CANBERRA - Escalating violence and attacks on Papuan students saw thousands of young people march on the streets and set fire to the parliament building in West Papua on Monday.
This was in response to Papuan students being attacked in a dormitory in Surabaya last week after they had allegedly bent a flagpole during Indonesian Independence Day celebrations last Saturday.
Surabaya police chief senior commissioner Sandi Nugroho said the attack on the dormitory was carried out by Indonesian nationalist community groups angered by the treatment of their national flag.
In an effort to restore calm, Papua Governor Lukas Enembe called on all Indonesian citizens to respect their national value of ‘unity in diversity’ (Bhineka Tunggal Ika) and asked security forces to act professionally and in accordance with Indonesian laws and to not let activist groups take the law in their own hands.
Enembe reiterated that Papuans studying in Indonesian cities and towns must be treated with dignity and respect which is how Papuans treat Indonesians studying in West Papua.
The timing of the attacks, retaliations and protests could not be more significant for both Papuans and Indonesians.
On Friday 16 August 2019, the leaders at the Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu passed several resolutions regarding the Papuan genocide.
The following day was the 74th anniversary of Indonesia’s Independence.
Papuans are no stranger to Indonesia’s cruel and violent racism and which they have endured since the 1960s. They have died, been marginalised and had their rights denied because of racism.
Filep Karma, a West Papuan political activist, experienced first-hand racism by Indonesians during his university years, and in 2014 wrote, ‘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 pictures of monkeys and chanting, “Kick out, kick out the transmigrants, kick out transmigrants now”.
While the world’s media focussed on violent demonstrations, they ignored what is at the heart of the demonstrations - 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, racial harassment and discrimination against Papuan students has been ongoing.
“Papuan students throughout Indonesia always get called ‘monkey’ and are not safe,” Governor Enembe has said, condemning 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”.
The Jakarta Post also reported racism as at the heart of the Surabaya conflict and it echoed Indonesia’s own experience of racism under Dutch colonial rule.
And so the cycle continues, with Indonesia trying to dehumanise and break the Papuan spirit so they can rebuild Papuans to identity with Indonesian colonial ideas.
As articulated by sociologist Thomas Scheff in a Jakarta Post article in 2013, “There is no love between Papuans and Indonesians. It is infatuation. Genuine love requires detailed knowledge of the other”.
Papuans are subject to racism everywhere they go, in university dormitories, the marketplace and on the streets. Papuan values, feelings, emotions and psychology are under constant attack by a racist system.
West Papua has been treated as a commodity for years, being passed around and sacrificed as world leaders saw fit. US president John Kennedy referred to West Papuans as “the 700,000 living in the stone age… a few thousand square miles of cannibals’ land.”
The USA, Australia, Netherlands and Indonesia decided its fate during negotiations in the 1960s. It was sacrificed on the UN’s altar in 1963 and handed to Indonesia in an attempt to halt the spread of communism in Indonesia.
West Papuans were never considered nor were they invited to participate in this decision. The result of these negotiations cost millions of Papuan lives.
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?
If Indonesia continues to see Papuans through the lens of racism, why would it treat any other black race in Oceania with love and respect?
To build a sense of comradeship across cultural and religious differences, we need a new interconnected worldview, not a racially fragmented one.
If President Jokowi is 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.
Despite an Indonesian effort to prune growing support for an independent West Papua, the Pacific island leaders did pass a few resolutions at last week Forum in Tuvalu. It is clear that support for the West Papuans plight is growing.
And this support from Pacific island communities will likely grow in future if Indonesia continues to mistreat their fellow Papuans.
As Evi Mariani warned in Tuesday’s Jakarta Post: “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, Papua New Guinean governor Gary Juffa has warned on his Facebook page: “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”.
It is West Papua’s deepest hope that Pacific Island leaders will not sacrifice West Papua by accepting a worldly materialistic offer by Jakarta, Beijing or Canberra.
How remarkable it would be in this modern world for a racially abused and subjugated people 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.