This is the text of a talk given at the Queen Mary University conference, ‘Resisting Ecocide: Restoring Balance and Harmony to West Papua‘, on December 9, 2022.
Edmund Husserl, considered one of 20th century Europe’s greatest philosophers, once commented on what he considered to be the basic universal trait of humanity. ‘Man is the rational animal,’ he wrote, ‘and in this broad sense even the Papuan is a man and not a beast.’ He continued, ‘A Papuan has in the genuine sense no biography and a Papuan tribe has no life-history, no history of the people.’
I bring this up as an example of how modern European thought has often placed the Papuan at the bottom of the global racial hierarchy, the lowest rung of semi-humanity. Husserl’s remarks on the Papuan don’t represent his central thesis, but are rather passing comments, a reflection of his and his audiences’ racial ordering of the world. Papuans have been positioned as the degraded Other against which races, classes and political tendencies have been measured and rhetorically compared.
Such ranking goes back to the original tripartite division of Oceania by French colonial thinker Jules Dumont d’Urville, who placed Melanesians, the ‘black people of Oceania’ with their ‘unpleasant features’ – his words – below Polynesia and Micronesia, close to a ‘barbaric state’. This racial conception crops up throughout the documents of the European ruling classes. One can read British Special Branch police officers in the late 19th century internally describing domestic anarchists as ‘possibly half-demented, and therefore more dangerous than anyone save a New Guinea head-hunter’. One finds the British soft porn magazine, Zoo, running a competition for a ‘cannibal sex holiday’ to West Papua in the early 2000s. A slow drip of racists books continues to fall, replete with such lurid titles as Savage Harvest and An Incredible but True Story from the Stone–Age Hell of Papua’s Jungle.
The Indonesian state has taken up this racial ordering of the world and welded it on to its own settler colonial project in West Papua. When justifying its colonisation to the UN in 1969, an Indonesian representatives said, ‘In West Irian [West Papua] there exists – as is generally known – one of the most primitive and undeveloped communities in the world. To measure the method and conduct of the act of free choice in such a community against purely western democratic methods and procedures, would be erroneous and unrealistic’. What was once called ‘primitive’ and ‘stone age’ for an international audience is now coded as ‘underdevelopment’ or a ‘lack of human resources’; inside West Papua, such technocratic language is stripped away to reveal the purely racial underbelly: monyet (monkey) and anjing (dog) are words many West Papuans will tell you are a feature of their everyday lives. Clearly, Indonesia has long sought to benefit from the Western world’s belief in Papuans’ backwardness in order to stifle any sense of solidarity with their plight.
Thus the Papuan has been considered to have ‘no life-history’, as Husserl put it, to be somehow outside of modernity, existing perhaps in a past age, therefore lacking the rights and value ascribed to the modern subject. As Banivanua-Mar once wrote, such positioning of the Papuan as backward, as primitive, as brutally cannibalistic, serves precisely to conceal and enable the far more ‘barbaric’ violence of settler colonial genocide being waged against them. Thus, Indonesia’s Environment and Forestry Minister blamed ‘nomadic peoples’ for devastating forest fires in Merauke rather than the palm oil companies that Forensic Architecture and the BBC have proved are responsible.
I bring all this up to demonstrate the vast difference in power between most West Papuans and those of us in the imperial countries who want to build effective solidarity with their struggle. Many of us continue to benefit from the legacy and continuing present of this system of racial ordering, where a Papuan in independent PNG can expect to die more than 15 years before a citizen of the UK. International solidarity is something to be aimed at, something to be built through practice. It isn’t self-evident how it we should go about it in a vastly unequal world. As the theorist of race and class David Roediger put it, ‘timing, spatial difference between groups, varied histories, and difference in the form oppression takes can make the achievement of unity a large and long task’. The gulf between the position West Papuans have been forced into, and the position we are in here in Europe, calls for careful consideration of how international solidarity should be practiced.
From my experience working within the movement, I draw four primary lessons for Westerners who wish to show solidarity with the West Papuan struggle for self-determination.
Firstly, we have to be attentive to the history of how Western intervention in Indonesia continues to be remembered and felt within the country. In Indonesian discourse, neokolonialisme-imperialisme (Nekolim), remains a live issue. Indonesia is of course a former Dutch colony, subject to a harsh war of independence from 1945-49 after the collapse of the Axis powers, and Western states have continued to try and keep Indonesia in its position of plantation frontier and resource basin ever since. The US sponsored regional rebellions in 1958 in an attempt to break up the fledgling republic, and worked with Britain to help hard-line elements in the military carry out one of the 20th century’s most complete political genocides in the mid 1960s, wiping out independent leftist, peasant and worker organising in a bloodbath of millions. The almost cartoonishly corrupt General Suharto was then feted and doted on by Western leaders until the late 1990s.
This history makes it easy for the Indonesian ruling class to position the West Papuan independence movement as Western dupes seeking the break-up of Indonesia – Dutch imperialists returning in a human rights garb. Whilst we must of course reject this cynical mobilisation of anti-imperialist discourse as a justification for renewed colonial predations, we have to be conscious of why this has purchase among the Indonesian population, and do everything we can to avoid inflaming it.
The second lesson is that, given the West Papuan population’s lack of leverage and power within the wider structure of the Indonesian state, alliances between progressive Indonesian sectors and the West Papuans are going to be crucial to the success of the movement, much as it was for East Timor in the late 1990s. There is a radical and progressive tradition inside Indonesian society, although even the legacy of the Indonesian Communist Party is marred by full-throated support for the colonisation of Papua. But there are promising signs emerging of a new sympathy for the Papuan struggle inside Indonesia, evident in the inclusion of demands relating to West Papua in the huge demonstrations against reforms to the Indonesian legal code in 2019. If we can, and if we are invited to, we should seek to act as a bridge between progressive Indonesians and West Papuans, and again, avoid antagonising that relationship.
Thirdly, the role of solidarity organisers is to use their position of relative influence to open up space for manoeuvre for the West Papuan movement. The West Papuan movement, and any future independent state, would come under tremendous pressure from the forces of international governance and capital. Their ability to enact a programme that truly benefits the Indigeneous population, rather than just continuing the system of Western and East Asian dominated resource extraction, will be limited, as we can see from the history of post-colonial states in the rest of the Pacific.
Western organisers need to do three things here. One is to avoid contributing to the external pressures on the movement, pushing them into a particular vision of what a West Papuan state should look like. It’s not our job to tell West Papuans how they should organise their affairs, although of course solidarity with West Papua does raise the question of solidarity with which individuals, groups and networks within the movement. An ecumenical and pragmatic approach is probably recommended here. The second thing is to realise that West Papuan have to navigate a vastly unequal world system and that they will have to make some severe compromises in order to do so. We can’t be moralistic or squeamish about that. Finally, our role is to try to hold back, as far as possible, the attempts of Western governments and corporations to hijack the West Papuan independence movement or to turn an independent West Papua into a semi-colonised vessel. We must try to pry open the iron grip of the neo-colonial world system enough to allow the West Papuans some space to freely determine their own political, social and economic life.
My last lesson concerns the inadequacy of the human rights framework, particularly as it manifests in most European and North American NGOs. Organisations like Amnesty and Human Rights Watch tie themselves in knots trying to distance themselves from the right to self-determination, widely considered across the Global South to be the central and most important of all rights enshrined in the international charters and declarations. In so doing, these organisations often end up, at best, failing to address the root cause of human rights violations in West Papua and, as Interim President Benny Wenda often puts it, just counting the bodies rather than working to actually end it. At worst, these organisations can implicitly legitimise the Indonesian state’s authority and legal rights in West Papua.
Ultimately, the West Papuan struggle is an anti-colonial fight, a power struggle fought against a settler colonial project governed by a genocidal ruling class. That Indonesian ruling class is partly the product of resistance to Western imperialism, partly a product of Western imperialism, and it represents an enemy not just for West Papuans, but for the majority of Indonesian peasants and workers, who remain poor and exploited. Solidarity organisers over here, living under governments that hold a large share of the historic responsibility for today’s Papuan predicament, are situated in a peculiar and challenging position. Far too many, in my experience, blithely steam-roll into the West Papuan movement without sufficient reflection on the tensions and dangers inherent in their involvement. Getting our solidarity right, as West Papuans face cultural and even physical annihilation, couldn’t be more important.
For the journal article where some of these ideas are developed at greater length, see: ‘The West Papuan liberation movement, Indonesian settler colonialism and Western imperialism from an international solidarity perspective‘, The International Journal of Human Rights (2022).