Arnold Ap

I knew nothing about West Papua until I was in a George Lakey training session with two Papuan activists. One was a musician with the band Black Paradise, and I bought his CD. The Papuans wore Arnold Ap T-shirts, so I first heard his story from them. Later I learned to sing Ap’s song “West Papua” that is featured on the CD. After doing conflict transformation training in West Papua, I feel some of the pain and passion Ap poured into his music.
Daniel Buttry

Arnold Ap (1945-1984)

The only thing I desire and am waiting for is nothing else but freedom.
Arnold Ap

Arnold-ApWest Papua is the western half of the island of New Guinea. It was colonized by the Dutch, and in 1963 it was handed over by the United Nations to Indonesia as part of a decolonialization process. The Indonesian government claimed that the region was part of the Indonesian archipelago, but Papuans insisted on their own cultural and geographic independence. In 1961 the Papuans had established their own national legislature, anthem and flag, the latter with their Morning Star symbol.

In spite of the clearly stated desire of the Papuans for independence, the United Nations, with the support of global and regional powers, let Indonesia become the temporary caretaker. Indonesia organized “The Act of Free Choice” in 1969, where a consultation group of Papuan leaders agreed to remain in Indonesia. The act was ratified by the United Nations. However, Papuans protested that it was an “Act of No Choice” because their leaders were surrounded by the Indonesian military during the consultation, their families were under threat, and few international or media observers were allowed to be present.

Throughout the years of colonial rule there had been various resistance movements. In the 1930s and 1940s, a woman named Angganitha Menufandu led a large unarmed resistance movement against Dutch and then Japanese rule during World War II on Biak Island. They defied bans on traditional singing and dancing, refused to pay taxes, and refused to cooperate with forced labor. The Japanese beheaded Menufandu in 1943. West Papuans have continued to strive for freedom under Indonesian rule. A small, armed insurgency began in 1965, but most of the Papuan resistance has been nonviolent. Even some of the factions in the armed struggle have supported the nonviolent campaign for independence.

Indonesia has engaged in a massive effort to stamp out Papuan identity and culture and introduce a homogeneous Javanese culture. Papuan cultural artifacts were burned in a massive public bonfire the day after the Indonesian “caretakers” took over. Political activities were suspended. The name of the region was changed to Irian Jaya, an Indonesian term. Language referring to Papuan identity was banned. The Indonesian government encouraged mass migration of Javanese people to the region. International corporations took over vast mining and logging enterprises that devastated the environment. Indigenous businesses were squeezed out in favor of Indonesian entrepreneurs. Meanwhile, a stifling military presence was built up in West Papua, and many Papuans were assassinated or imprisoned, sometimes for crimes as simple as raising the Morning Star flag.

Arnold Ap was an anthropologist and musician. He used music as a way to celebrate Papuan culture and express the Papuan desire for freedom. Ap founded a music group named Mambesak. He also promoted Papuan culture as curator of the Cenderawasih (Bird of Paradise) University Museum in Jayapura and on his popular weekly radio show. Music and dancing were forms of cultural expression that transcended the hundreds of indigenous Papuan languages, so Ap’s music helped to shape a feeling of unity for people from the various tribes. The music of Mambesak drew from the diversity of local melodies and musical themes to forge a regional Papuan style. As one Papuan activist said about Ap, “He helped transform our consciousness from the tribal to the national.” Mambasak sang of freedom. Their tapes were played by radio stations in towns across West Papua and on battery-powered boom-boxes deep in forest villages.

Because Indonesian officials were trying to crush Papuan identity itself, music and dance became key weapons in the nonviolent struggle for cultural survival. Ap and Mambesak sang of the beauty of their land and their bond to it. They sang about the destruction of their people and their land at the hands of the Indonesian army and outside corporations. With a dynamic tune and rhythm, they sang, “Times are changing rapidly, and the signs of the heritage left to us by our ancestors are disappearing from view. Remaining only are the ruins of our settlement, the villages no longer maintained, abandoned like orphaned children.”

“Travel safely” was the refrain in some songs, expressing the anguish of having so many leaders and friends assassinated. Arnold Ap knew that he, too, was a target. The Papuan nationalism expressed in Ap’s music quickly came to the attention of the Indonesian authorities. In November 1983 he was imprisoned and tortured by Kopassus, the Indonesian Special Forces, though no charges were ever filed against him. An officer in the police special forces later testified that the military authorities saw Ap as “extremely dangerous because of the activities of his Mambesak players and wanted him sentenced to death or given a life sentence but could not find evidence for a charge in court.” Then, on April 26, 1984, Arnold Ap was shot and stabbed while trying to escape from prison, according to the Indonesian officials. Eddie Mofu, another musician imprisoned with Ap, was also killed along with two other prisoners. The story later emerged from a survivor that the police had taken them out of their prison cells to a coastal base, where the prisoners were told to go. They were killed along the beach or in the water.

The music of Arnold Ap continues to speak to Papuans about their culture, the pride in their heritage, and their passion for freedom. Recordings cannot be found in the market places for fear of the Indonesian police, but the music is everywhere, passed from hand to hand. Ap’s face adorns T-shirts of activists, and his words are sung by musicians who carry on his tradition. Ap’s last song was smuggled out of his cell. Titled “The Mystery of Life,” it said, “The only thing I desire and am waiting for is nothing else but freedom.”

Ap once said, “Maybe you think what I am doing is stupid, but it is what I think I should do for my people before I die.” Though he died in 1984, the power of Ap’s music has continued to grow, a gift he has given to the Papuan people that is still vibrantly alive.

In the Tradition of Arnold Ap Hear Papuan Singer George Telek in an Independence Song “West Papua”:

(Originally published at, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)