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Indonesia has a Papua problem

New York Times - September 26, 2019

Eka Kurniawan, Jakarta, Indonesia – In an ideal Indonesia, a Papuan man would live in Jakarta and become a civil servant. He would marry a Padang woman from western Indonesia. They would open a small restaurant and hire a young Sundanese woman. Their customers would be a mix of Javanese, Betawi and other ethnic groups.

This was the scenario of a TV sitcom, "Minus Family," that aired a few years ago, for which I was a head writer. The show tried to tap Indonesia's obsession with diversity and harmony, which is encapsulated in the state motto, "We are all different but we are one." An obsession with diversity and harmony that, in reality, often ends in violence.

As Indonesians were celebrating Independence Day on Aug. 17, a photo surfaced online, like pus leaking from a wound, and was widely circulated. It showed a Papuan man at a protest in Surabaya, a city on eastern Java, holding up a poster with the words, "If we are monkeys, then don't force monkeys to fly The Red and White." A few days before, an Indonesian national flag (red and white) in front of a dormitory for Papuan students had been torn down. The police, the army and some nationalist groups blamed the students, and a mob stormed the building. In a video recording of the scene, the crowd can be heard shouting, "Monkey."

Supreme irony: Just then a film adaptation of Pramoedya Ananta Toer's novel "Bumi Manusia" ("This Earth of Mankind") was playing in theaters throughout the country. The story, set in Dutch colonial times, features a young Javanese protagonist who is mocked by his Dutch teacher and nicknamed "Minke" – Monkey. In the book, the name Minke comes to symbolize how a colonial power subjugated the Javanese indigenous consciousness. Today, a young Papuan holds up a poster with the word "monkey" to denounce the oppression of Papuans under Indonesian rule.

The slur (and more name-calling) brought thousands of people out into the streets of several cities in Papua and West Papua, Indonesia's easternmost provinces, for several days last month. The police and army responded; there were clashes. At least 10 people were killed. Many more were injured by knives and arrows.

Again this week, more than 30 people have died in protest-related violence in the Papuan cities of Wamena and Jayapura – again, because a non-Papuan reportedly called a Papuan, "Monkey."

These protests, set off by the racism that Indonesia's estimated three million Papuans have had to endure for decades, are reviving calls for self-determination. Some demonstrators waved the Morning Star flag, a symbol of Papuan independence – including in front of the presidential palace in Jakarta.

The region of Papua remained under Dutch control after Indonesia proclaimed its independence in 1945. But it was incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 after a much-criticized pseudoreferendum organized by the United Nations, despite the objections of local liberation groups. Separatist sentiment has endured since, in part because the region, though resource-rich, is the poorest in the country.

These old grievances are resurfacing, erupting, now, even as President Joko Widodo – who has gone to Papua about twice a year since taking office in 2014; who, many hoped, would bring justice to Papuans – is about to be inaugurated for a second term next month.

Mr. Joko rose to national prominence at least in part because he was a civilian and, unlike his opponents, was unburdened by prior political sins like human rights violations. He promised, among other things, welfare for the poor and a break and a reckoning with Indonesia's authoritarian past. But since coming to power, his administration has done little against abuses and prejudice.

No one has been held accountable for the massacre of members of the Communist Party of Indonesia and their sympathizers in 1965 and 1966. The mass abductions and rapes of ethnic Chinese in 1998 remain unresolved, though victims' relatives still gather weekly in front of the presidential palace to demand justice. The presumed mastermind behind the murder, mid-flight, of the human rights activist Munir Said Thalib in 2004 has been left untroubled.

The Joko administration has also been weak in addressing cases of intolerance, especially against minorities. Indonesia is a Muslim-majority democracy but also a secular state with many ethnic and religious groups. Christians and Hindus have difficulty obtaining construction permits for churches and temples. Refugees from the Ahmadi sect, a Muslim reformist movement seen as heretical by conservative Muslims, cannot return to their homes, which were destroyed by mobs.

"My government is about harmony and opposing extremism," Mr. Joko has said. But when the time came to run for re-election this year, he chose Ma'ruf Amin, an Islamic cleric, homophobic and intolerant, as his running mate.

The recent outburst of racism against Papuans is laying bare the failures and true character of Mr. Joko's government. He won 78 percent of the vote in Papua this year, apparently having impressed voters with promises of massive infrastructure development projects. He has lowered the local price of fuel, at least in official depots. He has inaugurated traditional markets for Papuan women. He has been photographed carrying Papuan children like a caring father. He recently announced that the national capital would be moved from Jakarta to the island of Kalimantan, far closer to eastern Indonesia.

But after the first "monkey" riots last month, more police and military troops were deployed in Papua. Internet access was cut off in a number of Papuan cities. Foreign journalists were barred from going. Mr. Joko also appointed Wiranto, his top security official, to handle the situation – Wiranto, who has been indicted by a United Nations body for overseeing mass crimes and deportations in East Timor in 1999, when he was army chief and defense minister. (He denies the charges, and successive Indonesian governments have ignored them.)

Late last month in Jakarta, a few Papuan students were arrested at their lodgings, accused of flying the Morning Star flag. A few days later in Jayapura, police and soldiers stormed the home of Buchtar Tabuni, a high-profile Papuan activist, and arrested him for suspected treason.

The crackdown targets not just Papuans, but anyone who sympathizes with their struggle. Surya Anta Ginting, the spokesman for the Indonesian People's Front for West Papua, was arrested alongside the students, also on treason charges. While in detention, he reportedly was held in isolation and made to listen to nationalist songs.

Veronica Koman, a lawyer for the West Papua National Committee, a pro-independence group, has been accused of provoking the protests and spreading fake news, simply because she shared information about Papua on Twitter. She is thought to be in Australia, and the Indonesian police have asked Interpol to arrest her and have threatened to revoke her passport.

Once again, a crisis in Papua is revealing the true face of the Indonesian government. This is an Indonesian government that, rather than listen to the Papuan people's cries for dignity and equity, tries to quiet them with soldiers and money. This is an Indonesian government that allows Papuan people to be called monkeys and then asks them simply to forgive.

[Eka Kurniawan is the author of "Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash," "Beauty is a Wound" and "Man Tiger." This essay was translated from the Bahasa Indonesia by Annie Tucker.]

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/26/opinion/papua-riots-indonesia-monkey.html