right to advocate Papuan independence.

In October 1999, following democratic elections, a new government took office in Indonesia under President Abdurrahman Wahid, and promptly initiated a number of reforms. Openly acknowledging the errors of the past, the new administration moved quickly to allow greater freedom and to permit the open expression of pro-independence views. Peaceful Papuan flag-raisings, which had been broken up under Soeharto and Habibie, were now permitted and were held without police interference in at least a dozen places in Papua on December 1, 1999. The next day, however, there was a violent clash between police and demonstrators at a flag-raising in Timika in which six people were shot by police and dozens were injured. Major clashes between civilians and security forces claimed the lives of three pro-independence youths in Nabire in late February and early March. Three more independence supporters were killed by government forces in Sorong on August 22.

Human Rights Watch takes no position on Papuan claims to self-determination, but it supports the right of all individuals, including independence supporters, to express their political views peacefully without fear of arrest or other forms of reprisal. To the extent individuals are arrested and imprisoned for peaceful participation in symbolic flag-raising ceremonies, such treatment constitutes arbitrary arrest and detention in violation of international standards.

According to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which visited Indonesia in February 1999, the majority of individuals then facing charges in connection with flag-raising ceremonies in Irian Jaya were being held for peaceful expression of their views and, as such, their detention was arbitrary and in violation of international law.

Papua, Indonesia's largest province, comprising more than one-fifth of the country's total land area, was first put under Indonesian control in 1963. It was formally incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 in a still controversial, U.N.-approved process. For many years, the province was categorized as a military combat zone (Daerah Operasi Militer or DOM; literally, Military Operations Area) and under an effective state of martial law, ostensibly because of the threat posed by the Free Papua Movement (Organisasi Papua Merdeka or OPM), an armed group engaged in a generally low-level guerrilla campaign for independence from Indonesian rule. At the same time, many Papuans sought to express their support for independence through peaceful means, notably the symbolic public raising of the "Morning Star" flag which had first been flown openly when local people sought to free the territory from Dutch colonial rule in 1961.