Papua is the historical name for New Guinea – the world’s second largest island after Greenland. The eastern half of the island is a country called Papua New Guinea (PNG) while the western half is occupied by Indonesia. Merdeka is a word in the Indonesian and Malay language meaning independence or freedom. Papua Merdeka is a rallying call of the people of West Papua in their struggle to end the Indonesian occupation and win their right to self determination. For more historical detail you could start with the Wikipedia article about the Papua conflict.
On July 1, 1998 Papuans raised their traditional flag at Kota Biak water tower on the small Island of Biak and set up camp. On July 6th the Indonesian military opened fire on the protestors. About 200 survivors were forced onto two Indonesian naval vessels from which they were thrown into the ocean. The aim was presumably to make an example of what would happen to anyone else who dared defy the Indonesian occupation (it is important to point out that West Papua is rich in natural resources which Indonesia is exploiting to great economic advantage).
Saturday was the fifteenth anniversary of the Biak Massacre and the Free West Papua Campaign had organised a protest and memorial at the Indonesian Embassy in Grosvenor Square. The leading spokesperson for the campaign is Benny Wenda who was there with his wife Maria and their children. I first met Benny on Jan 4, 2003 just days after he arrived in the UK after escaping from an Indonesian jail (he was recovering in a friend’s flat a couple of miles from me and I clearly remember cycling over with winter clothes and some money for emergency dental treatment). I was hoping for a better turnout but despite the fine weather it was mainly the same faces I had seen at previous protests. I stayed for just over two hours during which time there was a fairly steady barrage of chanting. Often the call over the megaphone was “Papua” to which the crowd responded “Merdeka”, followed by a call of “Merdeka” and response of “Papua”. Benny and Maria perform together as The Lani Singers and between chanting they gave us a few songs. For more about the protest check out this report on the campaign website.
If you want to learn more about the tragic situation in West Papua I recommend watching the award winning documentary Forgotten Bird of Paradise directed by British filmmaker Dominic Brown, and please help spread the word.