May 28, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Genocide and demographic transformation in Papua

Genocide and demographic transformation in Papua

A response to Jim Elmslie and Stuart Upton

Richard Chauvel

       Non-indigenous Papuans now hold relatively few elected positions
       Grenville Charles

Stripped of the obvious differences in rhetorical tone and values, the articles by Jim Elmslie and Stuart Upton have much in common. They both agree that:

Papua has experienced a large scale demographic transformation since 1963 the modern economy is dominated by Indonesian settlers and Papuans are marginalised Papuans suffer disadvantage in education, employment and health there have been significant human rights abuses by the Indonesian security forces

One of the useful contributions that both articles make is that they place Papua in a broader regional context. In comparing the markedly different rates of population growth in Indonesian Papua and Papua New Guinea, Jim Elmslie asserts that the two are ‘comparable Melanesian societies’. Looking west to the rest of the archipelago, Stuart Upton argues that population change in Papua looks like ‘the normal pattern of inter-island migration rather than genocide’.

Comparing Papua and PNG

Had Jim Elmslie’s comparison been related to New Guinea prior to intensive Dutch, British/Australian and German intervention in the last decades of the nineteenth century, it would have been more convincing than it is today. However, over the last one hundred years, the heterogeneous Melanesian societies in the two halves of the island of New Guinea have come into contact and interacted with the world beyond New Guinea through very different colonial and post-colonial governance structures. This has made them very different places.

In the case of PNG, Australian colonial rule and, since 1975, an indigenous Papuan political elite have been the mediating agencies. PNG was the sole Australian colony. The western half of the island was colonised by the Dutch as part of the Netherlands East Indies. Prior to the Pacific War, it was ruled through various administrative structures based in the neighbouring Maluku Islands. In the Australian territories, Australian administrators interacted directly with all levels and regions of PNG society. On the other side of the island, particularly before the Pacific War, there were more east Indonesian officials, police, teachers and missionaries than there were Dutch. The missionary education, the Christianity and the dialects of Malay that developed in Papua were those of the east Indonesian teachers and missionaries. Papuan contact with Indonesians in Papua and with Indonesian society outside Papua has intensified greatly since 1963.

I am not suggesting, however, that the different patterns of change in the two halves of the island over the past century or so explain the difference in population growth rates. The poorer levels of health care in Indonesian Papua, especially in the highlands and remote and still predominantly Papuan regions compared to the ‘failed state’ the other side of the border is one factor that helps explain the differences in population growth. The most obvious difference generated by the divergent patterns of change is that PNG has remained a predominantly Melanesian society, while the western half of the island has become more ‘Indonesian’ through education, language and religious change as well as a demographic transformation. With these great changes, Indonesian Papua and PNG now have much less in common than before colonisation.

Comparing Papua and East Indonesia

Stuart Upton notes, correctly, that the percentage of migrants in East Kalimantan is in fact higher than in Papua. Yet, there has not been any independence movement in East Kalimantan and migration is not discussed in terms of genocide. This broader context of inter-island migration in Indonesia helps us to understand what makes Papua different. There are strongly divergent patterns of inter-island migration across the Indonesian archipelago. East Kalimantan and Papua are examples of frontier economy regions that have attracted large numbers of economic migrants. Maluku and the islands east of Bali have not had the same pulling power. South Sulawesi has experienced significant emigration to Papua and East Kalimantan, among other regions.

There are a number of factors that help explain how demographic change has evoked a political, cultural and economic response in Papua that has not occurred in East Kalimantan. The Papuan discourse on demographic change is the product of an elite that has held positions in government, universities, the churches, NGOs and Papuan nationalist organisations since the last years of the Dutch administration. The governors and deputy governors of both Papuan provinces and all the district heads are now Papuans. The same positions in East Kalimantan are mostly held by politicians of South Sulawesi, Javanese or Banjarese background. The governor elected last year in East Kalimantan is the first indigenous politician to hold that position, and the heads of two indigenous-majority districts, Kutai Barat and Malinau, are Dayak politicians. Other important officeholders are mostly migrants or their descendants. In contrast to the Papuans, the indigenous peoples of East Kalimantan are poorly represented in the democratic structures of post-Suharto Indonesia.

Another factor is the history of migration. The coastal areas of East Kalimantan were integrated in the trading and religious network of Malay-Muslim sultanates of the western archipelago prior to the region’s incorporation into the Netherlands East Indies. The populations of these sultanates in coastal East Kalimantan were cosmopolitan. The development of the oil industry around Balikpapan from the 1920s attracted economic migrants from outside East Kalimantan.

In Papua, Indonesian immigration is understood to be a consequence of the territory’s incorporation into Indonesia: a very different situation from East Kalimantan or other high immigration provinces

In Papua, with the exception of the relatively small number of strategically placed east Indonesian servants of the Dutch administration, mass migration of Indonesians to Papua started with the advent of Indonesian rule in 1963. The older members of the Papuan elite can remember meeting their first Indonesian. Benny Giay, in his biography of the Rev Herman Saud, records that Saud and his fellow secondary school students in the Birds Head region (from Manokwari west to Sorong) had not met an Indonesian prior to 1963. Saud recalled that they did not know what to expect of Indonesians and their culture. Herman Saud became the head of the Papua’s largest protestant church and witnessed from the Synod Office the transformation of Jayapura, where the office was located, into an Indonesian city. In 2005, towards the end of his period as head of the Church, Saud raised his concerns about the ongoing arrival of Indonesian economic migrants with the provincial parliament, asking rhetorically if migrant labour was the only way to develop Papua.

In short, Indonesian immigration in Papua is understood to be a consequence of the territory’s incorporation into Indonesia. Given that in the eyes of many Papuans their incorporation into Indonesia occurred without their participation or agreement, the Indonesian migration that followed is likewise highly contested. That’s a very different situation from East Kalimantan or other high immigration provinces.

Stuart Upton has identified, correctly, that the administrative separation of Papua from the rest of Indonesia from 1942 until 1962 was a reason for weaker commitment to the Indonesian nation state in Papua. The isolation of Papua before the Pacific War, its relatively recent incorporation into the Netherlands East Indies and its separation afterwards meant that there was little Papuan participation in the ‘making’ of Indonesia through involvement in nationalist organisations, the struggle for independence and the nation-building policies of the Sukarno years. With respect to the latter, Papuans were the object rather than the subject.

Not only did many in the Papuan elite find the idea of an independent nation more attractive than incorporation in Indonesia, but during the last years of the Dutch administration they had been the beneficiaries of Dutch policies of ‘Papuanisation’ of the bureaucracy. As Stuart Upton notes, many of the early Indonesian migrants were those who assumed senior government positions, taking over not only positions previously held by the Dutch, but also those occupied by Papuans.

It is worth noting that the Papuan nationalist constructions of their identity, in terms of differences in physical appearance between themselves and Indonesians and as responses to the racist Indonesian stereotyping of Papuans, were first developed in the 1950s and early 1960s – well before the onset of large scale migration. The reference points in these constructions were the east Indonesian servants of the Dutch administration, who occupied the bureaucratic positions to which the Papuan graduates of vocational training colleges and missionary schools aspired.

Beyond the figures

Jim Elmslie and Stuart Upton use an analysis of census data to debate whether genocide has occurred in Papua. This is not how Papuans discuss genocide and Indonesian migration. The Papuan discourse, amongst intellectuals and politicians and more broadly in society, is based on collective subjective experience. As Budi Hernawan and Theo van den Broek in their discussion of ‘Memoria passionis’ (memory of suffering) noted, if you visit remote parts of Papua you can easily hear stories of suffering from ordinary people: ‘Our father was killed in that river. On the side of the mountain there used to be villages, which were destroyed by ABRI [The Indonesian Military]’.

Accusations of genocide are often directly linked to demands for independence

Accusations of genocide against the Indonesian military and government retain their currency in popular discourse and as political slogans. Demonstrators in Jayapura at the time of the legislative elections earlier this year held banners demanding: ‘Immediately withdraw organic and non-organic military units from West Papua…Stop genocide against Melanesians in West Papua’.

Accusations of genocide are often directly linked to demands for independence. For example, one participant in the mass consultation (Mubes) of Papuan nationalists in February 2000 suggested: ‘In ten years time Papuans will all be killed by the Indonesian military; better that we become independent now.’ Papuan discussions of genocide might focus on the presence and human rights abuses of the Indonesian military as well as the intentions of the Indonesian government, but also encompass a broad range of issues including dispossession, marginalisation and various forms of disadvantage that demographic change and the pattern of economic development have brought for many Papuans. Some Papuan discussions of the spread of transmission of HIV/AIDS and the role of the Indonesian authorities therein are conspiratorial.

Stuart Upton is not the first person to suggest that the racist language in which some Papuans discuss their own identity, Indonesian migration and accusations of genocide has been repudiated by the international community given that its continued use is counter-productive. That well-educated and worldly-wise Papuan leaders continue to use such language is a measure of their concern about the threats posed to their society and culture as well as an expression of their alienation from and distrust of the Indonesian government.

For these reasons I agree with Jim Elmslie that West Papuan opinions and experiences deserve to be taken seriously. Putting a figure on the loss of life is problematic, however. Elmslie cites a death toll of 100,000. That a figure is routinely quoted, as this one has been, does not make it any more or less accurate. The core problem, as Elmslie concedes, is that the research has not been done and, in current political circumstances, is unlikely to be done. Tapol’s West Papua: The Obliteration of a People, a booklet published in 1983 stated that ‘Estimates of the numbers killed or who have died as a result of Indonesian repression, suppression or neglect range from 100,000 to 150,000 since 1963.’ The range of estimates of lives lost has not changed much over more than two decades, despite the conduct of numerous military operations.

Elmslie cites a death toll of 100,000. That a figure is routinely quoted does not make it any more or less accurate

The Human Rights Watch Report, Out of Sight: Endemic Abuse and Impunity in Papua’s Central Highlands (July 2007) illustrates some of the difficulties faced when investigating violence and human rights abuses in one of the most tightly controlled and conflict-ridden regions in Papua. Working without the cooperation of the Indonesian authorities, the researchers found that the Indonesian security forces ‘…continue to engage in largely indiscriminate village “sweeping” operations in pursuit of suspected militants, using excessive, often brutal, and at times lethal force against civilians’. This indiscriminate abuse by the security forces of Indonesian citizens and their livelihoods suggests that the civilian and military leaders in Jakarta have limited capacity to control the conduct of their troops operating in Papua. The security forces’ behaviour serves to further alienate both the communities directly affected and Papuan society as a whole. However, this carefully documented Human Rights Watch report does not provide evidence that there has been systematic killing of large numbers of Papuans. Rather it provides insights into how systemic violence pervades relations between the security forces and Papuan communities.

We should respect Papuans’ discussions of the demographic transformation of their society and endeavour to understand the experience they are describing. However, I suspect that the use of the term genocide obstructs our comprehension of the endemic nature of state violence against Indonesian citizens in Papua and makes the necessary institutional reform and cultural transformation of the Indonesian security forces more difficult.     ii

Richard Chauvel ( teaches at Victoria University.

Inside Indonesia 97: Jul-Sep 2009

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