Oct 01, 2023 Last Updated 8:24 AM, Sep 13, 2023

From the ashes of empire

Published: Jul 30, 2007

John Rumbiak

My activism goes back to 1985 when I was invited to Canada and saw how the indigenous Indians were treated. As part of the same program I also lived in a small village in Jambi, Sumatra. I noticed they were experiencing the same things as many Papuans - they were in debt to rapacious moneylenders and held to ransom by unaccountable officials.

Papuans are the First Nation People. They have lived there, close to the environment, for thousands of years. They were invaded and exploited by a powerful outside force, leaving them impoverished. That is colonialism. Indonesian government policies in Papua - whether in transmigration, mining, logging, agriculture, or tourism - have just been new forms of colonialism.

Jakarta sees Papua as its El Dorado, its Siberia full of resources out on the periphery, a place to make money and leave almost nothing behind. There is a mental distance too. How much do they really want to know about Papua? When Jakarta transmigrates 'expert' agriculturalists from Java to Papua it is also being racist, because Papuans already know how to use the land. Even mining is seen as a civilising work among primitive Papuans.

I believe all problems can be solved through dialogue and non-violence. But Papuan faith in the Jakarta government has been shattered by the systematic oppression of a militarised developmental approach over nearly forty years of 'integration' with Indonesia. If the central government wants to be serious about dialogue it should be serious about restoring confidence, about enforcing the law.

Papuans have put three very rational demands to the Jakarta government. First and foremost, they want to know about history. Was the integration (or as they say, annexation) of their territory a valid act of self-determination? Second, they want the systematic violation of their civil and socio-economic rights addressed. And third, they want to talk about their own crisis of identity as a Melanesian group within Indonesia. These issues drive the demand for independence.

After lots of people were killed over a flag-raising demonstration in Biak in July 1998, community and church leaders set up a reconciliation forum, Foreri. The forum sent a hundred representatives to meet President Habibie. The idea was to become a partner to government and run followup workshops on development problems. But when these long-oppressed people mentioned the word independence to Habibie, all dialogue stopped right there.

I try to be optimistic about Indonesian democracy, but from the Papuan perspective I feel the transition to democracy after 32 years of Suharto's authoritarianism will be very difficult. Indonesians who want change - students, non-government organisations - have no access to power. In the meantime, justice remains blocked.

Gus Dur is a moderate religious leader who became president. He has the ability to understand social problems, but he is unable to confront a mentality of over three decades. He has problems with his administration - including parliament and his own cabinet - who want no change at all. He also makes decisions without consulting. For example he responded to Papuan aspirations by changing the name Irian Jaya to Papua. But he did it without talking to parliament, with the result that some within the government now accuse him of supporting separatism.

Once Gus Dur goes, I am concerned about the future of Indonesia. As in Russia, the status quo groups still dominate so strongly. They talk this 'disintegration' language, all in the name of national unity, and this hinders democracy. I fear Megawati will also be unable to handle the explosive situations from Aceh to Papua, and after that the military will try to pull the whole country together. This will kill democracy.

If Indonesia wants to remain a united state, its leaders must understand that unrest in the regions indicates a real psychological need to say 'I am Acehnese', or 'I am Dayak, or Papuan, and I want to be acknowledged as I am before I will be an Indonesian'. Thus far, the system has no room for such an acknowledgement. The colonial system is too strong. I do not see Jakarta changing its view.

Papuan identity

However, even within Papua we are only building a foundation. This is a long project. Dialogue also involves building cross-cultural understanding among the 250 tribal groups in Papua. It is a process of healing the psychological scars of oppression. Papuans are frustrated, their soul has been broken. The struggle tends to lack a clear political vision, and that is dangerous.

First, we must address the issue of Papuan identity. Cross-cultural dialogue also involves non-Papuans settlers, who have a right to live in Papua too. Like it or not, they have intermarried with Papuans the last three decades. We need to say that, yes, Papua belongs to those 250 tribes, but I don't want it to be dominated by certain ethnic groups, as in Fiji. The future of Papua cannot be built on an exclusive basis, no matter how much Papuans have suffered. Superiority is dangerous and produces conflict. The rights of settlers must be guaranteed.

The OPM fighter Mathias Wenda is a Dani hero, whereas Kelly Kwalik is an Amungme hero. This is not a strong basis. We need to discover a First Nation People ideology for Papua that allows a Dani to say to me: 'Hey, you're no different to me!'

Second, we need to ask what we mean when we speak about independence. The struggle is not just about replacing Indonesians with Papuans. Independence will not automatically make everything easy. It is about changing a system. The substance of independence is welfare and equal rights for all. That means good human resources, equal distribution of wealth, law enforcement. The environment must not be destroyed. Papua is so rich it is scary. Development must be culturally sound, ecologically sound, and based on human rights.

The political vision must be clear. If you hope for Papua to become free simply by Indonesia breaking up you're going to be in big trouble. Because Papua itself is politically fragmented. It will be like Africa - which ethnic group will dominate? Lots of blood will flow. At the moment, coastal Papuans have more education and they would take over. But that would make highland Papuans unhappy, leading to war. For 32 years we have experienced divide-and-rule among these 250 tribes. I can sense those feelings among Papuan independence activists. These are dangerous signals. We must be like Arnold Ap and Tuarek Narkime, an Amungme chief tribe who introduced peace amongst the tribes in the highlands of West Papua, and liberate ourselves from such feelings, move beyond our own ethnic group.

Internationally too, it is a long-term struggle - fifteen, twenty, twenty-five years. Activists have to understand the way the global mechanism works. No nation anywhere, including the US, wants to talk about Papuan independence. Unlike East Timor, Papua is seen as an internal Indonesian affair. But nations will talk about self-determination, which is different in principle and could mean autonomy, independence, or lots of other things. It will be very difficult to put Papuan integration with Indonesia back on the agenda, but it can be done. Papuan activists need to build networks around the world - just working with Nauru or Vanuatu is not enough.

This article was composed from an interview conducted with John Rumbiak by Gerry van Klinken on 11 May 2001.

Inside Indonesia 67: Jul - Sep 2001

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