Realising the promise of the swamps
In the warriors’ code, there is no surrender

The colonial mythology behind West Papua


CANBERRA – Yesterday, 1 December, was the day of West Papuan statehood, remembrance, and mourning

Each year on this day, Papuans commemorate the conception of a new Papuan state. This was West Papua’s original Independence Day.

The Morning Star flag was first raised in 1961 as the Dutch prepared West Papua for independence. Unfortunately, its statehood was short-lived. A few months later the Indonesian military invaded the independent sovereign nation.

Since that time, the Indonesian government has endeavoured to eradicate any attempt to revive the dream of statehood through a sequence of military campaigns. All Papuan lives have, in one way or another, been shaped by these wars.

Jakarta’s fear of an independent Papuan state is exemplified by its ruthless response to leaders calling for an end to Indonesian rule.

For example, the assassination of the Papuan tribal chief Theys Eluay and the killing of the senior commander of Organisasi Papua Merdeka (Free Papua Movement), Kelly Kwalik, in 2009 sent a clear message of Indonesia’s attitude towards the raising of the Morning Star.

This idea of statehood is written in the hearts, mind and blood of hundreds of thousands of Papuans. In remembrance of their sacrifices, the leader of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP), Benny Wenda, called for a national day of prayer yesterday.

This year marks the fifty-ninth anniversary of the day that West Papuans first raised their flag. It is nearly 60 years since statehood was removed by Indonesia’s Western-endorsed military government with the complicity of the United Nations.

Since the Indonesian invasion, West Papua has been turned into a killing field. As Benny Wenda stated on SBS News on 28 October, “West Papua is becoming a hunting ground by special forces.”

Wenda was responding to the killing of pastor Jeremiah Zanambani at his village in Intan Jaya in September and the severe beating of 13 Papuan students on 27 October.

The entirety of West Papua has been turned into a killing field in which Indonesian security forces have operated with impunity against Papuans for a half a century. These killings continue, but it seems the world doesn’t hear about them.

The UK-based Free West Papua Campaign has reported that on 21 November four West Papuan school students and a 34-year-old man were shot by the Indonesian security forces in Puncak Belantara Limbaga.

We need to reflect on these killings with a fresh perspective. They are not isolated incidents. This violence has its roots in the myth of colonialism’s ‘civilising mission’ that was  carried out in many parts of the world.

The colonial mindset is predicated around the idea that colonised land was more or less uninhabited, any inhabitants without values, norms or rules. Therefore, the task of a ‘civilised’ man was to go into this unoccupied territory and stamp out anything that posed a threat to this mission.

In their minds, the mission was to bring order, good values and civilisation while exploiting the resources of the colonised land. The killing of original inhabitants was often considered inconsequential because, according to this, logic, they were not committing any crime against humanity. They were merely eliminating threats.

In the institutionalised psyche of the colonial mindset, the torture and killing of original inhabitants of the ‘newly discovered uninhabited land’ was justifiable. Original inhabitants were often projected as monsters and savages who posed a threat to moral and civilised men.

This Western fantasy was predicated on the idea that man (specifically white man) was destined to lead the world into a better future.

Peoples considered stupid, savage and primitive had to be enlightened by Western ideas. It was the white man’s duty to civilise the cavemen, monkey men and savage men, saving humanity from ignorance and paganism.

The description of a ‘dark lost world’ with racist undertones was narrated in colonial textbooks such as Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1899), White Man’s Burden by Rudyard Kipling (1899), and Minutes of Education by Mathew Arnold (1852). Such writing reflected the deeply patronising views held by colonialists.

The spirit of the frontier wars between European settlers and the original inhabitants of Australia, Canada, America and New Zealand still haunt the psyche of the Indigenous people of these countries.

Restoring a permanent trust has become challenging as governments continue to regard Indigenous people as a burden to the national story.

The colonial project was based on grossly distorted information and misconstrued ideas of the colonised subjects.

Edward Said shed light on this issue in his ground-breaking book Orientalism (1978). Said argues that the West constructs imagery of a mythical Other – ‘The East’.

The West portrays the Other as mysterious, exotic and somewhat demonic in its savagery, lacking the light of morality and civilisation.

We now know that the idea of civilising the dark planet, concocted during the heyday of European enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, was cataclysmic for sovereign Indigenous peoples around the globe.

Enlightenment ideas decimated the First Nations peoples of America, Canada and Australia, and commodified millions of Africans and sold them into slavery. Hardly a person on the planet escaped the plague of the civilising influence of the West.

The oppression of native Indonesians during Dutch colonial rule was portrayed in Pramoedya’s 1980 novel Bumi Manusia (The Earth of Mankind).

Pramoedya recounted the colonial plague that ran through the blood of a highly stratified society based on race and colour. This plague later fuelled the fire of Indonesian nationalism against Dutch occupation, leading to the declaration of independence in 1945.

In Indonesia, Papuans are called bodoh (stupid), kotor (dirty) and terbelakang (backward).

The war starts here – at the level of mind, language and conception. How can Indonesians and Papuans relate to each other on an equal footing when the Indonesian state has clearly been influenced by the colonialist mentality inherited from the Dutch?

Recognition of this is crucial to establishing engagement between Papua and the Indonesian state.

Indonesians view West Papua as a Garden of Eden. However, the Papuans are seen as a problem. To address this problem, Jakarta has adopted a policy of ‘securisation’ of West Papua.

The process of doing that has been disruptive for the Papuans themselves, but also for the Indonesians in contradicting their own anti-colonisation rhetoric that preceded the 1945 independence declaration.

However, the plight of the Papuan peoples is diminished in the eyes of the world as Indonesia continues to court the West using the ‘legitimacy’ of democracy.

Papuan genocide at the hands of Indonesia, and the unprecedented destruction of their ancestral homeland, originated in European racism.

Indonesians are merely imitating the demonisation of their humanity practiced by the institutionalised racism of the Dutch colonial system in its pursuit of securing resources beyond the borders of the Netherlands.

The myth of the so-called ‘civilised human’ provided a mandate to ‘rehumanise’ others whom they considered lesser or improper humans.

This is the crux of the colonial plague that has reverberated across the planet over the past 500 years. We are still suffering from this plague.

This myth has become one of the most dangerous ever concocted. Indonesians still believe and practice this idea in West Papua

They want to love Papua, but they can’t because the problem starts in the myth that regulates the Indonesian colonial mindset

The failed project of Special Autonomy - imposed upon Papuans in 2001 as a compromise for the growing demand for independence after Suharto’s new order collapsed - has largely been rejected by Papuans.

Despite this, Jakarta still insists that Papuan elites re-evaluate why the project failed, despite the fact Papuans repeatedly informed Jakarta that Special Autonomy has failed.

Papuans rejected this idea by portraying it as a coffin containing many Papuan bodies. They buried this coffin, signifying that any ideas and policies introduced by Jakarta regarding the fate of West Papua would mean death for Papuans.

If Jakarta is sincere about a solution to West Papua’s problems, it needs not re-evaluate Special Autonomy. Instead, it must start by re-evaluating how Indonesia thinks about West Papua.


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Arthur Williams

Keith two points:

1. Was my post of Dec 2nd censored to extinction?

2. Why start a new thread for the same topic? I ask because I note Chris's item here is now a supposedly 'new' post.


(1) I can find no post of yours relating to this article. It was not received. In future, you may like to consider other causes before crying 'censorship'. (2) Comments get elevated to article status where I believe they are important and deserve to be picked up by search engines which often overlook the Recent Comments section of the blog. Always my call - KJ

Chris Overland

While I don't endorse Mr Luck's comments I do have concerns about what Yamin Kagoya has written.

I think that any reasonable person would agree that the systematic oppression of West Papua's Melanesian population is shameful. It reflects badly on Indonesia and a largely indifferent world generally.

It is also true that the antecedents of the current problems do lie in the colonial past, aspects of which are undoubtedly worthy of sometimes severe criticism.

That said, Western colonialism was hardly unique in the annals of human history and the colonising instinct, sense of cultural superiority and inherent racism that form its core are not restricted to Western Europe.

There are innumerable examples in history of one group of humans seeking to impose their will upon another group. The motivations varied of course, but the outcomes were largely the same.

So, for example, the Inca rose to become an imperial power through the ruthless suppression and enslavement of other nations.

The same can be said of the Zulu people in pre-colonial Africa. They were not motivated or informed by any knowledge of western colonialism.

In the case of West Papua it is Indonesia's own particular version of colonialism which is in evidence.

While it manifests the same ugly characteristics that were often found in Western colonialism it is wrong to believe or infer from this that it is not evidence of an entirely indigenous colonial outlook.

To my mind it is an unhelpful and even misleading diversion to try to describe Indonesia's actions as being derived from its own experience of western colonialism.

With respect to Mr Luck's assertion that the article reflects a Marxist view of history, I am struggling to see how he arrived at this conclusion.

As far as I can recall, Marx did not have a lot to say about colonialism beyond the fact that it reflected the predatory nature of capitalism and its underlying class basis.

The article seems to me to reflect a mainstream nationalist view of the kind found in many countries in the post-colonial world.

West Papua represents a truly wicked policy problem for Australia and the other countries in the world that (however reluctantly) acquiesced to the Indonesian takeover.

There never was a defensible legal or moral basis for this: it was purely a function of the geo-politics of the time.

How this particular Gordian Knot can be unravelled I do not know but history suggests that it will ultimately have to be unsnarled.

Geoffrey Luck

I don't know who Yamin Kagoya is, but his Marxist view of history provides a poor explanation of what has happened and is happening in West Papua.

He fails to distinguish between colonial countries, has no experience of the Dutch administration of West New Guinea, is not interested in the real-world geopolitik that determined the United States relationship with Indonesia, and therefore the outcome of transfer.

This "essay" is a convenient political rant which explains nothing and helps nobody. It is disgraceful to see it given space - especially without publication of the author's position, connections and authority.

Space has been given to Mr Luck's views "without publication of the author's position, connections and authority". I guess that's the way free speech works sometimes - KJ

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