| Kurumbi Wone
CANBERRA - Natalius Pigai was born in Paniai, Papua, on 25 December 1975. He is a prominent Papuan human rights activist in Indonesia.
He has previously held several key positions in the country’s highest offices: special staff of the minister for manpower and transmigration ministry and one of 11 members of the National Human Rights Commission.
He has also been a private investigator and consultant in business and human rights for foreign and domestic companies.
When it comes to debate on human rights related issues in the Indonesian media, Pigai is not one to shy away from speaking his mind. He will beat you with his sharp spirit, mind and tongue.
Reading thousands of social media comments following a debate on national issues involving Pigai, one will quickly notice how opinion of him across Indonesia is divided.
Some praise him for keeping the Indonesian government on its toes, defending the rights of ordinary people.
Others blame him for undermining Indonesia’s national interest.
Pigai’s entire identity – coming from a region where some of the most horrific human rights violations have been committed by Indonesian security forces – creates a nightmare for the elite. He is the voice of the Papuan people in Indonesia’s capital – Jakarta.
Ambroncius Nababan, former chairman of a volunteer group supporting president Joko Widodo, posted this image of Pigai on his Facebook account.
A translation of Nababan’s comment reads: ‘Ouch, mate, your vaccine is not Sinovac, mate, but your brother [the gorilla] said your vaccine is rabies. I agree, mate.’
The gorilla says to Pigai: ‘Our vaccine is not Sinovac, but a rabies vaccine.’
It is alleged that these racist images and slurs were displayed by Nababan in retaliation to Pigai’s comment on Jokowi’s government plan to roll out Sinovac’s Covid vaccine.
Pigai had stated that Indonesian citizens had the right to reject the vaccine, a right protected and guaranteed under the country’s constitution.
He further explained on his Twitter account that the people’s right to refuse vaccines is regulated in the country’s health law.
Apparently Pigai’s comments were not received well by Nababan, who decided to respond to his statement by posting his image next to a gorilla, complete with racist commentary.
Whatever lens one might use to view this situation, for Papuans it emerged out of deep problems in the relationship between Papuans and Indonesia.
It emerged out of the long history of colonisation, genocide and slavery inflicted upon people of colour all over the world, introduced by the European colonial administrations over the past 500 years.
Often, we think that this kind of behaviour is inevitable due to cultural differences. While this is often the case, racism against black people is uniquely different because it is almost exclusively based on the colour of their skin.
This is similar to what happened to Barack Obama when he became the first African American President of the USA. Obama and his family were constantly under racial attack on social media.
Images of the Obama family were engineered to compare them to monkeys or depict them as such.
These racially charged incidents are pervasive, even spreading into sports as when high-profile black footballers in Europe or Indigenous players in Australia are mocked with monkey chanting.
It is skin colour that is at the forefront of the harassment, not their talents, nor their inalienable rights to be human and belong to this planet.
Most people are aware that in politics all kinds of mockery are thrown around. In most cases, these are tolerable. But racially-denigrating imagery and language run deeper than the usual personal attacks.
They open deep wounds in the body of a nation and in people who are systematically oppressed because of their race and ethnicity.
For Nababan, in his eyes his comments may have been inconsequential. But for Papuans, the comments rubbed salt into longstanding wounds.
UK-based West Papua independence leader Benny Wenda strongly criticised Nababan, saying, “This is racial ethnic cleansing, a genocidal fantasy at the highest levels of the Indonesian state.”
The words ‘racial ethnic cleansing’ reflect statements made by a few Indonesian army generals in the past.
They relate to their view of how to deal with Papuans, inferring that they are some sort of pest that should be eliminated from their native lands.
In 2016, General Luhut Panjaitan said the Papuans should be transferred to the Pacific; in 2019, Papuan students were called ‘monkeys’ and told to “go home”’; just this year, General Hendropriyono said the two million Papuans should be transferred to the Sumatran island of Manado.
Such extreme views from top military officers has further convinced Papuans to be sceptical of Indonesian policy for West Papua.
Nababan’s racist comments align with these beliefs, even though he later apologised stating, “Its nature was satirical. It was not intended to insult people, let alone insult ethnicity, religion, or the Papuan people.”
Psychologically, these racial slurs denigrating the humanity of Papuans create further trauma for them.
But such incidents also serve as a platform for Papuans’ collective cry for independence from Indonesia. They unite diverse Papuan groups and galvanise support from across the black and non-black world.
History demonstrates that communities and nations revolt against the mistreatment of people.
Most recently, it was racism that motivated millions of people to take to the streets in solidarity with George Floyd under the slogan ‘Black Lives Matter’.
It is no longer only Papuans who stand in a fight against racism in West Papua and Indonesia, There are many Indonesians who also stand in solidarity.
In response to Nababan’s racist slur on Pigai, the ethnic group from North Sumatra which Nababan belongs to condemned him for his racist post and urged authorities to provide justice for his heinous action.
On Tuesday last week, the president of the Batak Association said, “What Ambroncius Nababan did is obviously an unlawful act that has made the Bataknese people in Papua, who have coexisted peacefully and harmoniously with those from the Papuan communities, anxious.”
Indonesia’s coordinating minister for political, legal, and security affairs, Mahfud, also criticised Nababan, tweeting, “If you do not like someone’s views, don’t insult them with derogatory statements or animal pictures.”
Cases like Pigai’s spotlight the systematic racism that Papuans face every day in Indonesia. It is a deep wound on the Papuan body and spirit caused by decades of neglect, abuse and inhumane treatment at the hands of Indonesia, enabled by the complicity of the United Nations and Western governments.
Papuans need justice, not apologies.
Nababan’s behaviour is an opportunity for Indonesian leaders to show the world what they stand for.
The former chief justice of the constitutional court, Handan Zoelva, suggested that racism is not a part of original Indonesian cultural values, that it was imported and hence must be condemned.
If there is truth to Zoelva’s words, why are Papuans still treated as less than human? Unless action is taken and justice restored, the Indonesian government shows it does not care.
Meanwhile, the disease that continues to thwart the relationship between Indonesia and Papuans is alive and thriving.