Apr 14, 2024 Last Updated 4:19 AM, Apr 12, 2024

Where it hurts in Papua

Desti Murdijana

Yayasan Pikul is an Indonesian NGO based in Kupang, West Timor. It fosters the growth of a democratic civil society committed to social justice throughout Eastern Indonesia, and has worked in West Papua since 1998. It is supported by a range of international agencies. Inside Indonesia interviewed Desti Murdijana, the executive director, about Pikul’s work in Papua.

Why did Pikul want to work in Papua?

Papuans are experiencing conflict of many kinds: among politicians in the government, between local communities and resource companies over access to natural resources, and within communities over domestic violence and other gender issues. All these sources of conflict have led to much social injustice and all kinds of human rights violations. So we felt that we needed to work with the local people to deal with all these problems.

What issues does your program deal with?

We work on food security – in areas like Wamena in the Baliem Valley the lack of secure food supplies is becoming a big problem. This issue is most crucial for women. Their contribution to food security is vital, and they are the first affected when food supplies are scarce. Another program involves human rights education. In other areas we raise issues of human rights when people meet to discuss food security, an income generating program, or other local issues. In places like Bintuni Bay we focus on people’s practical rights. People there are not threatened with violence but they do not have secure access to land, and suffer from lack of food and water and have other practical needs.

It has been difficult for some Indonesians to gain the trust of Papuans, unless they supported self-determination. Is that your experience?

To some extent this is true. But in most places in Papua people are now suffering so much from massive human rights violations that they are more concerned about how to empower people to protect themselves. The most important issue has become how to defend themselves, not self-determination or a Papuan independence movement.

Perhaps five to ten years ago people were always thinking about how they could separate from Indonesia and how we could help them in that. But Papuans now have a better understanding about the problems they face; they have made their priorities and chosen to work on issues of conflict first, by monitoring and documenting human rights violations, for example. They have to work in circumstances where there is violent conflict with the military and the police, but the program we designed together focuses on analysing problems and helping communities to better understand their situation. So although the desire for self-determination remains strong, the program is a little different from that of five years ago.

Papuans have historically been very open and strong in talking about self determination, and that experience now makes them vocal in talking about their immediate human rights problems. In my view much of the conflict arises because of this speaking out. But the situation has changed and even elements of the Free Papua Movement (OPM) have rejected violence as a means for self determination. At least some of them are discussing non-violent advocacy and diplomacy as a strategy.

What do the Papuans value most in Pikul?

We are more open to the Papuan groups being able to design their own initiatives. A lot of international agencies come in with their own agenda and try to get the local partners to just do what the agencies want. They say ‘this is our program, do you want it or not? Take it or leave it’. But this approach is not for Pikul – we take a lot of care in designing projects and we are willing to support initiatives coming from the Papuan communities. We have also formed friendships with many of our partners. It is important for us to develop a more realistic understanding about what happens in Papua, and we work together with Papuans to empower them.

What role do migrants from other parts of Indonesia play in the development process?

In the past we never thought about the ‘outsiders’ – people from other parts of Indonesia. But now the population of Papua is half Melanesian and half ‘outsiders’. At our partner organisation in Bintuni only a few of the staff are Papuan, most of them are Bugis or Javanese. At other partner organisations in Jayapura and at Warus there are staff from Flores and other parts of Indonesia. These ‘outsiders’ have been in Papua for years. Now we realise we also have to involve those ‘outsiders’ who identify themselves as Papuans to work together in the process to empower all the people of Papua.

Have these migrants successfully integrated with local communities?

In general this has not happened, but I think the Papuan activists in NGOs, the women activists, and kampung activists can accept people coming to work with them from other parts of Indonesia. This is not the general situation, but conflict with the Melanesians is not so serious, at least for activists who want to work for people in Papua.

What human rights violations are occurring, and who is responsible?

In the past we considered that human rights abuses referred only to violence from the state, but now we have a broader understanding. We found that adat or traditional customs were also responsible for human rights problems. So we talk to our partners about our view that many adat practices are human rights violations; not only state violence is an issue. There is domestic violence, and dowry is also a big problem; many tribes in Papua consider women to be male property. If women disobey the tribe, they can be tortured like an animal. Human rights violations happen all the time, but people have never considered these things to be violence.

We promote an understanding that it is not just ‘outsiders’ who are responsible for human rights violations, but that Papuans must also look at their own culture and traditions. Self-determination is very difficult to assert because they still have to deal with their own culture and the violence inherent in it. We are trying to discuss this with our partner organisations who do human rights monitoring. Of course, some still see state violence as the main issue and are working to support victims of human rights abuses carried out by the state. We provide support and conduct activities in this area but we also try to create a broader understanding of human rights. We say that you must consider the whole picture; it is not just actual violence, it is not only torture, but also the many social problems such as prostitution, and the poverty in which so many people live, which should be considered violations of human rights.

How does the community react to this perspective on human rights?

Our partner organisations get many complaints from community leaders that adat culture is sacred and we cannot touch it. But we continue to discuss human rights principles for all people, and some leaders have come to understand that aspects of their traditional law are no longer appropriate. We and our partners work closely with the traditional leaders, and discuss with them the violence within their own traditions. There are so many cases where adat culture has led to human rights violations. Just last year a woman was burnt by her family because she had HIV/AIDS. They did not understand that what they did was wrong; they only considered violence by ‘outsiders’ to be a human rights violation. We have also heard that a lot of people dying of AIDS are drowned in the river, because their families do not want to look after them. Of course we are also concerned about the many kinds of torture carried out by the military, but we also have to consider these cases of violence within the community.

Have you been successful in getting community support?

The traditional leaders easily respond to human rights issues if the ‘enemies’ come from outside. The challenge for us is to develop an understanding about the implications of practices within the community. We have not had any success so far, but we are involved in a process with some of our partners to discuss these issues with these leaders. I don’t think any groups in Papua except Pikul have raised these issues at the community level. We have long experience of working with many activists on external human rights issues. We remind them of the scope of human rights problems; we introduce them not only to political but also to economic and social rights. Sometimes the struggle becomes very difficult when the ‘enemy’ comes from within the community, but we will persist.

Desti Murdijana (desti@pikul.or.id) is the executive director of Yayasan Pikul, and has worked on gender issues and development in Eastern Indonesia since 1998.

Inside Indonesia 84: Oct-Dec 2005

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