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The Jakarta Post
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The continuing infatuation with Papua

  • Sri Lestari Wahyuningroem

    The Jakarta Post

Canberra | Fri, May 31, 2013 | 12:36 pm

Nowadays many of us non-Papuan Indonesians do not hesitate to express how we '€œlove'€ Papua, especially since we are disturbed by more and more international exposure of the situation in Indonesia'€™s easternmost province.

United Nations high commissioner of human rights Navi Pillay'€™s recent statement on the serious crackdown on peaceful demonstrations across Papua, the opening of a West Papua Organization office
in Oxford, the Sydney Morning Herald'€™s investigation into the removal and Islamic reeducation of Papuan youth and children, and the Melanesian Spearhead Group'€™s consideration of West Papua'€™s request for membership, are examples of such exposure.

However, not all Indonesians love Papua.

Torture and extrajudicial killings against Papuan civilians, Papuans being detained as political prisoners for exercising their freedom of expression, starvation in remote areas that has killed many locals, or dozens of mining workers trapped and dying at mining site of a powerful gold mining company, seem to be '€œnormal'€ events in Papua, so many Indonesians do not find it necessary to show sympathy and solidarity with their fellow Papuans. Fewer Indonesians feel the need to raise their concerns and immediately push for any solution to the ongoing violence in Papua.

Papua and Papuans are seen as two separate entities. Papua refers to a geographic area, one third of which for decades, has been part of Indonesia. It is perceived as a place with enchanting panoramic views, inhabited by people with distinct cultures and rituals and blessed with rich natural resources.

Contrary to that, in the eyes of many of Indonesians, Papuans are seen as the dark side of Indonesia. The region terrorizes us with images of cruelty, rebellion, ungratefulness and an inability to modernize. It turns our love into unease and suspicion, which often leads to rage and hate.

When images of those killed or tortured are shown widely in media, especially social media, many see this as a type of propaganda by separatist groups.

When Papuans have the opportunity to express in formal and informal forums their grievances and resentment, many judge them as being dishonest individuals who are aiming at nothing but secession from Indonesia.

When some Papuans commit criminal acts, they are seen as the perfect representation of already constructed stereotypes of '€œuncivilized Papuans'€. Similarly, when special autonomy (Otsus) eventually failed to bring welfare to most people in Papua, Papuans themselves were considered responsible for the failure.

Many even turn a blind eye to the fact that Papuans have become a minority in their own land, with more and more migrants arriving to get economic benefits from Otsus money.

Yogyakarta Governor Sri Sultan Hamengkubuwono X in his speech in Jakarta recently suggested that the government build trust with Papuans before holding any dialogue. A crisis of trust also seems to be the problem of any healthy and constructive communication between non-Papuan Indonesians and Papuans.

Our possessive '€œlove'€ of Papua hinders our willingness to understand Papuans, to listen to their stories and commit to defending their rights. We resist accepting the Papuans'€™ image of themselves. There are no Papuans, because Papua is Indonesia. Papua is us, even though in reality Papuans are always seen and treated as the other.

I would argue that what we feel about Papua is not love. It'€™s infatuation. Genuine love requires detailed knowledge of the other, said sociologist Thomas Scheff explaining his theory of '€œrunaway nationalism'€.

In contrary, infatuation needs only the appearances, or what is constructed, of the other. It does not matter whether it is real or not, it is the other that we see, we hear, we imagine. It is a self-generated fantasy and socially amplified. And the shallow understanding of nation and nationalism is an effective tool to amplify negative feelings toward others into orgies of hatred.

For this infatuation, Papua is considered an object, a given entity destined to be part of Indonesia, whether it is true or false. Any space for Papuans to be heard, not only by themselves but also by other external parties such as the United Nations or international communities, has become deeply subversive because it questions the very essence of our infatuation.

Perhaps this is why the government is always reluctant to open any two-way traffic of communication with Papuans in a peace dialogue. Such a dialogue would open the possibility of reinterpreting and even deconstructing Papua and Papuans as the other and us, Indonesia and Indonesians. The shortcut to making sure the status quo remains has been chosen: a developmental and militaristic approach, whether Papuans like it or not.

It is obvious that Jakarta can no longer love Papua and Papuans in just and right ways, but Indonesian people can. A small number of civil society elements in Indonesia, mostly non-governmental organizations and students, have done so much to strengthen our genuine love toward Papuans, but more love is needed.

Acknowledging Papua as a subject in itself is the first step. The next step will be to create more spaces for Papuans to be heard and for us to hear and understand the situation with big hearts. Genuine love requires not only a detailed knowledge of the other, but also, most importantly, trust in one another.

The writer teaches and researches political science at the University of Indonesia and is pursuing a PhD at Australian National University.

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