Filep Karma, a prominent Papuan independence activist, was found dead on a beach in the Papuan capital of Jayapura yesterday after apparently drowning while on a diving trip.
According to a report, Karma, 63, had taken a diving trip with his brother-in-law and nephew, then went diving alone after his relatives left the trip early. A Benar News report said there was no reason to believe his death was the result of foul play. “I followed the post-mortem process, and it was determined that my father died of drowning while diving,” Filep’s daughter, Andrefina Karma, was quoted in the statement as saying.
Karma, who was born in Jayapura in 1959, was a prominent player in the independence movement from Indonesia, which has taken both violent and non-violent forms since the absorption of the region by Indonesia after a dubious referendum in 1969.
In 1998, Karma was imprisoned after leading a protest on Biak Island that called for Papuan independence and involved the raising of the Morning Star flag, a symbol of independence banned by the Indonesian government. He was released the following year.
In 2004, Karma was arrested again after helping organize a ceremony in Jayapura to mark the anniversary of Papua’s independence from the Dutch. The celebratory demonstration, which also involved the deployment of the Morning Star, was broken up by police, leading to clashes with pro-independence activists. Karma was found guilty of spreading hatred and rebellion and sentenced to 15 years in prison and was not released until 2015.
In 2010, the advocacy group Human Rights Watch (HRW) describe Karma as “probably one of Papua’s most popular pro-independence leaders”, noting that he “has never advocated violence as a means to achieve this goal”. As HRW quoted, “We want to engage in a dignified dialogue with the Indonesian government, a dialogue between two peoples with dignity, and dignity means that we do not resort to violence.”
This contrasts with The approach taken by the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB in its acronym in the Indonesian language), which sees armed struggle as the only way to prevent the encroachment of the Indonesian state. Indeed, in recent years, as Jakarta installs infrastructure in the most remote areas of Papua, with all the impacts this has in terms of environmental degradation and transmigration, the TPNPB has launched a series of deadly attacks on both Indonesian military personnel and workers building vital infrastructure such as roads.
The most significant took place in December 2018, when separatist fighters killed 16 workers working on the Trans-Papua Highway, which runs through the densely forested highlands of Papua. These attacks spurred the transfer of military units to Papua and the repression of local populations, which in turn prompted separatists to launch more attacks. In a statement earlier this year, UN experts said around 60,000 to 100,000 people had been internally displaced in Papua since 2018.
Karma has taken a path that has avoided the extremes of violent rebellion and acquiescence to what many Papuans see as essentially foreign rule. Whether this approach would have ever achieved the goal of independence and self-reliance for the Papuan people of Karma is unclear, but his passing will clearly leave a great void.
“Filep Karma’s humour, integrity and moral courage have inspired many people,” said longtime HRW Indonesia researcher Andreas Harsono. wrote yesterday. “His death is a huge loss, not just for Papuans but for many across Indonesia who have lost a human rights hero.”