QUARTERLY ESSAY 7 Paradise Betrayed



Chris Ballard

During the 1870s New Guinea was a favoured location for the fictional exploits of romantic adventurers who travelled, much as Quarterly Essay Editor Peter Craven writes in his preface of John Martinkus, with danger breathing down their necks at every turn. As these fanciful explorers penetrated deeper into the interior of New Guinea, they encountered ever-larger beasts, more beautiful birds, higher mountains and smaller people – pygmies – inhabiting a fertile and gold-rich paradise. Such was the power of this imaginary that when the first European explorers really did reach the mountains in 1910, in the area where the giant Freeport copper and gold mine is now located, they fully expected to meet pygmies. The people they met in the mountains were indeed short, due probably to the soil deficiencies characteristic of the wet southern fall of the Central Range, and the British explorers duly pronounced them to be pygmies. The descendants of these Amungme people react with a mixture of derisive laughter and anger as they leaf through the photographs of their ancestors taken by these early scientific expeditions; amused by the ignorance of the naturalists, but bitter as they reflect on the lack of change in their condition and on the missed opportunities for benefits or a genuine partnership with successive governments and resource exploiters.

In many ways, New Guinea remains more vivid as a backdrop to the imaginations of distant observers (whether in Jakarta or Australia) than it does as a material location peopled by real communities with very real aspirations. During the short-lived ‘Papuan Spring’, which extended from the fall of President Suharto in May 1998 until the return of political repression in December 2000, a communicative space, a hole in the ozone layer of secrecy which blankets Papua, opened briefly and Papuan leaders were able to express some of those aspirations directly to the outside world. In February 1999, in the first experiment at direct communication with senior government officials, a team of 100 Papuan civilian leaders met with President Habibie, House Speaker Akbar Tandjung and the army’s Chief of Staff, General Wiranto. The Papuan team respectfully presented their list of requests to the President, the first of which was a demand for immediate independence. Members of the team can still recall the jaw-dropping shock on the faces of the government officials. As a strategic gambit, the Papuan team’s opening bid now appears less than wise, for it galvanised Jakarta into concerted action, leading to the diplomatic and security offensive on Papuan separatism which is still unfolding.

John Martinkus’s essay cuts through some of the mythology surrounding Papua and, based solidly on a series of sensitive and very useful interviews, gives us a taste of the first fruits of this offensive: the assassination of the civilian leader Theys Eluay, the compilation of detailed plans for the suppression of the civilian movements contained in the ‘Matoa’ document and the well-coordinated insertion of the Muslim extremists of Laskar Jihad into the western port towns of Papua such as Sorong and Fak Fak. He’s at his best when he reports first-hand on his interviews with Presidium leader Thom Beanal, the Dani students at Abepura, US Ambassador Ralph Boyce and the Laskar Jihad members in Sorong. We’re given a powerful sense of the depth of Papuan resentment and frustration, and of the gulf that exists between Papuan aspirations and the new fusion of Indonesian nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism. What Martinkus struggles with – and this is true for all writers on Papua – is the challenge of situating these snapshots within an intelligible account of broader processes of change, and then identifying the scope for future movement of the various interests at play in Papua. Once he moves from the visible interaction to the credible report, and then from the credible report to the probable explanation, the picture on the screen starts to break up. In many ways the interviews themselves are more real than the ‘facts’ or the ‘history’ which he marshals as context for the interviews.

Numbers are particularly tricky in Papua, and the faithful documentation by Martinkus of the figures recited to him in interview or which he has gleaned from published sources needs to be qualified at every step. Take the question of the population census. The Dutch never succeeded in establishing a total for the population of what was then Netherlands New Guinea, and successive censuses under Indonesian rule have moved increasingly into the realm of speculation (as they have in neighbouring Papua New Guinea). As a rather world-weary local district head or camat observed to me when I questioned him about the real figures for the population in his district, ‘The village heads lie to me, I lie to the Regent, the Regent lies to the Governor, and the Governor lies to the President.’ During a recent census, the enumerators failed even to visit most of the villages in the area where I was working. Estimates of the total population, and of the proportions of indigenous Papuans and non-indigenous residents in Papua, fluctuate wildly.

If it’s hard to determine the numbers of the living, it is even harder to be sure about the figures being bandied about for the number of people killed. A macabre ‘numbers game’ has been played out over the years in activist circles in which numbers of Papuan dead circulate in an inflationary spiral from one report to the next, jostling for media attention with the figures from Rwanda, Sudan or East Timor. Martinkus refers to the figure of 300,000 dead quoted by activist networks, but other sources claim that as many as 500,000 Papuans have been killed. In one report, the claim is made that 8,000 Amungme were killed around the Freeport mine after the 1977–78 uprising (based on the records of local missions, it seems that there were only about 7,000 to 8,000 Amungme in 1977). The ‘routine’ calculation cited by Martinkus of 100,000 dead is simply the most widely quoted estimate available. Peter Tabuni, an OPM fighter at Mathias Wenda’s camp in PNG, gives some suspiciously precise figures for deaths in the most strife-torn of the regencies, Wamena. If we take these figures at face-value (and there would be strong doubts about their accuracy), we get a total of 6,508 from the onset of major conflict in 1977 until the present. Multiply this figure by the number of regencies (though most other regencies have experienced little of the conflict of the Wamena area) and you get a total of 71,588. To this one would have to add the casualties of conflict between 1962 and 1977, perhaps but not probably as many again, yielding an overall total of about 140,000 Papuan dead between 1962 and 2002. Not 10,000, but not 500,000 either.

Why is it important to engage in such a grim debate? In the one area where intensive investigation has taken place over several years, around the Freeport mine, the total number of victims whose identities can be confirmed by the communities of the area and by local OPM units stands at about 220 for the period 1974–2001. This figure certainly understates the real extent of losses, as not all of the dead have been named and those who died of hunger while seeking refuge in the forest are not included, but it gives some sense of the real scale of the tragedy in one of the areas most affected by violence since the 1970s. If the result is less dramatic than the figures doing the rounds on the internet, it is no less tragic for the families and communities from which these 220 individuals were lost. Casually adding zeroes to their number diminishes and effaces the individual tragedies of their deaths just as certainly as their killers routinely seek to remove all trace of the bodies.

At least there’s some degree of interest amongst the Western media in Papuan casualties. In Aceh, Indonesia’s other province with ambitions of independence, an estimated average of seven people are being killed every day. Where Papua’s university rectors can still engage in discussion with government officials about autonomy, and Papua’s human rights activists can still conduct parallel investigations into killings, in Muslim Aceh university rectors and human rights activists have long been targets for assassination. This is not a story, however, that plays strongly in the West and the reasons for this have to do with some very murky and unstated assumptions about ‘race’ and religion. Bylines in international media reports on Papua commonly observe that the Papuans are Melanesian Christians, distinct from other Indonesians on both racial and religious grounds, as if this were sufficient to account for Papuan aspirations for independence. Martinkus and Craven both insist that ‘the West Papuans have always had more in common with their neighbours in Papua New Guinea than they do with Indonesians.’

It was Alfred Russel Wallace, the moon to Charles Darwin’s sun, who made the first attempt to draw a neat line between ‘pure’ Malay and Papuan ‘races’ in the 1860s, but his own writings betrayed the struggle that this required with the evident phenotypical complexity of eastern Indonesia. There are no clear breaks in language or ethnicity as one moves from Papua towards eastern Indonesia. There are indigenous Papuan language communities in Alor, Timor and in the North Moluccas. The western margins of Papua have long been oriented towards the sea rather than the land, participating in Moluccan economies and cultures as much as with other areas of Papua. Some indigenous Papuan communities have been Muslim for almost five centuries – long before most other Papuans became Christian. Indeed Thaha al-Hamid, the outspoken secretary-general of the Papuan Presidium, is a Papuan Muslim. There is also greater linguistic and ethnic diversity within Papua than across the rest of Indonesia, and Papuan leaders are now concerned that their greatest challenge is to achieve reconciliation amongst Papuans. The spectre of an unravelling Papua New Guinea figures prominently in their minds.

This is not to say that ‘race’ is not an important element in the Papuan conflict. Almost any Papuan can testify to the experience of racist treatment at the hands of other Indonesians. Resentment about such treatment generates a distinctive platform for Papuan resistance. Echoing the earlier racial hierarchies nurtured by the Dutch colonial administration, a common observation made by other Indonesians is that Papuans are ‘not ready’ for autonomy or are ‘insufficiently trained’ to staff the administration of their own province. After forty years of Indonesian education and training, the implication is that Papuans will never be ready to administer themselves. This fundamental discrimination against Papuans does add an extra dimension to the conflict in Papua that is not present either in Muslim Aceh or in the Christian areas of the Moluccas, and accounts for the willingness of Papuans to assert a pride in the differences that others insist upon. But to place ‘race’ at the heart of a new Papuan identity would simply be to replace one form of racism with another.

John Martinkus writes within what is now an established tradition of foreign journalists seeking access by any means possible to Papua and working under conditions that are increasingly dangerous for them and for those Papuans who work with them. A few years ago, foreign journalists and others found to be working illegally in Papua were simply deported, but with two foreign researchers currently in jail and facing trial in Aceh, the prospects for future reportage of this kind are grim. If Indonesian diplomats and security officials are constantly frustrated by what they regard as disinformation emanating from Papua, they have only themselves to blame. Closing the door on Papua will only encourage further speculation on the part of foreign journalists, and possibly a return to reliance on the OPM for information about events within Papua. But whether the Indonesian government can put the lid back on communication from within Papua is now a moot point. A wide range of new and highly articulate sources of information are now available from within Papua, generated by church groups, NGOs, students and researchers.

OPM commander Mathias Wenda’s ennui at being confronted with yet another journalist making the pilgrimage to his camp is evident, and Martinkus is professional enough to convey this. Not surprisingly, the results of this interview are the least interesting, and the least well-informed of those in this essay. Most of the senior OPM commanders have been in the jungle for a quarter of a century, since the 1977 uprising, and their sense of Papuan, Indonesian or global events is inevitably restricted as a consequence. They have played an important role for many Papuans in the past, and they are certainly a part of Papua’s future, but the OPM are only a tiny fraction of the myriad of different groups in Papua, each of which has different interests and different approaches, albeit in pursuit of a broad common goal. Particularly disappointing in Martinkus’s essay is the near total absence of voices from any of the churches (one local pastor is brought on to talk about the Laskar Jihad). Christian church and Papuan Islamic leaders play a far greater leadership role in Papuan communities than either the OPM or the Indonesian government. There is increasing discomfort within Papua at the focus placed on OPM commanders by foreign journalists, and at the romantic image of the OPM as spokesmen for all Papuans, promoted by editors musing on the OPM’s ‘quixotic nobility in the face of futility’ (to quote Peter Craven in his breathless preface to Martinkus). Papuans need and deserve rather more than this. What the army currently fears far more than the OPM – who have never posed a problem militarily – is the church-sponsored and Presidium-sanctioned ‘Zone of Peace’, which calls on all sides to refrain from conflict, a move which threatens to expose those parties with an interest in sustaining the violence.

Perhaps the most significant casualty of this international media focus on OPM opinion is the perception – which is widely held within Papua – that there is no space for engagement between the polar opposites of Indonesian nationalism and Papuan independence. Martinkus is accurate in his portrayal of widespread Papuan scepticism and suspicion in response to Jakarta’s offer of special autonomy, but his dismissal of the Papuan government officials, academics and church leaders who have been trying to promote discussion about autonomy as ‘precisely the groups that stand to gain financially’ is both naive and grossly unfair. Advocates of engagement in the autonomy process acknowledge that Jakarta’s entire approach to the autonomy legislation has been dismissive of Papuan aspirations. Who would have expected otherwise? Yet the fact remains that even the limited concessions of the autonomy bill potentially mark a major departure from thirty years of a largely repressive relationship. The autonomy process – and it will be a process, not an overnight phenomenon – represents the only space for discussion and negotiation between Papuans and Jakarta that is currently on the horizon. What Martinkus fails to report is the very deep antipathy and suspicion of autonomy being voiced openly by Indonesia’s nationalist politicians and security chiefs who regard it as the first step towards independence, and who have no intention of making even the limited concessions outlined in the bill. The autonomy bill got through parliament in Jakarta only because of the persistence and perseverance of the Papuan drafting team, who spent months in Jakarta meeting politicians and promoting their cause, and because parliament was in the process of impeaching President Wahid when the bill was brought before them.

Where should outsiders – and, in this context, Australians – stand on the Papuan conflict, and how should we express our views to best effect? First up, Papua is not ‘the next East Timor’, as every second foreign pundit proclaims. This is tired and lazy ‘soundbite’ analysis (why, incidentally, is Aceh never the next East Timor?). Quite apart from the differences between Papua and East Timor in terms of history and legal status, what Papuans need is sustained engagement with the intricate details of their past and present situations rather than this airbrushing of political complexity. Martinkus actually works quite hard to register the subtlety of a position such as Thom Beanal’s – a leader caught between multiple constituencies, who is at once a tribal chief, a commissioner on Freeport’s board and the acting chair of the Papuan Presidium. But Craven’s preface slips into stereotype in his mild condemnation of Beanal as ‘far more temporising’ than the heroic Theys Eluay,‘the one figure around whom the independence movement clustered’. Anyone aware of the actual events at the Second Papuan Congress which saw Theys elected as Chair would find this hilarious. Theys Eluay certainly emerged as a symbol of the Papuan Congress movement, and his assassination has united Papuans in their demand for his true killers to be brought to justice, but a biography of Eluay in the June edition of Inside Indonesia indicates some of the ambivalence with which he was regarded by many Papuans for much of his life.

To my mind, it’s both inappropriate and irresponsible for foreigners to call for independence for Papua. Inappropriate (and largely counter-productive) because we aren’t Indonesian citizens, and irresponsible because we won’t have to live with the consequences. It is appropriate and it is a responsibility for us to work for basic human rights – for adequate political representation, the right to self-determination, and freedom from violence – for Papuans, for Acehnese, for all Indonesians, along with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and refugees in Australia, among others. Papua’s most immediate problems are essentially Indonesia’s problems, chief among which are its mercenary army and ineffective judiciary. If Martinkus’s essay establishes one thing, it is that the rest of Indonesia, and the wider world, knows very little about Papua. We need more journalists on the ground in Papua, and more interviews with a wider range of perspectives, Papuan and Indonesian. And we need, in particular, a journalism which opens up new forums and spaces for dialogue, rather than closing them down by focusing on the voices of polar opposition.


Chris Ballard is a Fellow in the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at the Australian National University. He is one of the co-ordinators of Papuaweb, a new research website on Papua (www.papuaweb.org).


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 7, Paradise Betrayed. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 8, Groundswell.


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