An Independence Fighter Returns Home To Papua: To Talk, Not Fight

An Independence Fighter Returns Home To Papua: To Talk, Not Fight

By Elske Schouten
NRC international in partnership with RNW

After 47 years of exile in the Netherlands, Nicolaas Jouwe, founder of the Free Papua organisation, has returned home. But he will still not allow himself to be used for Jakarta's propaganda.

On the island of Kayu Pulau in the bay of Jayapura, capital of the Indonesian province of Papua, musicians are decked out in coloured feathers, grass skirts and painted faces. It is their way of welcoming their former clan chief to the island of his birth.

The clan chief is Nicolaas Jouwe, 85, and he is immediately hemmed in upon his arrival on the island. Every few metres he is besieged by old women with red teeth from chewing sirih, betel, who fall sobbing into his arms.

If it weren't for all the many security officers standing around him, it would be just an ordinary emotional reunion of an old man with the home country he has not seen for 47 years. But the Indonesian government want to keep control because Nicolaas Jouwe is no ordinary old man.

Morning Star Pin

In 1961, when Jayapura was still called Hollandia and Papua was still Netherlands New Guinea, he was chosen as the highest representative in the New Guinea Council, the Dutch colony's new parliament. From there he was the first to give form to the independence struggle. He designed a national flag, the Morning Star, the symbol of a free Papua. And he was the intended first prime minister of the independent state of Papua.

Indonesia is not fond of people like Jouwe. Since 1969, Papua has been an official province of Indonesia. Hoisting the Morning Star flag is illegal and anyone who still wants independence is seen as a dangerous separatist by Jakarta. But now, in the run-up to the Indonesian general election, president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has personally invited Jouwe to come home and hold talks about the reconstruction of Papua - within the republic of Indonesia, of course.

And so Nicolaas Jouwe, with his Morning Star pinned to his lapel, arrived last Wednesday in Jakarta. On Sunday morning, he landed in Jayapura where, surrounded by journalists, he knelt to kiss the ground. It was a golden opportunity for him to restart his struggle for a better life for the Papuans and to see his home land again. Since the Netherlands 'gave away' Papua in 1962, Jouwe has lived in Delft, on a retainer from the Dutch government.

Papua for the Papuans

"Papua needs its own country for its own people," he said after arriving in Jakarta. Switching between Dutch, Indonesian and English, he spoke about the 'banditry' of Indonesia. From the fall of the Soviet Union through the drop in the British pound to the Old Testament: everything points to the fact that Indonesia cannot maintain its actions in Papua for centuries, he says. Jouwe thinks the president invited him because Indonesia is beginning to repent. "Even if we have to talk a thousand times, it is better than violence."

But the agenda of the Indonesian government soon became clear in Jakarta last week. One day after Jouwe's arrival, the health ministry spread the news, without consulting Jouwe, that the 'founder of the Free Papua organisation' has given up his struggle for Independence. He was going to call on the Free Papua fighters, who had shot an Indonesian soldier just a few days earlier, to give up their weapons. And during a special ceremony, Jouwe would remove his Morning Star pin.

The election stunt did not work out as the government had hoped. "Your pin, where is your pin?" shouted Junus Habibie, Indonesian ambassador to the Netherlands, to Jouwe during a press conference where the 'pin moment' was supposed to take place. But in front of the Indonesian journalists, Jouwe refused. "No, not yet," he said in Dutch. "Not today," Jouwe had earlier shocked his listeners by talking about 'two peoples', 'two countries' and 'our great neighbour Indonesia'.

Whisked off the island

This is why the Indonesian government kept a close eye on this unguided missile for the rest of his stay. He was accompanied by four Papuans - some of them family - who decided to work with the Indonesian government and are therefore controversial within the Papuan community. He met mainly with government officials, like the governor of Papua and the mayor of Jayapura.

Interviews with the Indonesian press are not done. Two journalists who managed to approach Jouwe in Jakarta were bawled out by his chaperons - "Bloody idiot!" - and sent packing. Even during his visit to the island of his birth on Tuesday he was not able to speak with 'ordinary people' and before he could visit the house where he was born he was whisked off the island.

This is why his return is not welcomed by all prominent Papuans. "I think it would have been better if Mr Jouwe had met the people and not just the government," says secretary general Leo Imbiri of the Native Papuan Council. On a wall in his office is an old newspaper article about the flag and the Papuan national anthem with a photo of Jouwe. Imbiri thinks the special autonomy Papua was granted in 2001 is not working. Legalising the Morning Star is being thwarted by Jakarta, he says.

Imbiri can only observe how immigrants from the rest of Indonesia gain more and more influence in Papua. On the road between the airport and Jayapura he points to petrol stations, hotels and shops. "Look, all of this belongs to the newcomers. Those small houses from the Dutch period, they belong to Papuans."

But Imbiri will not get the chance to say this to Jouwe. On Tuesday morning, the old leader was forced to take an earlier flight back to Jakarta.