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Fury over West Papua flag

ON July 13, Indonesian delegates — angry because the Morning Star Flag, emblem of the United Liberation Movement of West Papua (ULMWP), was flown alongside other members’ flags — walked out of the first day of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) leaders’ summit. The ULMWP is a coalition of Papuan freedom fighters demanding independence from Indonesian control.

It and Indonesia have both applied for full membership status in the MSG, but for very different reasons. ULMWP hopes the MSG can bring international attention to their struggle for self-determination, while Indonesia wants to shore up its economic position in the region. The Indonesian diplomats demanded the flag be taken down, but the organizers ignored them, and the opening ceremony proceeded without the Indonesian delegation.

The summit resulted in a split decision over the ULMWP’s membership status. Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, and the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) of New Caledonia strongly support ULMWP, while Fiji and Papua New Guinea (PNG) — nations Indonesia has courted with sweetheart economic deals and financial support — oppose it.

The Indonesian delegations’ dramatic exit and the ensuing vote over ULMWP’s membership can help us understand long-standing political fault lines in the region that date back to the 1970s anticolonization wave.

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