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[Analytics] So-called ‘Papuan problems’ and colonial myths

A Papuan student with her face painted with the colours of the separatist 'Morning Star' flag shouts slogans during a rally near the presidential palace in Jakarta, Indonesia, on August 29. CREDIT: AP. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

Each year on December 1st, Papuans commemorate the day on which the embryo of a new Papuan state was conceived. This was West Papua’s original Independence Day. The Morning Star flag was first raised in 1961 as the Dutch prepared West Papua for independence. Yamin Kogoya specially for the Pan Pacific Agency.

Unfortunately, its newborn statehood was short-lived. A few months later the Indonesian military invaded the independent sovereign nation state of West Papua. Since that time, the Indonesian military regime has endeavoured to eradicate any attempt to revive the dream of statehood through a sequence of military campaigns across West Papua. All Papuan lives have, in one way or another, been shaped by these wars.

Jakarta’s fear of an independent Papuan state is exemplified by their ruthless response to leaders calling for an end to Indonesian rule. For example, the assassination of the Papuan tribal chief Theys Eluay and the killing of the senior commander of Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM), or Free Papua Movement, Kelly Kwalik in 2009, sent a clear message of their attitude towards the raising of the Morning Star.

This idea of statehood is written in the hearts, mind and blood of hundreds of thousands of Papuans. In remembrance of their sacrifices, the leader of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP), Benny Wenda, has called for a National Day of Prayer on December 1st, 2020.

This year will mark the fifty-ninth anniversary of the day that West Papuans first raised their flag. Next year will mark 60 years since their statehood was removed by Indonesia’s Western-endorsed military government, with the complicity of the United Nations.

West Papua has been turned into a killing field

Since the Indonesian invasion, West Papua has been turned into a killing field. As Benny Wenda stated on SBS News on 28th October, ‘West Papua is becoming a hunting ground by special forces.’

Mr. Wenda was responding to the killing of pastor Jeremiah Zanambani at his village in Intan Jaya in September 2020 and the severe beating of thirteen Papuan students on October 27. The entirety of West Papua has been turned into a killing field, in which Indonesian security forces have enjoyed unjustifiable impunity against Papuans for a half a century. These killings continue, but it seems that the world doesn’t hear about them.

The UK-based Free West Papua Campaign reported that on November 21, 2020, four West Papuan school students and a thirty-four-year-old man were shot by the Indonesian security forces in Puncak Belantara Limbaga.

We need to reflect on these killings with a fresh perspective. These killings are not isolated incidents. This violence has its roots in the myth of colonialists’ civilising mission that was carried out in many parts of the world.

The logic of killing Papuans as wild animals in a hunting ground

The colonial mindset is predicated around the idea that colonised land was previously uninhabited. These territories were perceived as more or less uninhabited, in which monsters and exotic animals roamed free, without values, norms, or rules. Therefore, the task of a “civilised” man was to go into this unoccupied territory and kill anyone or anything that posed threat to their mission.

In their minds, this mission was to restore order, value and civilisation while stripping away the beauty and resources of the colonised land. The killing of the original inhabitants was considered inconsequential because according to their logic, they were not committing any crime against humanity. They were merely eliminating threats. In the institutionalised psyche of the colonial mindset, the torturing and killing of any original inhabitants of their so-called ‘newly discovered uninhabited land’ was justifiable. Original inhabitants were always projected as monsters and savages who posed a threat to moral and civilised men.

This Western fantasy was predicated on the idea that man (specifically white man) was destined to lead the world into a better future. Peoples considered stupid, savage and primitive must be enlightened by Western ideas. It is the white man’s duty to civilise the cavemen, monkey men and savage men, saving humanity from ignorance and paganism. The description of a “dark lost world” with racist undertones narrated in colonial textbooks such as the Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1899), the White Man’s Burden by Rudyard Kipling (1899), and Minutes of Education by Mathew Arnold (1852) reflects the deeply patronising views held by colonialists.

The spirit of the frontier wars between European settlers and the original inhabitants in Australia, Canada, America and New Zealand still haunt the psyche of the Indigenous people of these countries. Restoring a permanent ‘trust’ has become challenging as governments continue to regard the indigenous people as a burden to the national story.

The enlightenment fantasy was a plague for the first nation communities

The colonial project is based on distorted information and misconstrued ideas about the colonised subject. Edward Said shed light on this issue in his ground-breaking book Orientalism (1978). Said argues that the West constructs imagery of a mythical Other – “The East.” The West portrays “the Other” as mysterious, exotic and somewhat demonic in its savagery, lacking the light of morality and civilisation.

We now know that the idea of civilising the dark planet, concocted during the heyday of European enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, was cataclysmic for sovereign First Nations peoples around the globe. Enlightenment ideas decimated the First Nations peoples of America, Canada and Australia, and commodified millions of Africans and sold them into slavery. Hardly a person on the planet escaped the plague of the civilising influence of the West.

The oppression of native Indonesians during Dutch colonial rule was portrayed in Pramoedya’s 1980 novel Bumi Manusia (The Earth of Mankind). Pramoedya recounted the colonial plague that ran through the blood of a highly stratified society based on race and colour. This plague later fuelled the fire of Indonesian nationalism against Dutch occupation, leading to the declaration of independence in 1945.

In Indonesia, Papuans are called bodoh (stupid), kotor (dirty), and terbelakang (backward). The war starts here – at the level of mind, language and conception. How can Indonesians and Papuans relate to each other on an equal footing when the Indonesian state has clearly been influenced by the colonialist mentality inherited from the Dutch? Recognition of this is crucial to establishing engagement between Papua and the Indonesian state.

West Papua – the garden of Eden turned into a garden of killing

Indonesians view West Papua as a Garden of Eden. However, the Papuans are seen as a problem. To address this problem, Jakarta has adopted a policy of securisation of West Papua. The process of doing that has been disruptive for the Papuans themselves, but also the Indonesians in contradicting their own anti-colonisation rhetoric that preceded the 1945 independence declaration. However, the plight of the Papuan peoples is diminished in the eyes of the world as Indonesia continues to court the West using the “legitimacy” of democracy.

Papuans’ genocide at the hands of Indonesia, and the unprecedented destruction of their ancestral homeland, originated in European racism. Indonesians are merely imitating the demonization of their humanity practiced by the institutionalized racism of the Dutch colonial system in their pursuit of securing the resources beyond their borders.

The myth of the so-called ‘civilised human’ provided a mandate to ‘re-humanise’ others whom they considered lesser or improper humans. This is the crux of the colonial plague that reverberated across the planet over the past 500 years. We are still suffering from this plague. This myth has become one of the most dangerous ever concocted. Indonesians still believe and practice this idea in West Papua
They want to love Papua, but they can’t because the problem starts in the myth that regulates the Indonesian colonial mindset.

Special Autonomy is dead

The failed project of Special Autonomy that was imposed upon Papuans in 2001 as a compromise for the growing demand for independence after Suharto’s new order collapsed, has largely been rejected by Papuans. Despite this rejection, Jakarta still insists Papuan elites to re-evaluate why the project failed, despite the fact that Papuans have repeatedly informed Jakarta that Special Autonomy has failed. Papuans rejected this idea by portraying it as a coffin containing many dead Papuan bodies. They buried this coffin signifying that any ideas, and policies introduced by Jakarta regarding the fate of West Papua would mean death for Papuans.
If Jakarta is sincere about a solution to West Papua’s problems, they need not re-evaluate Special Autonomy. Instead, they must start by re-evaluating how they think about West Papua.

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