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Published: Sunday May 24, 2015 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Sunday May 24, 2015 MYT 7:37:05 AM

Perpetual battle for Papua

Despite strong hopes for liberalisation under President Jokowi, the people of West Papua are fighting an uphill battle.

OF late, I’ve been coaching my son as he prepares for the IGCSE history exams, and we have been revisiting many fascinating phases of history.

While the impact of some phases of history is no longer that relevant, it’s clear that many nation-states in the 21st century are still feeling the after effects of the colonial era. I guess the very fact that I’m an ethnic Indian writing this article in English and living in Kuala Lumpur can be traced back to the British colonisation of both India and Malaya.

Colonisation took place in many forms, I’d say. Even the spread of a religion can be colonisation. What better way to get a local population to submit to foreign rule than to get them to accept your God? With it, natives accept the language and customs of the purveyor of the new religion until their own identity has been buried in the rapture of following a new deity.

In practical terms, it’s a conquest without a war. South African Bishop Desmond Tutu summed it up as such: “When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.”

Aside from the collusion of religion and colonial authorities, one can’t help noticing how modern conflicts have been shaped by the whims and fancies of administrators. For example, the Nigerian Civil War (also known as the Biafra conflict) basically erupted as a power struggle between the Yoruba, Hausa-Fulani and Igbo, three large tribal groupings which found themselves in the same country because all had been administered by the British. And lest we forget, the formation of Malaysia has its roots in uniting British territories across the South China Sea.

One of the more unfortunate scenarios involves the state of West Papua in Indonesia. At the time of independence, Indonesia’s president Sukarno welded the various islands that had been under Dutch rule into a unified nation. While Sumatra, Kalimantan, Bali, Sulawesi and the rest had both commonalities and differences with the dominant Javan island, West Papua (known then to the Indonesians as Irian Jaya) was practically a different world.

Sharing a massive island with the independent nation of Papua New Guinea, West Papua was incorporated into Indonesia as a province after a dubious vote was taken in 1969. Culturally, its people are from aboriginal tribes, with genetic links to the various peoples of the South Pacific, not the rest of Indonesia.

West Papua, which has abundant natural resources, has the misfortune of having a small population. Opponents of West Papua’s absorption into Indonesia believed that the natives have just traded one colonial master for another.

Three years ago, I did a lengthy article with a colleague about West Papua. This was soon after the killing of independence leader Mako Tabuni. When the liberal President Joko Widodo assumed office in October 2014, there was hope that he might finally overturn the dismal human rights situation that was alleged by groups working in West Papua.

I say alleged because access to West Papua has been strictly controlled for all these years. Journalists have had to apply to the Indonesian government even to enter. While places like Aceh and Timor L’este (which even got independence) have experienced an opening-up, West Papua is still a vast dense mystery.

In the last two weeks there have been some truly positive signs from Jokowi. In conjunction with his visit to Papua, his office has clarified that foreign journalists are now free to visit the region. More importantly he released five men widely believed to have been political detainees, who were jailed after a raid on a weapons depot in 2003.

Yet just on Thursday, reports of the Indonesian military rounding up peaceful Papuan protesters in the capital of Jayapura were being circulated. The protesters, mildy emboldened by Jokowi’s visit, are asking for West Papua to become a full member of a regional Melanesian group. Are we experiencing “one-step forward, two-steps back” again?

At a time when human rights violations around Asean are making global headlines, maybe it’s time to look at a dire situation that had gone under the radar for many decades. I truly hope that the tide will turn for the people of West Papua.

> The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.

Tags / Keywords: colonisation

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