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Mama Papua

Published: Jul 30, 2007

Annie Feith

In August 2000, I had the good fortune to meet and interview Beatrix Koibur, one of two women on the Papuan Presidium, the executive body of the Papuan Council. I was researching West Papuan nationalism from a gender perspective. Beatrix is one of the few Papuan women leaders. She was in Brisbane with other presidium members, some of who attended the UN General Assembly the following month.

Beatrix Koibur Rumbino was born on July 10 1939, on Miokbundi, a small island to the east of Biak, and her own outlook reflects the influence of Dutch Protestant missionaries. This remains a strong influence in Papua, despite almost forty years of Indonesian rule. The Dutch are seen as having been a much more benign coloniser than the Indonesians. In some coastal areas such as Biak (from where many prominent nationalists originate), missionary efforts meant that by the late 1940s, most men and growing numbers of women were receiving a formal education. Hence this particular form of Christianity constitutes a strong part of Papuan - Melanesian identity.

In 1953, having completed three years at a Domestic Science Girls School, Beatrix was chosen to go to a missionary teachers college in Serui. As the first woman graduate in 1956, Beatrix was qualified as a primary teacher and Bible study leader. At that time, this was the highest level of education available to Papuan women. From 1963 with Indonesian rule, Beatrix said that it was only within the church that women had the confidence and courage to become leaders. Few government positions went to women, and almost all of those were given to women from Java and other parts of Indonesia, despite the fact that many Papuan women were capable of filling them, particularly those who had graduated from the Domestic Science Girls Schools.

Beatrix was proud of the fact that some women joined the OPM guerilla movement, and she pointed to a 1980 episode in which several women raised the Morning Star flag in Jayapura and were subsequently jailed. Women are now beginning to speak out about military repression, she said. In the past, if they spoke out they would be arrested. My argument that the militarisation of a nationalist movement tends to privilege men and masculinity to the detriment of women seemed not to resonate with Beatrix. Her perception of the Satgas Papua, the militia formed by Papuan nationalist Theys Eluay, was positive. She pointed out that these groups were not armed, but suggested that they may need to become so in the future.

Since late 1998 with reformasi, Beatrix has been called 'Mama Papua'. The title 'Mama' is also used for other outspoken women such as the Amungme leader Yosepha Alomang. For Biak people, powerful women leaders have historical significance. Angganetha Menufandu, for example, preached non-violence as she led a large anti-colonial millenarian movement in the 1940s (Koreri).

Church voice

According to Beatrix, the churches give great strength and hope to Papuans. Church leaders play a pastoral role, but also provide protection and a measure of political access, making possible the monitoring of human rights violations. As in East Timor, the churches have provided one of the few avenues through which Papuans can voice their grievances.

Beatrix Koibur is head of the Women's Christian Association of Indonesia in West Papua. In this position, since reformasi began in 1998, she has felt empowered to speak out. On 6 July 1998 in Biak City on the island of Biak, the Indonesian army opened fire on some two hundred people who were guarding the banned Morning Star flag. Beatrix went to Biak as head of a church team to care for the women and children survivors of the massacres. The naked mutilated bodies she saw horrified her. These massacres were even more shocking in that they took place after Suharto's fall. But they also had an empowering effect.

In the aftermath the three main churches - both Catholic and Protestant - formed the Forum for the Reconciliation of Irian Jaya Society (Foreri). Its aim was to create a 'national dialogue' to pursue political solutions for West Papua. From Foreri came the Team 100, which met President Habibie in February 1999 to demand independence. Beatrix was the only woman on the team.

Beatrix' account highlights the centrality of the Biak massacres of July 1998 as a catalyst in the most recent chapter of Papuan nationalism, and the crucial role played by the churches in it. With regard to gender relations within the movement, Beatrix' comments indicate that whilst Papuan women are actively involved, their engagement is contributive, and does not in general challenge the male-dominated power structures.

Anne Feith (anniefeith@hotmail.com) recently wrote an honour's thesis at the Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, on women and the West Papuan nationalist struggle.

Inside Indonesia 67: Jul - Sep 2001

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