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Minggu, 02 Juni 2013

Tangled in Papua’s political tickets - The Jakarta Post

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Fifty years ago in May, Indonesia took over administration of what is now known as West Papua. Two years later the Free Papua Movement (OPM) started.

Following the fall of president Soeharto in 1998, some thought the time was right to seek independence.

But how to do it? In the remote province few knew more than the meaning of merdeka (ironically gained from studying Indonesian history), the urge to demonstrate and a symbol.

On Biak Island off the north coast there was political will, but no flag. Activist Filep Karma had seen the Morning Star flag but couldn’t remember details.

Employing a seamstress would have attracted the police, so Karma sprayed blue and red spray paint on a piece of white cloth. This was raised over a water tank at the harbor. A prayer meeting was held. It was a makeshift, amateurish, largely spontaneous and certainly naive protest.

The unarmed demonstrators brandished Bibles and sang hymns. That didn’t stop the military opening fire, apparently because some soldiers had been assaulted.

Karma was shot but survived. He alleged 29 were killed. Witnesses claim bodies were dumped at sea. The Army said just one person died, and the washed up corpses were victims of a giant wave far away.

Also in Biak, was an American doctoral student Eben Kirksey who heard (but didn’t see) the shootings. Had he been able to film the event, as journalists did in 1991 at Dili’s Santa Cruz massacre, the world might have paid more attention.

East Timor is now an independent nation, in part because of the outrage following the Dili killings. But West Papua remains firmly Indonesian, with the support of Western governments. With revolutions in Africa and the Middle East, the problems of the region get little international attention.

In Kirksey’s Freedom in Entangled Worlds we get a book with enough insights to fill in the gaps — but not an objective account.

The Indonesian government’s refusal to let in foreign journalists means that most reports come from partisan sources, including the military. As in Syria, this leaves us wondering who to believe.

The author first encountered Papua in the 1990s when traveling from the US to Jakarta as an exchange student.

During the night refuel the teenager got a whiff of the exotic and mysterious — penis gourds and grass skirts, oppressive heat and the scent of kretek (clove) cigarettes,

Later he returned as an adult planning a thesis on the independence movement and globalization. Instead, he was “drawn into a struggle for freedom […] [becoming] an advocate who accompanied West Papuan activists in political meetings”.

In 2005, he worked in Washington as a human rights advocate. Hardly the language, and position for an even-handed academic.

Nonetheless, Kirksey’s extensive research has been accepted and he’s now a lecturer at Sydney University where he teaches environmental humanities. He’s also become a media commentator on West Papua.

This book proves not all dissertations translate well into mainstream nonfiction. There are plenty of fascinating anecdotes illustrating the cultural complexities and the author’s undercover work, but these have been forced into theoretical moulds and decorated with jargon.

So, we get mixtures of Melanesian myths and magic laced with half understood, or misunderstood stories from the West, guaranteed to engross all, then given equally weird explanations.

To try and make sense of it all he uses extended metaphors drawn from the natural surroundings — jungle roots.

West Papua is quivering with spies. It’s almost impossible to do anything or meet anyone without being observed and reported to intelligence, so activists and Kirksey have taken great risks to garner information.

The man is no dilettante. He spent three months with one tribe — speaks Indonesian and Logat Papua and interviewed 400 people; impressive no doubt and so is his lack of arrogance. His achievement is “not a monograph with pretensions to completeness [but] a story of compromises situated within multiple entangled worlds”.

 A tangled world indeed. The layers over traditional beliefs have included Dutch colonialism, WWII, fundamentalist Christianity, academic analysis, capitalism, massive mineral exploitation and military oppression.

The missionaries introduced hopes of the Messiah’s return. The Allied armies’ cargo brought proof of the riches beyond the mountains that could appear out of the sky given the right mantra.

Instead, ironically on Christmas Day 1971, Freeport arrived to dig a giant hole and take away the province’s riches. What were the poorly educated and uninformed (or misinformed) Papuans to make of it all?

That so many have mastered the complexities of international business and politics, and aroused global concerns about exploitation and alleged human rights abuses is a tribute to their abilities, tenacity and courage.

There are signs of hope. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is reported to be pushing for a “development through compassion” solution before he leaves office next year.

One way would be to listen to the Papuans’ grievances, ranging from dispossession, through torture and murder, enough of their dreadful plight articulated in this book to warrant action that doesn’t involve violence.

The danger is that Kirksey’s book will be considered antagonistic by the military, restricting a peaceful and just settlement of this suppurating wound infecting Indonesia’s relationship with the rest of the world, and particularly Australia.

Published: The Jakarta Post 
Freedom in Entangled Worlds: West Papua and the architecture of global power.Eben Kirksey - Duke University Press 2012 - 322 pages

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