The Jakarta Post
On Aug. 18, 2018. I was with Dad at GBK Stadium, we had been fortunate enough to procure two passes to watch the opening ceremony of the Asian Games live.
Around us fellow Indonesians were laughing, sharing snacks, singing along, or crying with pride. All over social media platforms other Indonesians watching on TV were posting similar emotions.
Despite all the prevalent political and sectarian conflicts, that night and the next two weeks we were all one. We were all proud Indonesians.
Fast forward a year. All hell is breaking loose in a handful of cities across Java and Papua.
What started out as a kerfuffle between a small group of Papuan students marching for a rally against another small group of Malang residents in East Java escalated within days to a racism-tinged siege at a Papuan students’ dorm in the province’s capital Surabaya then backlash riots against government symbols in the Papuan cities of Sorong, Manokwari and Fak-fak.
The latest developments saw extra troops deployed to Papua and the Communications and Information Ministry suspending the cellular phone service in Papua.
Meanwhile, (paid) buzzers of both camps claw each other on social media, easily forgetting that just a year ago we felt oh-so-brotherly-and-sisterly with one another.
I am one of those people who believe the backlash was chiefly fueled by the racist slurs heard in a widely circulated video. I am also one of those who will come forward to acknowledge that racism against our own brethren is nothing new.
A lot of Malays populating western Indonesia have long shown varying degrees of racism toward Melanesians in the country’s eastern zones.
Unsavory jokes about dark skin and curly hair are a staple heard since my childhood, on a par with anecdotes about Chinese slanted eyes. My parents abhorred those jokes and were adamant about me not repeating them, but many other adults were not as thoughtful. In fact, I am pretty sure many kids who spread those jokes first heard them from adults.
As I grew older the anecdotes took a more sinister turn; that eastern Indonesians were only good for work involving manual labor, with a dash of violence if necessary.
I have met businessmen who bragged about hiring Flores bodyguards (considered more effective than their Ambonese counterparts), only to be out-bragged by other businessmen saying they have got Papuan muscle in their pockets.
At some point the anecdotes stopped became asterisks and became accepted into the collective conscience — so much so that a Papuan with a graduate degree in sociology from a top Indonesian university who I met in Kaimana a few years ago told me that not only was he not spared the demeaning stereotypes, at some points he actually had to answer “testing” questions just to prove he was an academic and not a mafia heavy.
Admit it, many Indonesians see our eastern brothers this way. As for our eastern sisters? There was once a Timorese girl in my college who by the second semester straightened her voluminous curls just to escape the garden variety hair jokes, the “Gadis Sunsilk” image in those years was of straight, long and “soft” locks.
Yet, whenever the issue of the Free Papua Movement resurfaced, enough Indonesians suddenly felt they had to rise, voice objections and cite the loss of Timor Leste. It is flippant, haughtily privileged and as childish as moody teens who do not treat their boy/girlfriend right but get all upset when the said boy/girlfriend asks someone else to dance.
So no, it is not enough for President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to nonchalantly state “forgive and forget” when he went on TV. Especially not when instead of chasing after the culprits heard on video shouting “monkey!” the government goes after the person distributing the video.
You want the Papuans to just forget and forgive the years-long racist stereotypes plus the latest verbal venom without actually addressing the racism and declaring it wrong? On what planet do most Indonesians, and apparently the ever-popular Jokowi, live? Ah, yes — the Javanese, Muslim, male privilege planet. There, I said it.
Are those frequent trips to Papua by Jokowi wonderful? Yes. Are those infrastructure projects launched in Papua by Jokowi going to matter in boosting the Papuan economy? Yes.
Are those enough to justify turning the other cheek at the latest racist stereotypes against Papuans? No.
Is the government’s decision to curtail information flow in Papua, even if it is designed to curtail hoaxes, wise? Not only will this act isolate Papuans from each other, it isolates them more from their fellow Indonesians so, no, it is unwise.
I am not a Papuan expert. I do not have a complex, integrated solution to offer. But the powers that be need to openly acknowledge the racism and combat it with more than just empty words. ‘Coz as you can see, merely a year after the ultra-nationalistic monumental project of the Asian Games, Indonesians are easily divided again. (ste)
-- Lynda Ibrahim is a Jakarta-based writer with a penchant for purple, pussycats and pop culture
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