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Capturing the mind: Anatomy of a Papuan genocide

Yamin Kogoya
Yamin Kogoya - "Papuans have been dislocated from the centre of their cultural worldview and placed on the fringes of the grand colonial narrative"


CANBERRA - The colonial notion of ‘civilising primitive Papuans’ has distorted Papuan perceptions of the world and themselves.

This distortion began with how New Guinea and its people were described in early colonial literature: unintelligent pygmies, cannibals and pagan savages –  people devoid of value.

Not only did this depiction foster a racist outlook but it misrepresented reality as it was experienced and understood by Papuans for thousands of years.

Colonial literature says almost nothing of the value or the virtue of the people of New Guinea. Indeed it was the first attack against the humanity of Papuans.

Papuans have been dislocated from the centre of their cultural worldview and placed on the fringes of the grand colonial narrative.

They remain at the margins of the civilisational project - trapped by colonial symbols, images and vocabularies.

Only now have we come to understand that there is nothing grand about such projects.

The colonisers, however, continue the myth of their grand narrative of ‘civilising the world’.

It remains in their religious doctrines and legends, in their cultural and racial ideologies and is ultimately enforced by their weaponry.

This pernicious colonial cultural lens has been used to launch a program of the dehumanisation and re-humanisation of Papuans.

‘Papua-phobia’ is the cultural lens. It is conveniently used as a Procrustean Bed, an arbitrary and ruthless coercion of fitting people into an unnatural configuration.

Under this scheme, the allegedly ‘primitive’ Original Papuans will be destroyed and reconstructed in another image.

Our father, Bernard Narokobi (1943-2010) - the eminent Melanesian philosopher and jurist who was a central figure in Papua New Guinea's transition from territory to independent nation - was conscious of this problem.

In his seminal work, The Melanesian Way, Narokobi asked, “Will we see ourselves in the long shadows of the dwindling light and the advanced darkness of the evening dusk, or will we see ourselves in the long and radiant rays of the rising sun? We can choose, if we will.”

But the Papuan people have been given no choice.

Indonesia attempted to answer Narokobi’s question by forcing Papuans to view themselves through the lenses of Pembangunan (development) and Kemajuaan (progress).

Indonesians frame these concepts as good news to assure Papuans of their salvation.

But, under their guise, Jakarta poisons Papuans with unhealthy food, alcohol, drugs, pornography, gambling and the ammunition used against them.

The rest of the world idly watches this genocide while exploiting West Papua’s resources for themselves.

These tragic circumstances have led to the destruction of Papuan clans and tribes, languages and cultural information – handed down orally - about their original world.

Papuans are facing the same fate as the Indigenous populations of Australia, Canada, America,and New Zealand if they remain in Indonesia.

Colonisers of the West and East are conditioning Papuans to feel guilty of their identity and existence, and they have institutionalised this guilt as a virtue.

Colonisers market guilt and virtue as a means of legitimising their deep psychological control over the colonised and oppressed.

The colonisers act as narcissistic sociopaths: they promise development, happiness or even heaven, while they commit genocidal and homicidal acts against Papuans.

They portray themselves as the ‘civilised’ and the oppressed as the ‘uncivilised’ – a psychological manipulation that allows them to avoid accountability for the cultural destruction they wreak.

Indonesia’s labelling of Papuans as criminals has its roots in this pathological colonial mindset.

Jakarta makes Papuans sick, then it diagnoses, prescribes and provides medication to cure the same illness it caused.

Jakarta exterminates Papuans by controlling both poison and antidote.

And so Papuans are cut off from their roots and float like waterlilies on the surface of Indonesia’s settler colony – they appear free and vibrant, but in reality their roots have been severed.

Growing up in my village, I had no idea I was black and Papuan, or that being black and Papuan was bad, until I moved to the colonial towns and cities.

From that moment on, I knew I was living in a system designed to oppress and alienate people like me.

On both the Eastern and Western sides of this illegal colonial border, Papuans still live in a state of an induced coma.

Papuans in West Papua are being reprogrammed to think of themselves as Asians, while Papuans in Papua New Guinea are being reprogrammed to think of themselves as Australians.

As a result, Papuans have been physically, unnaturally, linguistically and philosophically dislocated from the centre of their own stories and forced to live in the stories of others. 

We are being held captive within this imaginary, illegal colonial border.

As long as we remain in this colonial induced coma, we will forever be beggars on our streets, while thieves from the West and East continue to drain the blood of our ancient lands, seas and forests.

One of the martyred great sons of Africa, Steve Biko, warned us: “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”


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Chips Mackellar

I agree with you Bri, and cross-border friendly relations have existed there since time immemorial, even during the Australian Administration.

In fact in those days circa 1953, apart from where the border intersects with that bulge in the Fly River, we never knew where the border was anyway.

In those days there was no border fence, or any markings on the ground to indicate where the border was, and the country was so flat that there were no natural features to indicate the border.

People travelled across the border at will, and some held land rights on both sides of the border, not knowing exactly where it was.

From an administrative perspective, it didn't matter anyway, because Australia had friendly relations with the Dutch, and they didn't know where the border was either.

But once a year the Australian kiaps (at Lake Murray or Kiunga) held a "
'border' conference with the Dutch kiaps at an agreed village site (not knowing which side of the border it was) and during such conferences administrative arrangements were made for the benefit of the people.

For example, the Dutch had better infrastructure than we then did, because in those days there were no hospitals or schools on our side of the border, so the Dutch would agree to let our kids attend their schools, and our patients, in their aid posts and hospitals and so on.

Such matters would often be recorded in our census records, where against a kid's name might be a notation "at school in DNG" where DNG meant Dutch New Guinea.

Also migrations into one of our villages might be noted in our village census book as "from DNG" a frequent notation where for example, when cross-border marriages occurred.

So that was the way it was when the Dutch were there. It was a nice friendly cross-border arrangement Perhaps it will be that way again in the future.

Boneng Bil

Mr Olewale, you are among most Papua New Guinean elites who thinks West Papuans are okay with Indonesia for some reason and that we should not enter Papua New Guinea for whatever reason to stir up trouble between the two nations.

I have lived in PNG's Western Province for almost 30 years as a refugee, living under provisional conditions (West Papuan refugees should not do this and that...).

For that purpose, and out of respect for PNG, Papuans are not flooding into PNG as we did in the 1980s.

Remember, Papuans are not interested in education, politics, economy or whatever services that Indonesia is providing.

All we want is our rights and freedom to be restored in Papua.

Bernard Corden

This was Reagan's argument about Cuba although as Rosa Luxemburg proclaimed freedom is always for dissenters.

Philip Fitzpatrick

It's a bit like that in West Sepik too Bri.

Bri Olewale

A bit melodramatic with your language and it's always good to see the word "genocide" to get the heart rate up.

I have only one question for people like you who write articles about the actions of the mostly Javanese Indonesian government, why doesn't PNG have a refugee crises with Papua's pouring in from across the border?

We are an independent Melanesian nation which has a land border with the people who are supposedly in the throes of a humanitarian crises,

Do you see any crowds of melanesians fleeing the evil Indonesian empire?

Maybe they prefer to stay with Indonesia instead of joining a free Melanesian country run by inept and rabid politicians?

I am from. Western Province our future is with Indonesia, and am part of a group of like minded WP people who can't wait for a border road to be built so our people can benefit even more from trade and education opportunities in Merauke and other parts of indonesia.

Make a trip to the border villages in Western Province and you will surprisingly find that the Indonesian independence day celebrations are bigger then September 16

All the scholarly articles and eloquent language mean nothing to pNG villagers at the border who simply understand that they get health, education and trade services from Indonesia.

Kindin Ongugo

The comments here are enlightening.
It just shows how human rights are relative and never absolute. It is OK to support the abuser if not doing so would jeopardize one's own interest.
United Nations with a few countries apply double standards around the world when dealing with human rights abuses.
It makes UN a hypocrite and should stop preaching about human rights.
Let the weak and isolated people suffer?

Chris Overland

Thank you Chips for your illuminating comments.

As recorded by you, the role of the nominally anti-imperialist USA is noteworthy. Their motives appear to have been entirely cynical and self interested. It was a case of the end, being ingratiating themselves with the virulently anti-communist Indonesians, justifying the means, being handing over territory and people of whom they knew nothing and cared less.

How often since have we seen this same scenario play out, almost always with the same results. Were not Iraq and Afghanistan examples of the same type of calculation? I do wonder how things will play out when China finally invades Taiwan. Will self interest dictate abandoning the Taiwanese to their fate?

Numerous other nations including Australia, each for its own reasons, were willing to accept or acquiesce to the fraudulent 'act of self determination' which surrendered West Papua into the hands of the Indonesians.

That said, you have made a fair point in relation to the Dutch colonial authorities but I think that you have also proved the the term 'betrayal' is entirely appropriate in this case.

So, for that reason I think that the term I used was and remains appropriate.

Chips Mackellar

Chris, I don't agree that "the Papuans were betrayed into the hands of the Indonesians by their former colonial masters", meaning I suppose, the Dutch.

I was in Biak when the transition took place and although it was a long time ago, 1969 I think, my recollection is somewhat different.

My understanding is that when Indonesia proclaimed independence in 1945 it was for all the Dutch possessions in what is now Indonesia.

But the Dutch view then was that Independence was for the Netherlands East Indies only and not for Dutch New Guinea which they said was a different colony, and for the obvious reason that the people were different.

They were not ethnic Indonesians, so the Dutch refused to part with it.

To ward of an expected invasion from Indonesia, the Dutch sought to garrison Dutch New Guinea by flying troops out from Holland, by way of across the Atlantic, across mainland USA , then via Hawaii to Biak.

But the Americans took sides with Indonesia by refusing Dutch military aircraft landing rights in USA mainland and Hawaii.

Not to worry, the Dutch tried to circumvent this problem by putting their troops into civilian clothes and flying them to BIak by chartered KLM aircraft.

The Americans soon put a stop to that also by refusing landing rights to KLM. The Dutch were then defeated in their attempts to defend Dutch New Guinea and were forced into negotiations under the auspices of the United Nations and part of the deal was that the Dutch would surrender Dutch New Guinea to an independent authority pending the outcome of sovereignty.

The "independent" authority was Pakistan, a fellow Moslem country like Indonesia. I was in Biak when the Pakistani troops arrived. And the rest is history.

The sovereignty was decided by a bogus "act of free choice" in which a referendum of 1,000 carefully selected Papuans voted for union with Indonesia, and that is how Indonesia acquired the western half of New Guinea.

The Dutch did not betray the Papuans, but were involuntarily manoeuvred out of control with the connivance of USA and Australia. That is my understanding of how it all happened.

Initially, Indonesia secured military weapons and political and military support from the Soviet Union, which motivated the US to intervene as a third-party mediator between Indonesia and the Netherlands.

Following the so-called New York Agreement of 15 August 1962, under pressure from the US the Dutch handed West New Guinea to a provisional United Nations Temporary Executive Authority on 1 October 1962, which then ceded the territory to Indonesia on 1 May 1963. After the controversial plebiscite in 1969, West New Guinea was formally integrated into Indonesia - KJ

Daniel Kumbon

Thanks for this article, Yamin. I share your thoughts in my recent novel, The Old Man’s Dilemma – Love, Grief, Happiness & Rebellion: A Modern Day Novel From Papua New Guinea'.

Here is an extract….

For millennia, Australia’s Indigenous people and the Melanesian people of West Papua and Papua New Guinea – the people of Sahul – knew land was their life and they knew how to venerate it. Then came the whitefellas who cared not what they thought.

Ah, reflected The Old Man, Papua New Guineans were lucky indeed. Australia granted us an independence they had not offered their own First Peoples. How very cruel was that. At these thoughts, he fell to his knees and wept.

He wept for his Melanesian brothers and sisters fighting for freedom in West Papua, he wept for the Australian Indigenous people who had lost their land to colonisers and he wept for his kin, all the Papua New Guineans who had lost their land because of greedy and corrupt leaders.

Even government officials who were pledged to work for the people involved in stealing land and giving it to foreigners. This was beyond insanity.

In that desert land hotel, still on his knees, The Old Man gripped the bedframe and made a solemn promise in a firm voice.

“I will continue to fight the battle I have started. I will continue to represent my people. My people must own their land and its resources.”

Alex and Betty, in an adjacent room quietly chatting, thought The Old Man was talking in his sleep.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Chris, as I understand it the Indonesian interest in Papua goes back to the 1940s when the Dutch were imprisoning pro-independence Indonesians, including I believe Sukarno, in Papua. (Sukarno was also exiled on Flores for a while). Their claim to Papua is partly based on this fact. History is full of subleties that have had unanticipated consequences.

Lindsay F Bond

Is it not, that any wrap that "imposes uniformity or conformity without regard to natural variation or individuality" is as if in effect procrustean?
Thus "to describe all of the inhabitants" might be on such path continuum.

Chris Overland

I assume that the author is using the term 'Papuans' to describe all of the inhabitants of the island of New Guinea.

Somewhat ironically this term is, as I understand it, an early colonial invention that references the tightly curled hair that was typically seen in the British Protectorate of Papua.

I think that there is quite a lot of truth in this article although I think that some of the pejorative language used is not necessarily very helpful.

I have argued in previous articles that Australia's governance over what is now Papua New Guinea, while far from faultless, was generally quite benign.

During the colonial era there was some attempt made to suppress aspects of Papuan culture, especially those customs regarded as barbaric and cruel. Cannibalism would fit into this category, as did tribal fighting and payback killing.

Also, some of the more evangelical missionaries strove to eradicate previous belief systems and substitute what they regarded as 'orthodox' Christian beliefs.

This was not always successful and many missionaries preferred to find more subtle ways to incorporate aspects of traditional belief systems into their theological framework, thus making it easier to attract and retain converts.

As I recall, Papuan culture overall was in fairly robust condition when PNG became independent and, so far as I am aware, remains in that state.

That said, it would be naïve to think that nearly a century of Australian rule did not have some adverse impact upon traditional culture.

The situation of West Papua is quite different.

The Papuans living in what once was Dutch New Guinea were betrayed into the hands of Indonesia by their former colonial masters, aided and abetted by Australia, Britain and the USA.

This was done for what were then regarded as compelling geo-political reasons but this does not excuse the fact that this was a reprehensible and shameful act that condemned West Papuans to rule by what is, in practice, yet another colonial power.

West Papua never was and is not now related to the various groups that occupy the Indonesian Archipelago. It always had an entirely distinctive Melanesian culture.

Handing it over to Indonesia on the spurious grounds that it 'belonged' within the then new republic was a cynical, unjust and egregious action.

Since Indonesia took over, about one million Indonesians, mostly from Java and Sulawesi, have migrated to West Papua. They have displaced the indigenous inhabitants in many instances and brought with them their own distinctive culture and traditions.

There are many confirmed stories of Indonesian authorities persecuting West Papuans for attempting to assert their traditional rights and there are some people fighting back in a currently low level insurgency.

A lesson of history is that decisions made in the very distant past can have unexpected and vexing consequences far into the future. This is the situation with respect to West Papua and, to a lesser degree, with PNG.

Quite how this particular foreign policy 'Gordian Knot' can be undone is something I cannot foresee.

Unlike the case of East Timor, there seems to me to be no prospect of any Indonesian government allowing a retroactive 'act of self determination' in relation to West Papua.

At best, it may be possible that those Indonesians living in West Papua may be persuaded to join with their Papuan fellow citizens to form a quasi-autonomous state or, perhaps, even a separate country. This seems to me to be a long shot though.

More likely, people such as Mr Kogoya will, like so many before them, be obliged to resort to warfare to achieve independence.

This seems likely to be a long and bloody process but history says that a significant enough insurgent force can eventually compel a colonial power to either negotiate a mutually acceptable withdrawal process or suffer sufficient physical and financial pain that it decides to abandon its former possession.

Mao Zedong once said that 'in order for an insurgent force to win it is merely necessary not to lose'. This deceptively simple adage might well inform the strategic thinking of West Papua's insurgents.

Philip Fitzpatrick

And don't forget the Paul McCartney song Bernard, 'Give Ireland Back to the Irish'.

Bernard Corden

The Luck of The Irish - John Lennon & Yoko Ono (Some Time in New York City)

If you had the luck of the Irish
You'd be sorry and wish you were dead
If you had the luck of the Irish
You'd wish you was English instead

A thousand years of torture and hunger
Drove the people away from their land
A land full of beauty and wonder
Was raped by the British brigands (Goddamn, Goddamn)

In the 'Pool they told us the story
How the English divided the land
Of the pain and the death and the glory
And the poets of auld Éireland

Why the hell are the English there anyway
As they kill with God on their side
Blame it all on the kids and the IRA
As the bastards commit genocide (Aye, Genocide)

If you had the luck of the Irish
You'd be sorry and wish you were dead
You should have the luck of the Irish
And you'd wish you was English instead

Yes you'd wish you was English instead

Philip Fitzpatrick

A very good essay Yamin. Your analysis is spot on.

It seems that it's possible to be culturally 'genocidal' with even the best of intentions.

Bernard Corden

From Longfellow's Masque of Pandora:

"Quos Deus vult perdere, prius dementat."

(Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad.)

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