Pasefika Issue: Decolonisation unplugged – my meeting with West Papuans in Indonesia

This article, by Shasha Ali, is also published in Fightback’s special Pasefika magazine issue.

This article is not easy to write. We live in a world with less than 8% of the global wealth distributed amongst the poorest, with indigenous women and children being predominant victim statistics of violent crimes and the impending crisis of climate change in the Pacific. Specifically for us in a post-TPPA signed Aotearoa New Zealand, it is clear that more than ever New Zealand as administered by the current Key government, is facing our own backyard crises from the most basic rights to clean water and shelter to widening income, access and opportunity disparities by gender, class and race.

So why should we care about West Papua?

This question resounded in my head when a rather random Facebook faceless-profile person from an Auckland-based Indonesian student cultural group messaged me during my shared postings of the West Papua campaign calling for peaceful demonstrations and observances to commemorate the Broken Promise of 15 August 1962, when the UN administered Dutch colonialists to hand over West Papua to Indonesia. The controversy remained as to whether a democratic voting process was fairly held with Indonesian government claiming they did things fair and square and a huge proportion of West Papuans who claim otherwise.

“You’re not even of Indonesian nationality,” this troll says to me in Bahasa. “ Why do you care so much about West Papua?”

Okay, obviously sophisticated notions of diaspora and cultural identity is not to be discussed here. In many activist spaces I can talk about identity from a longer memory, my longer Java-Malay tribal origins across Madura and Bandung whakapapa, my subjectivity as a tauiwi person in Aotearoa, and as an indigenous person deprived of her own indigeneity in her birth country of Singapura. However, that kind of talk will fall on deaf ears to people like this, because as long as I wasn’t born in Indonesia, apparently I’m not Indonesian enough to speak with any authority about Indonesia.

I try talking to him instead about Dutch colonialism, and how we can view Indonesia’s occupation of West Papua as a version of imperialism perpetrated by Indonesia. “Isn’t it enough that our forefathers and foremothers had to go through that? All the heroes we lost in the revolution for independence? Shouldn’t we try to make peace?” I typed out, attempting the most diplomatic version of my usually impatient, radical self.

Interestingly, the conversation halted. In the larger Facebook group where this thread began, 32 comments emerged very respectfully posted by a mix of Indonesian youth and mature postgraduate students in response to my call for solidarity for West Papua. There is consensus that this topic is a “very sensitive” issue, and that Indonesians would “kindly request” that I post instead a “legitimate mainstream media article” covering the situation on West Papua such as the Jakarta Post, as alternative and social media sources are “unreliable”.

At this point, I do not think it would make any difference for me to tell these 32 online commenters that when I was in Yogyakarta two weeks ago, I actually met with a young West Papuan who witnessed his uncle killed by the Indonesian military, and whose footage of his uncle being beheaded is in the end minutes of Run It Straight film. If the words and accounts of those who survive are not ‘legitimate’, then how exactly are we to dialogue further beyond the mediated catchphrase to ‘agree to disagree’.

It is promising to remember however that while I was in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, there were actual Indonesian activists, from Muslims, LBGT, women’s rights and human rights advocates who care and work in solidarity with West Papua freedom movements. You see, Yogyakarta has a very interesting and special history of being a state for thinkers, artists, academics and creatives of all kinds – from the traditional artisan to the contemporary. You can witness the city unravelling itself with its political graffiti art and tagging amidst short dwellings and rickshaw traffic, a type of punk attitude to life and society at large. The demographic is fairly youth-dominated with a huge student population and it is known to be historically the breeding ground for many famous artists, activists and left-leaning politicians.

But apparently 2016 is the year things started to look less than cool in Yogyakarta. I spent four days on a visitor internship at this non-profit social and environmental justice group called EngageMedia who told me they could not disclose their physical address to increase security since the Police attacks on LBTQ groups and West Papuans whom they support. I am so grateful to this organisation for without their support, none of what am about to share here would have happened. It started with a small morning tea for me to meet with the West Papuan student activists that were caught in the Police arrests in the city prior to my arrival.

That morning tea became an entire day spent until the late hours of evening! I met three young men, and two of their friends who somehow couldn’t make it (but was constantly on the phone saying they are on their way) to the office. Interestingly, they are more fluent in Bahasa Melayu (my first native tongue) than Bahasa Indonesia (the national language of Indonesia), and for a moment I felt immersed in a strange world of seeing them alike my cousins.

We watched the film “Run It Straight” directed by Tere Harrison, as a resourceful opening to introduce myself as an activist from Aotearoa New Zealand. Of course, luckily the EngageMedia facilitator realised that there was no subtitles so between her super-Bahasa skills and my average-Kiwinglish skills she amazingly translated and subtitled the entire film on their platform prior to the morning tea session!

I presented to them a ‘kia kaha’ pack of vegan-friendly peanut butter cookies, the tacky “New Zealand breakfast” tea set, music commemorating October 15th Raids in Aotearoa, and some West Papua Action Auckland-made stickers and flyers. They greeted me back with honour, “Wah Wah Wah” and video’ed the entire moment like it was to become history.

Our conversations were very fluid. These young men, postgraduate students in International Studies, Broadcasting and one doing a course in Agriculture, were highly competent in video advocacy and started showing me their footage from the demo, including how the Police arrested their fellow member Obby who was released on conditions, during the time of our meeting. “What exactly did Obby do that singled him out?” asked the EngageMedia group facilitator. The young men shook their head and said, “Same thing that we did – just walking to our campus.”

I watched how the Police pushed and tightened their hold on Obby, who was unarmed and was not resisting the arrest. Several people with cameras and mobile phones recorded the entire proceeding from different angles. Later I was told that two of the journalists there who were Indonesian, were also arrested.

We needed to make sense of this entire madness, and it was hopeful to know that these young activists are aware that this is only one of the many challenges they need to get used to if they were to continue their struggle for freedom and Independence for West Papua. I have to admit, it was so energizing to hear this. My heart fell so hard just thinking about the atrocities their families and relatives are facing back in West Papua land, while they are faced with racial abuse slurs, being called “monkeys”, “dogs” and “blacks”. However the worst deragatory remark they are currently trying to campaign against, is being called separatists.

“This is the new dirty word by Indonesian religious extremists and attackers,” says one of the activists Johnny. “This is the dangerous word that makes us look like we are trying to stir up trouble.”

While I listen to their stories, I interrupted and asked where the Papuan women at. The boys said, no no, they are part of the movement, there are quite a few of them, and Johnny suddenly remembered he forgot to ask two of them to come to this meeting, and started calling someone named Maria. Myself and the EngageMedia facilitator (both of us cis women) laughed at their sudden panic to remedy the situation.

Towards the end of the meeting, we finally got to meet Maria. She was quiet, shy and reserved at first and also tired, as she rushed to the meeting straight after work at a local cafe. I asked her what she was studying: English Literature, she responded. I felt so happy to hear of this, and she started telling me about her hopes to become a teacher and her passion for environmental issues as her hometown, a seaside village in West Papua has been deforested for palm oil industrialisation.

And then she told me, “You know when I was in West Papua, I was told I am Malay.”

I was confused. “What do you mean?”

“We have been brainwashed since birth to think we are Malay peoples, like Malaysians, like..”

“Like me?” I smiled.

“Yes,” she smiled back.

“It was only when I went to college here, that someone said you are West Papuan, that I suddenly realise, oh my god, I am West Papuan?”

That revelation to her, was heartbreaking for me to hear too. It brought me back to my own self-awakening, the memory-realisation that I am indigenous too , something I only truly confidently asserted, after being exposed to te Tiriti history and tino rangatiratanga movements in Aotearoa New Zealand.

I suppose in many ways, we are a family. An Asia-Pacific networked family of indigenous peoples in their own right. But in any family, our differences mark how we relate to each other and how we grow into our own being. We are brown, we share Austronesian roots, yes. That is a great source of potential for solidarity but it should not form zealousness to override our role as supporters for each other’s diverse histories, cultures and unique processes for self-determination. I think this is the bit that makes certain people forget why West Papua rightfully deserves their Independence from Indonesia. I also think this is why finding solutions for the West Papua-Indonesia divide, needs to emerge from a framework of restorative justice of sorts – this is about two colonized peoples, hurting socially, economically, politically and spiritually, through a long history of Western colonialism-white capitalism. The dialogue needs to be deeper than a black-and-white analysis of decolonisation that we are so used to applying, when situated in western settler nation-states like New Zealand.

We continue to bond, all of them keen to know more about Maori activism in New Zealand, and the other young men joined us to discuss future projects and activist solidarity actions that we can plan together on. Advocacy was a priority, and EngageMedia also informed of the funding challenges they face with international agencies. “Nobody wants to fund projects on West Papua,” the facilitator said. “They don’t mind Indonesia human rights stuff… but West Papua… no money…” she said, disheartened but hopeful that we should find a way to keep going and support these grassroots activists to organise their advocacy work sustainably with their own organisational status.

We exchanged contact details, had some food, took photos and promised to keep in touch, adding each other on Facebook instantly.

One of the key ideas we left with was setting up a youth/artist exchange programme where West Papuans can visit New Zealand and New Zealand indigenous youth can visit West Papua, to share experiences, build knowledge and explore strategies for movement/community building. Yes, the thought may already cause alarm bells about security risks for all, but we will need to look at ways to make this happen if this is what it takes to support their self-determination process. We imagine it will be a long term Asia-Pacific programme that will need the crucial involvement of the Pacific community. We can begin with awareness raising in our own home countries, increasing the profile of campaigning across all sections of society. And of course, we can make as many efforts to fundraise for projects that these amazing young Papuans need to do to strengthen their capacity for movement-building into their futures. As allies and supporters, I hope that is a promise that we can at least work to keep, while these courageous activists continue their inter-generational struggle against all odds, for the right to be free, independent and sovereign in their own nation.


  1. Shasha’s a TERF

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