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Land of the Mourning Star

February 26, 2015

My time in Papua was a great experience, filled with sadness and pain for the Papuans whose land and way of life has been taken, or who live under that threat. Many have been traumatised from either one experience of violent oppression; years of structural violence oppressing their traditional way of life, and often both.

On Biak Island I met a young man who had gone through one of the most traumatic experiences I have ever heard of. I am going to share his story. A warning, it is violent and sexual in nature. Skip the next 2 paragraphs if you like. I include it because the man was my age. Whilst I was thinking about what I might like to do with my life, that same year he was struggling for his life and his future.

John* (name changed for his protection) assembled at the Biak water tower in July 1998. On the morning of July 6, Indonesian soldiers opened fire on the assembled, unarmed mass of people who had camped asking for freedom from Indonesian rule. John was not shot, but caught up in the mass arrest that happened. I’ve been arrested before and held in a watch house. John was not taken for due processing though. Instead, along with hundreds of others, he was loaded on to a naval ship and taken out to sea.

There, many Papuans were tortured and killed. John was forced to watch as a female relative was raped by an Indonesian soldier. The woman’s genitalia was then cut off and shoved into John’s mouth. Laughing, the soldiers then pushed John overboard. Others had been forced overboard, some tied up, some with hands or heads severed. Miraculously, John managed to make it back to Biak Island, only to be rounded up and sent to prison.

People ask, what can be done to help, and I am thinking about and reflecting on what my role might be.

One thing to consider in Australia is our country’s role. When I was explaining West Papua to my mate he said “They need an army!” Armies fight wars. They attack the enemy, kill the enemy and take over. I, obviously, have major moral problems with this approach that dehumanises the enemy and ultimately ourselves. This approach to solving conflict has caused severe damage to our social fabric. Aside from the bloody deaths on the field, thinking about the resources we put into weapons and weapons research, think about how far we could go in feeding the whole human race, curing diseases and educating everyone. Wouldn’t this bring peace and stability in a healthier way than building nuclear missiles?

Practically, though, to propose that West Papua could successfully arm and fight off the Indonesian army which represents the economic and political interests of the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia is ludicrous. The West Papuans are facing many challenges as the forces of globalisation mix and clash with their traditional way of life. The Papuan self-determination movement, does not offer a simple answer to the problems of development, they simply want Papuans on the ground to be the ones to decide. Not from Jakarta and not from Washington DC.

The best foundations for this future will not be a bloody overthrown of Indonesian rule. Strategically, against powerful forces of global militarism, a violent conflict is destined to lose. A non-violent struggle that calls for a just peace is the best chance and best hope for the Papuans. This is easy to say in an Australian lounge room, but people are living it out on the ground.

In 2004, Filip Karma defiantly raised the Morning Star flag, the symbol of West Papuan independence. For this act, he was sentenced to 15 years in jail. In Jayapura, I heard that the Indonesian authorities had offered to release Karma if he apologised. Karma has refused, saying the Indonesian government should apologise to him. This single act of non-violent resistance to Indonesian rule is an inspiration and shows that the real power of violence and oppression lay in our acceptance and submission to it.

morning star

I met many activists. One woman was harassed by police on her way to school. She was wearing a t-shirt that showed the Morning Star flag. The police officer said “You can’t wear that, you will provoke us into attacking you.” This brave woman, who had a black singlet on underneath stood up off her motor scooter and took her tshirt off in front of the two men. This act, shamed the men and a car of Muslim Indonesians behind her scolded the police. “How dare you force a young woman to strip naked in public!” the police had tried to use the threat of violence to intimidate a young woman seeking freedom, in an act of creative non-violence, she complied to the letter and exposed the cruelty and dehumanisation behind the occupation of Papua. This kind of bravery, creativity and appealing to the human in the oppressor, so we can see our common humanity, is a much stronger and effective way of facing down men with guns, than getting more guns and shooting back.

The Papuans also have to face the might of my country’s army.

Australian Special Forces (our Special Air Services and Commandos) train Indonesian special forces such as Kopassus and Detachment 88. These forces are responsible for, at least, hundreds of murders of West Papuans calling for more freedom. There are complex strategic and international relational reasons why Australia trains people who are known human rights abusers. The most important reason though, is gold. You can read about the history of Freeport Mine elsewhere online, but suffice to say, whilst the Papuans struggle under the Indonesian heel, Australia, the United Kingdom and United States companies profit from their massive gold deposits.

These kids were awesome surfers!

These kids were awesome surfers!

It’s a simple case of pacification. Use violence to kill or scare the people on the land, and you can take whatever you want- you pacify them. A long way from the United States, and ignored by many Australians- it is easy for Indonesian military figures to protect their own incomes from the mine, using the considerable resources of the Indonesian Military. This military is armed and trained by Australian and US sources. Indeed, think-tank reports on the issue call for greater military cooperation with Indonesia. Human rights of Papuans? Not important enough. The lives of five boys gunned down in the mountains of Papua in December by Indonesian military? Self-defence.

Going to West Papua, visiting with people like Benny Giay, a church leader who uses his church to speak out against Indonesian oppression and violence- where his way of life and the way of life of his people are under threat is the reason for his activism- inspires me. I thought I was going to West Papua to shine a light on their suffering. But the people of West Papua shone their light on me. Their strength, their resilience, their indelible smiles and laughs in the midst of death and oppression lit my soul up. My stance and small actions against Australian militarism and violence suddenly seemed more important.

After Swan Island, when I was assaulted by Australian Special Forces, I had a trough of emotion where I thought standing up against such violence was pointless and even a waste of time. I even thought for a while there probably wasn’t a God if this kind of suffering (mine was small, but my mind swelled at the thought of others going through worse just for being born in the wrong country) is allowed to exist.

But meeting with people whose lives are threatened by my countries violence and economic exploitation, who have lost or stand to lose their way of life passed down for thousands of years so we can profit from their gold has done more than reinvigorate me. It has given me new life. I met women and men, hearing their stories of hope, strength and even reconciliation with so-called enemies showed me that whilst people like these could cultivate their humanity in these conditions, than God at least lived in them.

My actions may seem small and stupid and sometimes an embarrassment to my family, but people are dying. The Earth which sustains us is being ripped up- my faith, my attempts at doing something, no matter how small and how imperfect, are of vital importance in an age where celebrity gossip, home renovations and sport events are the dominant media story over peace, conflict and justice.

Now I want to study harder, live deeper, plan better and do more against violence and oppression which impoverishes my country, and kills my neighbours. My anti-militarism work and that of my friends and allies is so much more important and needs more effort. What else could I give my time to but life itself?

Please consider supporting the Federal Republic of West Papua’s Consulate in Melbourne. It is one step to self-determination:

http://dfait.federalrepublicofwestpapua.org/support/

The resilience of the people and the culture in Papua was inspirational.

The resilience of the people and the culture in Papua was inspirational.

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Dale was an important elder...

Dale was an important elder…

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3 Comments
  1. Great work Greg. Keep the fire lit. Thanks.

  2. westpapuamedia permalink

    great op-ed Greg – do you mind if we reblog it on West Papua Media?

I would be honored if you espoused your narrative here.....

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