Special Report

22 August 2019

Indonesian racism towards Papuans and its implications for the Free West Papua Movement

A caricature of a monkey and the Free West Papua Morning Star flag such an insult cuts deep into the hearts of Papuans. Image: Social media
23 August 2019

Yamin Kogoya examines years of racism by Indonesians toward Melanesian Papuans and their Pacific culture and identity. He asks whether Pacific countries will ‘sell their souls’ in the face of Indonesian bribes rather than back Papuan independence.

Escalating violence and attacks on Papuan students saw thousands of young people march on the streets this week and set fire to the Parliament building in West Papua. This was in response to Papuan students being attacked in their dormitory in Surabaya last weekend after they had allegedly bent a flagpole during the Indonesian Independence Day celebrations on August 17.

Surabaya police chief, Senior Commissioner Sandi Nugroho, said the attack on the Papuan student dormitory was carried out by Indonesian nationalist community groups who were angered by the treatment of their national flag.

In an effort to restore calm, the Papua Governor, Lukas Enembe called on all Indonesian citizens to respect their  national value of “unity in diversity” (Bhineka Tunggal Ika), and for the security forces to act professionally and in accordance with Indonesian laws and to not let activist groups take the law in their own hands.

He reiterated that Papuans studying in Indonesian cities and towns must be treated with dignity and respect and this is how Papuans treat Indonesians studying in West Papua.

The timing of last weeks’ attacks, retaliations and protests could not be more significant for both the Papuans and Indonesians. On 16 August 2019, the leaders of Pacific Island nations passed several resolutions regarding the Papuan genocide at the Pacific Island Forums, while 17 August 2019 was the 74th anniversary of Indonesia’s Independence Day.

Papuans have endured years of racism and violence
Papuans are no stranger to Indonesia’s cruel and violent racism and which they have endured since the 1960s. Papuans have died, been marginalised, and had their rights denied because of racism.

Filep Karma, a West Papuan political activist experienced firsthand racism by Indonesians during his university years, and in 2014 said: “As If We Are Half Animal: Indonesia’s Racism in Papua Land”.

Fifty-six years later, and these cruel racial slurs are alive and thriving as Papuans continue to be called monkeys, insinuating that they are primitive. This insult cuts deep in the hearts of Papuans.

Just last week, Indonesian Human Rights Lawyer, Veronica Koman posted videos on her Twitter feed of Indonesian demonstrators holding up picture monkeys and chanted “kick out, kick out the transmigrants, kick out transmigrants now”.

While the world’s media is focusing on the violence involved in the demonstrations, they are ignoring what is at the heart of the demonstrations, that being racism. It is not acceptable to call Papuans monkeys, effectively denying them their fundamental intrinsic value of being human.

And while President Joko Widodo called on his brothers and sisters in Papua and West Papua to forgive and forget, the racial harassment and discriminations against Papuan students has been ongoing.

Governor Enembe said: “Papuans students throughout Indonesia always get called Monkey and are not safe”.

During an interview on Indonesian TV ONE, he condemned the way Papuan students are treated in other parts of Indonesia.

“It has been 74 years since Indonesia gained its independence from the Dutch and this country still treats my people inhumanly. If the situation doesn’t improve, I will bring my Papuan students back home,” he said.

Racism is a weapon deployed by the colonial power to break down the Papuan human spirit.  This is the same weapon Indonesia is using that was used on them by the Europeans, and who killed millions of the first nation people around the world over 500 years.

A case of money-see-monkey-do for Indonesia?
As The Jakarta Post reported, “racism” is at the heart of the Surabaya -West Papua conflict, and highlighted Indonesia’s own experience of racism under the Dutch colonial rule.

It appears that after 74 years of independence from the Dutch, and despite Indonesia’s national ideology of “Pancasila” and “Bhineka Tunggal Ika” (Five constitutional Pillars and Unity in Diversity”, it is still suffering from the decades of racial abuse under Dutch rule.

Indonesian treatment of Papuans is like a revenge towards unexamined grievances they suffered. Papuans’ genocide at the hands of Indonesia in West Papua and unprecedented destruction of their ancestral homeland originated in the minds of racist Europeans. 

But they are projecting their anger onto the wrong people. They should direct their anger onto the Dutch and Western governments.

The Dutch used guns and the Bible to tame the Indigenous Indonesian over 300 years. They broke their human spirit and imagination through racial discrimination. They were dehumanized and used as a lethal weapon against all other non-Dutch Europeans.

The Dutch implemented a class system whereby the Indonesians were third class citizens, well beneath the first-class Europeans, and the second-class Chinese and Arabs.

And so, the cycle continues, with Indonesia trying to dehumanise and break the Papuan spirit so they can rebuild them to identity with Indonesian colonial ideas.

Indonesia wants to love Papuans and accept them as part of Indonesia. However, they cannot because, just like their former European colonialists, Indonesia has wrong and distorted information about Papuans.

As articulated by sociologist Thomas Scheff in The Jakarta Post on Friday, May 31, 2013:

“There is no love between Papuans and Indonesians. It is infatuation. Genuine love requires detailed knowledge of the other”.

Another tragic learned behaviour from the Dutch is Indonesia taking the role of “definer”. Essentially, Indonesia sees itself as the tape measure that other people and cultures have to measure up to or ‘be defined’.

Papuans are subjected to racism everywhere they go, from university dormitories, the marketplace and on the streets. The Papuan values, feelings, emotions and psychology are under constant attack by the colonial racist system. This is the institutionalised racism to poison the soul of Papuans.

Papua a racism football kicked around for years
West Papua has been treated as a commodity for years, being passed around and sacrificed as world leaders saw fit. The USA, Australia, Dutch and Indonesia decided its fate during the negotiations in the 1960s. It was sacrificed for world peace on UN’s alter in 1963 and handed over to Indonesia in an attempt to halt the spread of communism in Indonesia (by way of providing an army).  Remarkably, West Papuans was never considered nor were they invited to participate in this meeting

US President Kennedy referred to West Papuans as “The 700,000 living in the Stone Age…a few thousand square miles of cannibals land.” Papuans was used to secure the interest of Western governments and the Soviet Bloc. They had no value and rights. The result of these negotiations cost millions of Papuan lives.

Western policy makers were more concerned with teaching Papuans how to eat with knife and fork rather than their rights for political independence.

Unfortunately for Papuans, their relationship with Europeans has always been tainted by racism. The Western governments, Chinese, Indonesian and industrialised countries always assume that natural state of being Papuan is not desirable which is why they always attempt to dehumanise the Papuans.

According to Dr Tarcisius Kabutaulaka, associate professor at the Centre for Pacific Islands Studies at the University of Hawai’i, Europeans have always placed Melanesian people at the bottom of human hierarchy because of their darker skin colours and cultural traits that led to them being viewed as primitive.

They bear the internal stigma of “Oceanic Negroes”.  The crimes Melanesian committed to be boxed at the bottom of the Europeans’ category was simply the fact.

Is this the path to independence?
The intriguing aspect about this recent demonstration is how seriously Papuan students and young people are taking the issue of “racism”. They are using the ongoing racism to voice their deep aspiration for independence from Indonesia.

Recently, Indonesia has been focusing on building diplomatic relationships with the Pacific island countries but, how can a genuine relationship be built and sustained when one party approaches the other with a paternalistic colonial mental outlook? This was evident during the 2019 Pacific Exposition in Auckland whereby the Indonesian government did not disclose the real issues faced by Papuans. What Indonesia did display was misconstrued image of the Papuan.

If Indonesia continues to see Papuans through the lens of racism (monkey), why would they treat any other black race in the Oceania with love and respect. To build a sense of brotherhood among all men across all our cultural and religious prejudices, we need a new interconnectedness worldview, not racially fragmented one.

if President Jokowi was sincere about calling Papuans “brothers and sisters” then it is time for Indonesian to treat Papuans with dignity and respect, including the overwhelming desire by Papuans for “Independence”. Otherwise these words are meaningless.

Despite the Indonesian effort to truncate the growing support for an independent West Papua, the Pacific island leaders did pass a few resolutions in during last week PIF’s meeting in Tuvalu.

What do these resolutions really mean to Papuans? Whether it was a mere Orwellian exercise concocting the final communique -a pure fiasco or it is one of the steps that will enable the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) to enter UN General Assembly, one thing is clear that support for the West Papuans plight is growing.

This support from Pacific island communities will likely grow in the future if Indonesia continues to mistreat their fellow Papuans.

Calling Papuans a monkey can and will ignite the fire of resistance (as seen by thousands of Papuans protesting and setting fire to parliament house). The issue of racism is serious and failure to recognise this will end up costing Indonesia the very thing they are trying to hold on to.

As Evi Mariani warned Jakarta in her paper published yesterday by The Jakarta Post:

“Racism in the love story in Bumi Manusia is the prequel to Indonesia’s budding nationalism against the occupation of the Dutch before our independence in 1945. Surely, we would not want the racism befalling Papuans to pave the way for their struggle for independence from 'Indonesian occupation' on their land.”

The outspoken Free West Papua advocate, the governor of PNG Oro Province, Gary Juffa has warned through his official Facebook page that:

“In case any of you have any misconception about your future fate at the hands of expanding Indonesian influence…here is a grim remainder…if they call our brothers and sisters monkeys…on their own land…that is exactly what they are calling us now”

The leaders of “Blue Pacific” cannot be naïve like a rabbit by inviting the wolves from Jakarta, Beijing and Canberra to discuss about what they are going to have for dinner. Dangerous and yet virtues rabbit is better than harmless and virtue less creature that lives only to be eaten by predators.

It is West Papua’s deepest hope that the Pacific Island leaders will not sacrifice West Papua by accepting a worldly materialistic offer by Jakarta, Beijing and Canberra. How remarkable it would be in this modern world for the racially abused and subjugated people are able to stand firm against the might and reject the gold in favour of their own souls. That would be the retelling of an old story written anew.

Yamin Kogoya is a West Papuan academic who has a Master of Applied Anthropology and Participatory Development from the Australian National University who contributes to Asia Pacific Report. From the Lani tribe in the Papuan Highlands, he is currently living in the Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia.

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