In the Papuan mind, Papuans are Papuans. You cannot turn Papuans into Indonesians. Every Papuan, no matter who they are, believes that Indonesians and Papuans are different. This is borne out by experience.
In the 1970s a church worker in Beoga, in the Carstenz Range where the Damal people live, wrote a report about a non-Papuan government official who felt uneasy. The official knew he was not having much success persuading the Papuans that they were Indonesians (or that Indonesians were Papuan?). He had given endless lectures, in church as well as in his government offices, yet still the people believed they were different to the Indonesians. 'Mister district head', they said, 'you are Indonesian, we are Damal.' They pointed to the differences in food and clothes, skin colour and hair to prove their point: Damal people are not Indonesians, and Indonesians are not Damal.
When the Indonesian parliament in Jakarta sent a delegation led by Abdul Gafur to Papua in August 1998 to get to the bottom of why people wanted a Free Papua, Mrs Agu Iwanggin, deputy synod secretary of the Papuan Protestant church (GKI Papua) explained it to him. At the bottom there is God, because God created people to be different. Papuans are different to Javanese, and different to other people too. God gave Papua to Papuans as a home, so they could eat sago and sweet potatoes there. God gave them a penis gourd (koteka) and loincloth (cawat) for clothes. God gave them curly hair and black skin. Papuans are Papuans. They can never be turned into Javanese or Sumatrans, nor vice versa. The Javanese were given Java. Tahu and tempe is their food. Their skin is light and their hair straight. The real problem is that those in power in this republic have tried as best they could to make Papuans talk, think, look and behave like Javanese (or Sumatrans), and that goes against the order of God's creation. That is where the conflict comes from. How to end it? Let the Papuans and the Javanese each develop according to their own tastes and rhythms, each in their own land.
In the same meeting, held in the provincial parliament building with the delegation from Jakarta, the Rev Herman Saud, chairperson of the GKI Papua synod, said: 'When the Indonesians came to Papua, I was still young. With both my hands (he said, lifting up his hands) I took down the West Papua flag, the Morning Star, and with the same hands I raised the Red-and-White. From that moment I was taught to be an Indonesian. But I'm probably stupid, because I failed to become an Indonesian. For ever since then I have heard Indonesians say: Papuans are stupid, Papuans can't do it, Papuans are lazy, they are drunkards.'
For many years, the church's presence among the people in this land has undeniably been an inspiration and a pillar for the Papuan people's journey. The church has played the role of development pioneer, it has mediated between the government and the people, it has been a peacemaker and a prophetic voice addressing those in power. But rarely do we hear how the Christian faith that the church preaches has inspired a people who are oppressed. Let me explain some of the ways in which the gospel has given strength to people 'passing through the valley of darkness'.
The church has been working among the people in this land from February 1855 until now. Over the last three decades, people came to regard it as a liberating institution. Or at least as an alternative, perhaps a fortress of last resort, the bearer of new hope for a society shackled by the cold ideology of development that the New Order government taught.
The church has always preached redemption from sin, and the struggle for truth and justice in this world. But often people hear what they want to hear and interpret the message according to their needs. It is not surprising that the gospel the church spreads often functions by absorbing the aspirations for freedom in a New Papua. It becomes a means and an inspiration for the fight for freedom, on the understanding that God supports the freedom of an independent West Papua.
Such an interpretation grows directly out of their ominous experience of domination by outsiders in every area, whether ideological, social or economic. The Bible becomes a 'window' that gives people new possibilities, new dimensions to see a better world than the one they live in every day. The Bible portrays a new world, free from manipulation, intimidation and trauma. It lifts up the eyes of those who are oppressed to a new world. Sometimes people see in this new world a New Papua, an independent West Papua.
At the level of the village and the ordinary congregation, the biblical texts often acquire a powerful new meaning, because people read them in the context of their struggle for emancipation. The texts give new strength to Papuans who feel oppressed as they read. Unconsciously and unintentionally, Papuans in this situation identify their own experience of struggle with that of the people of Israel who struggled to leave Egypt. Everyone reads the Bible through their own eyes. The Bible gives them light and new energy for an emancipatory struggle against the shackles of trauma and ideology.
I caught something of that energy once when I heard an OPM fighter say to a preacher in a village who was trying to persuade him to surrender: 'Father, you have forgotten the gospel'.
For the needy will not always be forgotten, nor the hope of the afflicted perish forever;
O Lord, you have heard the desire of the humble;
You will strengthen their heart, You will incline your ear
To vindicate the orphan and the oppressed,
That man who is of the earth may cause terror no more.
'Because of the devastation of the afflicted, because of the groaning of the needy,
Now I will arise', says the Lord, 'I will set him in the safety for which he longs.'
[Psalms 9:18, 10:17-18, 12:5]
The church and many theologians will probably argue that this way of reading the Bible cannot be justified. Yet the very presence of a church that preaches these texts makes people engaged in a struggle for freedom do it anyway.
The road to a New Papua free from fear, manipulation and intimidation is a long one, but it has to be trod. Many thorn bushes litter the path. That is why the journey must be well planned, and Papuans must undertake it in a great spirit of liberty. So may it be.Dr Benny Giay (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches at the Walter Post Theological College near Jayapura. This article and the accompanying box were extracted with permission from his book, 'Menuju Papua Baru' (Jayapura/ Port Numbay: Deiyai/ Elsham Papua, 2000).