West Papua Off The Air


Recently, I watched Pride of Warriors, a documentary about resistance in West Papua. The filmmaker, Jono Van Hest had asked me to comment on the film’s content as he prepared it for public broadcast on Al Jazeera’s English language channel. After an article about the film appeared in the Jakarta Post, however, Pride of Warriors was pulled from the broadcaster’s schedule at the last minute, allegedly under pressure from the Indonesian Government.

Van Hest’s documentary was inspired by the arrival of 43 West Papuan refugees in Australia in January 2006. Faced with an Indonesian ban on foreign media, van Hest smuggled six video cameras into West Papua. This unparalleled access to the West Papuan resistance movement has resulted in a film that gets behind the media headlines and gives a detailed set of accounts of nonviolent resistance in West Papua — and about the price of resistance under occupation.

Two things about the film — apart from the stormfront that has opened up in the wake of Al Jazeera’s decision not to screen it — stand out to me. The first is the filmmaker’s decision to portray the civilian-based opposition to the Indonesian Government’s rule in West Papua. Van Hest has avoided making a romantic film about armed insurgents, small in number, waging a David and Goliath guerrilla war against the overwhelming might of the Indonesian army. Instead it is a film about the courage of ordinary Papuans — young people, students, customary leaders and a guerrilla commander — who have chosen a path of civil resistance over arms.

Van Hest highlights the desire of West Papuans to share the rights that Indonesian citizens enjoy in other parts of the archipelago. His film tells four separate stories: of Yane, the daughter of an independence leader, who was kidnapped and tortured because of her father’s political activity; of Matias Bunai, a customary leader from Paniai who fights to keep his culture alive; of the rebel leader Tadius Yogi who has put down his guns and now advocates a peaceful solution to the conflict; and of Sampari, a group of young dancers who were interrogated by the Indonesian security forces for performing a dance.

Matias and the Sampari dancers are struggling for fundamental freedoms: the right to display Papuan symbols like the banned Morning Star flag; the ability to practise their own cultural traditions in peace. These demands could be realised under the framework of an enlightened Indonesian state. Instead they are met with harsh repression from the Indonesian security forces and central government.

Such bullying and intransigence is exactly the type of behaviour that pushes Papuans towards the conviction that freedom will only be realised in an independent state. The fact that stories about campaigns calling for freedom of speech and the right to practise cultural traditions only reach the outside world when filmmakers like van Hest ignore a ban on journalism and enter West Papua undercover at great personal risk, is a clear indication that the spread of democracy in Indonesia has not yet reached the shores of its restive Pacific periphery.

The second thing that stands out for me is that the Indonesian Government’s alleged response to Pride of Warriors appears to be part of a sophisticated pattern of repression and control to maintain rule in West Papua. Brian Martin from the University of Wollongong has developed a framework for understanding how powerholders attempt to inhibit outrage to injustice. This framework is useful for describing the Indonesian Government’s response to dissent in West Papua. The Government’s strategy has five mutually reinforcing elements: cover-up; devaluation and stigmatisation of Papuan identity and culture; re-interpretation of reality; the use of policy and procedures to give the appearance of justice; and intimidation.

Firstly, the Indonesian Government maintains tight control of international media, international humanitarian and development work, and diplomatic visits to West Papua that effectively works as a ban on international media. The recent banning of Red Cross visits to West Papua and the apparent attempt to prevent the broadcast of van Hest’s film are the latest instances in a long sequence of silencing and marginalising critical voices.

Secondly, the Indonesian Government stigmatises Papuan dissent. Because of anti-free-speech legislation like Law 77/2007 — which bans the display of Papuan political and cultural symbols associated with the independence movement — the display of the Morning Star flag, a symbol of West Papuan independence, by the Sampari Dance Group gets framed as subversion rather than free speech. Demonstrations are criminalised: to be indigenous and Black in West Papua invites discrimination and harassment. Oswald Iten, the Swiss journalist who was jailed in West Papua in 2000 after recording a nonviolent demonstration, observed this dynamic while in prison. Iten witnessed Indonesian police taunting Papuan students in detention: "You eat pig meat which is why you look like pigs".

Thirdly, the Indonesian Government reinterprets what happens, expressing more concern about a film made by an undercover filmmaker than the root political causes of Papuan grievances. In doing so the Indonesian Government seeks to blame foreign involvement in its internal affairs rather than addressing the Indonesian state’s fundamental lack of legitimacy in West Papua.

Fourthly, formal procedures are used to give a veneer of legitimacy to what Papuans privately say amounts to an occupation. A clear example of how formal procedures are used to give the appearance of justice is the case of the first Human Rights Court in Indonesia. Two police officers (of a total of 25 officers named as suspects by the Human Rights Commission, or Komnas HAM) from the paramilitary mobile police brigade (Brimob) were put on trial for the indiscriminate torture and killing of Papuan students in 2000, torture and killing witnessed by the Swiss journalist Iten. Despite overwhelming evidence, the two men were acquitted and later promoted.

Another example is the much lauded but ineffectual Special Autonomy Law of 2001. The far-reaching law was designed to address many of the root causes of Papua’s problems but has been ineffective because the regulations that enable the law to be implemented have never been passed. This allows the Indonesian Government to give the appearance of responding to Papuan concerns and satisfying the international community while doing precisely nothing.

Finally, the Indonesian Government will use threats and intimidation to silence dissent. This is certainly what happens to Papuan political leaders and their families, including Edison Waromi and his daughter Yane, whose story of abduction and assault is featured in van Hest’s film. While Papuans receive 15 year jail sentences for organising a nonviolent demonstration, only a few low-ranking Indonesian soldiers and police have been sentenced to jail for human rights violations, including extra-judicial killings and torture, and then only for a few years.

Of course, Papuans are not passive or silent in the face of this repression. They expose cover-ups, emphasise the overwhelmingly peaceful nature of the resistance and the courage and humanity of those involved. They reinterpret what happens as an injustice, mobilise public concern (rather than rely on formal procedures), and resist intimidation and bribery.

Van Hest has recorded the stories of West Papuans and brought them to a wider international audience. That is what the Indonesian Government truly fears. By refusing to screen his film, Al Jazeera has come down on the side of hardliners in Indonesia.  

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.