Filep Karma, the most famous West Papuan political prisoner, is free. He was released on Thursday after serving more than 10 years of a 15-year sentence for treason. Greeted by several hundred supporters, Karma was carried shoulder high to a waiting car, then whisked off to celebrate the sixth birthday of the National Committee of West Papua (KNPB). At the celebration, Karma said that he had dedicated his life to the independence struggle and was not going to stop now.
Karma has come to personify many of Indonesia’s problems in Papua. His imprisonment was the focus of international human rights campaigns, including by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, which designated him as “a prisoner of conscience”. In 2008 and 2011, 40 members of the US Congress urged President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to release him. Last month, the Washington-based human rights organisation Freedom Now reiterated this appeal to President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. Amnesty International’s Josef Benedict welcomed the release but described Karma’s detention as “an outrageous travesty of justice”.
Karma was an example of Indonesia’s policy of criminalising peaceful pro-independence activity in Papua. He was arrested in 2004 after raising the Morning Star flag and leading a peaceful celebration on the anniversary of what Papuans consider their independence day, 1 December 1961. Karma was a repeat offender. He was sent to prison for his leadership of one of the first pro-independence demonstrations after the fall of President Suharto, in 1998 in Biak, where the Morning Star flag flew for four days.
Karma is such an important figure not only because of his support for independence, but also because he was a senior official in the provincial government of Papua. The ubiquitous photographs of him dressed in his bureaucratic uniform with the Morning Star flag pinned to his chest capture the problem for the Indonesia government – supporters of Papuan independence include many Papuans who hold senior positions in government. Karma is also from an elite family: his father was a well-known government official under the New Order, serving as deputy mayor in Jayapura and district head in Jayawijaya and Yapen Waropen. Filep Karma’s privileged position is also reflected in the university education he obtained in Java.
It is unusual for prisoners, including political prisoners, to resist being freed from prison. But in keeping with his principled support for independence, Karma has insisted that the 2004 celebration did not constitute a criminal act. Since at least 2013, the Indonesian government has made attempts to release him, perhaps recognising that Karma’s imprisonment was counterproductive. It diminished Indonesia’s international standing and, in Papua, it enhanced Karma’s status as a nationalist figure, despite his inability to participate in politics. During his visit to Papua in May 2015, Jokowi released five of an estimated 38 Papuan political prisoners, but again Karma refused to accept a pardon, and demanded amnesty, which would not require an admission of guilt.
Karma was released because of a once-in-a-decade sentence reduction (remisi desawarsa) for nearly all prisoners to mark Indonesian Independence (this year is the 70th anniversary of independence). The decision to release Karma nevertheless came as something of a surprise. He told Papuan journalist Victor Mambor that the day before his release, prison officials told him that he would have to leave the prison. He reiterated his objections but was given no choice but to leave. “This remission means little, I am just moving from a small prison to a large prison,” Karma said.
Political circumstances outside prison have changed greatly since Karma’s detention in 2004. How and whether he will be able to build on his status as a father figure of the independence movement will only become evident with time.
The government was clearly determined to release Karma. Whether freeing Papua’s best-known political prisoner signifies a commitment to resolve the conflict in Papua or is merely following up Jokowi’s symbolic gestures made during his visit to Papua in May remains to be seen.
On the same day as Karma was released in Jayapura, the Papua Peace Network and the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) held a seventh “Exploratory Meeting” in Bogor with key central and provincial government agencies and Indonesian and Papuan civil society organisations. The meeting discussed some of the crucial governance, human rights and security issues involved in making Papua into a “land of peace”. These included the investigation of human rights abuses, the establishment of a new military command in Manokwari and the “regionalisation” of the Papua conflict in the Melanesian Spearhead Group and the Pacific Islands Forum. Affirming the strategy of the Papua Peace Network and LIPI, the meeting recommended developing peace through a dialogue process involving all interested parties.
The exploratory meeting identified key issues to be discussed in a dialogue. The question is whether the Jokowi administration has the political will and capital to engage in real dialogue.