To stay or to archipela-go

On West Papua, don't preach.

Content warning: violence, murder, rape

The morning after I told my father I was writing this article, he stood in our kitchen, anxiously toying with his coffee cup, and warned me against writing it. His was an act of love – a general paternal worry for the safety of his only child. In the 1960s, an uncle of his disappeared from their village in Bali forever. It was quietly assumed that he’d been a victim in the mass anti-communist killings that took place throughout Indonesia between 1965 and 1966. Anti-communist army personnel, and those in the general public who feared communism, conspired against and murdered members and sympatheisers of the Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI). We’re coming up to the 54th anniversary of the September 30 coup d’état that effectively justified this nation-wide purge induced by fears that the PKI had gained too much power and reach under the leadership of President Sukarno, an Independence leader and Indonesia’s first President. This is the narrative that was promoted by The New Order, the regime led by Sukarno’s successor and former-general, Suharto, who rose to power following the September 30 events. 

Indonesia’s official motto, ‘Bhinneka Tunggal Ika’ (‘Unity in Diversity’), was adopted from an Old Javanese poem and is explicitly mentioned in the Constitution drawn up in 1945. With the incredible array of ethnicities, languages and forms of religions that make up the Indonesian archipelago, a national motto that promotes tolerance and peaceful multiculturalism makes a lot of sense. The reality of the imagined community of Indonesia is much harder to grapple with. Diversity is not synonymous with equality. 

The New Order was a brutal, nationalist project that ran on depoliticising the masses, suppressing the working classes, and opening the country to the kind of foreign investments that anti-imperialist Sukarno had attempted to avoid. To police borders is to police belonging; sometimes it is not a matter of refusing a group’s belonging but forcing it. At the eastern margins of the map, West Papua, otherwise referred to by Indonesians as Irian Jaya, was always part of the pro-independence vision for the nation that would eventually wrest itself from 350 years of Dutch colonial occupation in 1945 – an island collected as a piece for an archipelagic puzzle. There has always been a movement for West Papuan independence from Indonesia, too. Their ongoing erasure and genocide by the Indonesian military, green-lit by governments and corporations, is a human rights and ecological emergency. 

In 1967 US-based company Freeport-McMoRan began mining in the middle of the Sudirman Range of West Papua’s western central highlands, seizing the new potential of Indonesia’s opening markets under The New Order. Freeport-McMoRan’s Grasberg mine is the world’s largest gold mine; it is the second largest copper-mine.

At the turn of the century, after Suharto’s resignation in 1998, Benedict Anderson labelled the New Order “the banalisation of brutality”, reminiscent of Rob Nixon’s idea of  “slow violence” – the normalisation of incremental forms of violence and trauma, the absence of immediate horror and critical shock value that Western society uses to compel sympathy. Within the contemporary climate action movement, resisting expressions of slow violence is vital. 

Jane Perlez and Raymond Bonne describe a spreading “soot-coloured bruise” of mine waste into the Sudirman valleys’ rivers including ground ore residue and unprocessed rock. Imagine a bruise — a hurt beneath skin — being slowly pressed and pressed, over and over again.

Two Indigenous tribes have been particularly heavily affected by the Grasberg mine: the Amungme — highlanders, carved out alongside their land by mining — and the Kamoro, lowlanders who struggle to find fish, as they have done for thousands of years, in the rivers. And so the mine has made resource, unmade refugia.

Across the rest of the island, thousands of West Papuans, including children, have been killed in their struggle for complete independence from the nation-state machine, and freedom from the myth of Indonesian national belonging. Many more – rebels and civilians – have been tortured, raped, beaten, kidnapped, and forced to resettle for those migrants from other islands to settle-in. Voices are silenced on demand; recently the internet and telecoms were temporarily blocked on the island. 

Last week on Twitter, Veronica Koman, an Indonesian Human Rights lawyer currently being pursued by Indonesian authorities, reported the death of Sam Lokon, a member of the West Papua National Committee, who was filmed being terrorised by a snake whilst held in a cell by Indonesian police. “My client, pro-independence activist Sam Lokon (26) passed away this morning after serving 6-month sentence on a fabricated charge with many procedural flaws. His health deteriorated in custody. He was kicked, beaten with a length of wood, put in a cell with snakes when arrested,” tweeted Koman. 

In August, reports say six West Papuan protestors were killed on the island during demonstrations in retaliation to a video showing Papuan students, studying in Surabaya (East Java), being called “monkeys”, “pigs” and “dogs” by the military who allege that over forty  students had disrespected the Indonesian flag during independence-day celebrations. Flying the West Papuan’s sovereign Morning Star flag is a punishable offence. 

The Indonesian military, and Dutch colonisers before them, have used the politics of time to envelope West Papua in a kind of frontier imaginary, perpetuating a language and strategy of violent anti-Blackness that classifies First Nations people as uncivilised, savage, and disposable. It is hypocritical for Indonesia to refuse to fulfill the same desires for Merdeka! (Freedom!) that it drew up in its own the 1945 Constitution.

I balked at the recent announcement by current President, Joko Widodo, that the nation’s capital would be moving from sinking Jakarta to a province in East Kalimantan, Indonesia’s portion of the island Borneo. This may, at least, change the Java-centric focus of politics but the announcement felt like a sleight-of-hand, diverting attention away from the conditions in West Papua. Furthermore, the move is just transplanting the problem of pollution and overcrowding onto a region already in the business of displacing Indigenous tribes and destroying orangutan habitats for open-pit coal-mines and palm oil plantations. 

I’m only one of many people from the Indonesian diaspora who stand in solidarity with West Papuan independence, watching the homeland with alarmed and alert eyes and ears. Resisting racism and anti-Blackness, and supporting the continued self-determination of First Nations communities, is of course something we must stridently practice here in Australia too. So Dad, if you’re reading this, it’s too late. No man is an island, no island is a paradise.