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What is actually the root of the problem in Papua?

Categories: Asia-Pacific, Assimilation, Corruption, Culture, Genocide, Genocide by stealth, Human Rights, International Law, Propaganda, Rule of Law, United Nations, West Papua

by: Bakchos
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The following is an extract of an interview between Bambang Dharmono, former Aceh military commander and negotiator representing Indonesia for the Aceh Monitoring Mission (AMM), to lead the Presidential Unit for the Acceleration of Development in Papua and West Papua (UP4B) and journalist Nani Afrida which appeared in The Jakarta Post on 16 December, 2011.

The question posed by Nani to Bambang was “What is actually the root of the problem in Papua?” Bambang’s response follows:

First, the problem revolves around different perceptions about the annexation of Papua into Indonesia from the Dutch rule in 1969 based on a United Nations (UN) ruling. Before that there was a referendum in Papua to determine the province’s fate, organized by the UN. Based on the referendum, the UN then issued a resolution to include Papua into Indonesia in a vote that saw 80 countries agree to the decision while 31 others abstained. No countries opposed the idea. However, there was a group that rejected the referendum results, claiming it was rigged. The group, as we know it today, is the Free Papua Movement (OPM). These different perceptions have lasted until now. Younger generations of Papuans still cannot get the history straight. Perhaps, there should be more local content on historical perspectives in the school curriculum to help ease the differences in perception.

The second problem is undoubtedly corruption. Native Papuan leaders whom I’ve met have regularly provided me with input on graft cases afflicting the province. I received a stack of corruption files more than a meter tall from them. The province has received trillions of rupiah from the special autonomy fund which mostly has not been used for the people’s welfare. I am sure that corruption has played a role in the sluggish channeling of the fund. There is also a correlation of the violent conflict with corruption, in which many corrupt Papuan leaders usually provoke the sentiment of independence when the law enforcers or audit agencies are about to check their financial accountability. So I have come to the conclusion that what happened in Papua is a combination of disharmony resulting from the different perceptions of history and corruption.

To my mind at least Bambang has raised two important issues. The first is, to quote Bambang directly “Younger generations of Papuans still cannot get the history straight. Perhaps, there should be more local content on historical perspectives in the school curriculum to help ease the differences in perception.” What is it that Bambang believes that the younger generation of Papuan’s don’t understand? The answer to that question is simple, the Javanese and the Papuan’s have differing views on how Papua came to be incorporated into the Javanese empire.

Bambang would like us all to believe that the Javanese are benevolent rulers who incorporated Papua into the Javanese empire in 1969 to save them from Dutch imperialism. The realities underpinning the 1969 so called Act of Free Choice are far removed from Bambang’s sanitized version of events. That being said, it is beyond dispute that both the Javanese and the Papuan’s have been in the past, and the Papuan’s remain to this day, victims of Western Christian hypocrisy and greed.

The Act of Free Choice was a vote by 1025 men selected by the Indonesian military. The event was noted by the United Nations in General Assembly resolution 2504 (XXIV) without qualification as to whether it complied with the authorizing New York Agreement and without qualification as to whether it was an act of “self-determination” as referred to, and described in United Nations General Assembly resolutions 1514 and 1541 (XV) respectively.

Unsurprisingly, given that the vote was overseen by the Indonesian Military, the 1025 voted unanimously to relinquish self-determination in favour of Indonesian citizenship, an outcome acquiesced to by a West more concerned about the Cold War and countering the perceived Soviet threat to the so called Western Democracies than with a few “stone-aged” tribesmen living in a remote corner of the world.

Indeed according to participants in Adelaide filmmaker Charlie Hill-Smith’s passionate musical and cultural expose on West Papua Strange Birds in Paradise: A West Papuan Story the Javanese controlled Indonesian military threatened to cut the tongues out and then electrocute any of their 1025 hand-picked stooges if they dared to vote any way other than the total abrogation of their freedom in favour of Indonesian citizenship. It would taken a brave man indeed to vote no in these circumstances.

Perhaps the people of Papua are the ongoing victims and causalities of the French and American decolonisation ten thousand day debacle that became known as the Vietnam War. While the United States was engaged in the process of being slaughtered and humiliated in the jungles of Vietnam, it was inconceivable to think that the West would intervene in the Papuan struggle. Suharto would have known and banked on the fact that the United States would not open another front against a colonised people ostensibly fighting for independence, because it would stretch their political and physical resources too far.

While on the point of history and the on-going Papuan genocide, let’s not forget the role played by the Freeport mine, American economic imperialism and Australian self-interest in what befell the Papuan people in 1969. With due respect to Bambang, any true history of the Act of Free Choice must include an analysis of Cold War politicking, economic imperialism and plain old-fashioned greed and self-interest. Remember, to be beneficial, history must be truthful and analytical, not partisan and self-serving.

The second issue raised by Bambang, that of corruption amongst the Papuan ruling elite, is one for which I hold more sympathy. Corruption is an issue that confronts indigenous communities worldwide. It is one of the ‘benefits’ bestowed on indigenous communities by their colonial masters as part of the process of invasion, occupation, exploitation and finally genocide that all too often forms part of the colonial experience of the colonised.

A team will always win over a group of individuals; no matter how spectacular the performances of the individual within a group of individuals are, the team using team tactic will always prevail. The tried and true methods of imperialism include divide and conqueror. Divide and conqueror does not only mean playing one group off against another, but extends to playing would be leaders with the same group off against each other. This leads to corruption as members of a group vie for the resources, privileges and power that can only be bestowed by the invader once the resources of the indigenous communities become incorporated into the economy of the invader and their culture.

Perhaps the Papuan’s who approached Bambang are naïve, but it’s a naivety born out of frustration and desperation. Frustration at seeing their culture and way of life destroyed for someone else’s benefit and desperation because the only possible form of redress lies in the hands of the very invaders who created the injustice in the first place. Perhaps Bambang himself is a man of honour and justice, but the system he represents is not. Remembering that the system he represents itself has its genesis more in Western Christian greed and racism than in the indigenous cultures of the Indonesian archipelago.

The only fair way to deal with these issues is to allow indigenous people to reconnect with their cultures and come up with their own culturally appropriate ways of solving their own problems. This would require a wind back of colonisation in areas where that process is still possible. Papua would be one of those places.

What makes the West think that its culture is superior to indigenous cultures? The answer probably lies in specialisation. Western economies, which includes the Indonesian economy, have a high degree of economic specialisation which gives rise to a workforce where individuals are highly competent in their chosen areas of specialisation, but as human beings become less competent than those in more traditional economies. This specialisation in turn or at least in part has allowed the West to become economically and culturally dominant in the 19th and 20th Centuries. This is also the benchmark that the West sets for indigenous communities.

Does specialisation equate to civilization? The clearest and most obvious example to posit in response to this question is the Third Reich. The Third Reich was that disgraceful period in the history of Modern Germany that ran from 1933 until 2nd May 1945, when Soviet troops accepted the surrender of the last defenders of Hitler’s imperial capital following his suicide.

The Third Reich was a highly specialised economic machine. In fact this specialisation extended to the economic apparatus that saw six million Jews along with countless Gypsies, homosexuals and other ‘undesirables’ sent to their deaths in concentration camps for the supposed benefit of a purified German dominated West. Indeed, specialisation in the Third Reich extended to processing the corpses of the recently murdered to further the Third Reich’s war effort. Are actions like this the hallmarks of a civilized nation? Only the individual can judge this for themselves. For my money the answer is a resounding “No.” That being said, the economy of the Third Reich was nothing if not specialised.

For the life of me I fail to see why indigenous people would want to swap age old and successful cultures for an economic system that can devise industrial scale murder as an acceptable means of economic and ‘cultural’ progress. This type of abomination would be unthinkable to indigenous people, but then again we are uncivilized!

Post script: The full episode of Strange Bird in Paradise is available for free via SBS on Demand until 11 January 2012. The program runs for about one hour. I know its short notice, but please take the opportunity to watch the documentary today, to broaden your understanding of the issues in West Papua and consider the perspective of our indigenous neighbours just north of Australia.

Will you sign the petition calling for a Royal Commission into the Australian Federal Police?


  1. Hey give these people their freedom, the Act of Free Choice was nothing more than a con. United we stand…

  2. The Indonesians seem to be suffering from the very thing that Whitie suffers from – hubris. The land belongs to the indigenous Papuan people, so does its resources. Let’s take a long hard look at the role of Freeport in the genocide of the Papuan people. Anyone who works with Freeport is complicit in the genocide that Freeport helped usher in. That includes Ernst & Young!

  3. The problem is US consumerism. Why does a white middle-class person in the US believe that they are entitled to squander the world’s resources in the name of their middle-class existence? The root cause of the problems in Papua as in many other parts of the world is Western consumer greed.

  4. Tom Ashby I agree that US consumerism is at the root of a lot of these problems, but it goes deeper than that, it’s about people putting self before community. This planet is a community and everyone on it has obligations to this community. Think before you act, make your choices count.

  5. Anne via Facebook says:

    I watched Strange Birds in Paradise. How history gets re-written by the powerful through propaganda. It’s just like reading about the tactics Snowball used in George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’. And the sad thing is that the repression is supported by the self-serving adjoining farms/nations who seek their own profit. Human rights is an illusion when this is what happens.

  6. Tom Ashby and Jenifer Trees we need to look beyond the hype of consumerism to the root cause, greed and the Christian concepts of race and accountability. If you don’t have to accept personal accountability because GOD forgives all sinners, everything you do becomes acceptable. This is the root of many of the worlds problems.

  7. As soon as enough people speak out against racism it is possible that issues like papua can be solved. All it takes is goodwill!

  8. Anne Shiny whenever self-interest raises its ugly head human rights become an illusion. The problem as Bakchos Glass has pointed out is that once a colonizer moves in and quarantines an indigenous cultures resources for their own purposes, the would be rulers within the colonized vie for the favour of the colonizers to enhance their own position within their own and the colonizers communities. This leads to corruption and a breakdown in traditional ways, the end result is inevitable – cultural genocide.

  9. Sally Glass you are totally right, self-interest is at the root of the issues in Papua and within Australia’s own indigenous communities. Hopefully the swing to the right will become a swing to the left.

  10. Mahmud Ahsan via Facebook says:

    Europeans come along take their land and resources rape and murder their families and then trade the white colonizer for a brownish/yellowish colonizer. Are these people going to have trouble coming to terms with what has happened to them? What do you think! In the case of Papua what corruption there is amongst the indigenous population is born out of frustration and desperation. Give the Papuan people their lives back!

  11. Mahmud Ahsan if only we could turn the clock back, but we can’t so we have to find a way of dealing with the reality as it is today. The colonizers must afford us the indigenous people justice in full measure before any real progress to normality can be made.

  12. I’ve put my mind to this question several times, but it always comes up blank. Can anyone please tell me or provide me even one example of an indigenous culture that has survived a colonial encounter. I suspect that the real answer is none.

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