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For Papua's independence activists, the struggle is about more than human rights

For Papua's independence activists, the struggle is about more than human rights

This is part 6 of former Fairfax Media Indonesia correspondent Michael Bachelard's series on Papua. Here is the introductionpart 1part 2part 3part 4 and part 5.

On a sunlit afternoon in the tiny village of Lolat, I ask a local school teacher, Natani Kobak, what subject he teaches. 'Pancasila,' he replies: the five-point Indonesian state ideology. 'I teach it for the students, but deep down I am not so happy about it'.

Natani Kobak and friends gather to talk on a hillside in Lolat. (November 2014/Michael Bachelard.)

That relatively mild exchange causes a stir among the young men listening to Kobak's answer, who worry that I might go away ignorant of the true depth of their feelings regarding the Indonesian state. So, after sunset, they ask me to join them in a small room lit by battery-powered lamps in an otherwise darkened hut.

My Indonesian assistant, Runi, is banished to the verandah (they are suspicious because she's a 'straight hair' from Jakarta) and I am introduced to Justinus Balingga, from the neighbouring village of Bunahaik. He's from KNPB, one of the more active of Papua's independence groups, and third in charge in this region, Yahukimo.

KNPB is a legal organisation, so strictly speaking I was not breaching my commitment to the Indonesian Government, made when I sought permission to come to Papua, not to talk to 'separatists'. But this is clearly what Balingga is.

He starts by, in his words, 'disproving' Pancasila, one clause at a time, so far as it relates to Papuans. They believe in a different God, he says, are not subject to a just and civilised state; and do not partake in Indonesian unity, democracy or social justice. 'All of them are untrue for us.' [fold]

Then he spells out the heart of what these men see as an open-and-shut case for why Papua needs to be independent: 'My religion is Christian. My hair is curly. My skin is black. My culture is different...that is what motivates us, and we'll never change'.

'We don't feel welcome in Indonesia,' adds Balingga's friend, Javed Bahabol. 'We don't feel real freedom; we feel the force of Islam coming in.'

The Indonesian history in this part of the highlands has been short (it began in the 1960s) and violent. In 1977, more than 4000 people died in and around nearby Wamena from military aerial bombardments, indiscriminate shootings and gross acts of torture. 

Balingga says, to the agreement of the room, that events like this can never be forgotten. There is zero military presence in Lolat today – the army only occasionally ventures outside the larger towns – so the locals point more to the lack of an Indonesian state to make their point. The corrupted and useless education, health and economic systems do not suit Papuan needs, and never will, they believe, despite the promises of successive presidents. Indonesians 'just drop the money in,' Balingga says, 'they know we can't handle it and it just makes a mess'.

These men reject the notion that problems of service delivery are about Indonesian state incompetence. They believe it's the result of discrimination, a policy of 'keeping us down'. They also believe Indonesia takes Papua's mineral wealth and gives little back, though Vice-President Jusuf Kalla has said in recent times that Papua gets back more in funding than it contributes in taxes.

Balingga says there are nine groups of 'freedom fighters' in Papua and neighbouring West Papua. The KNPB is organised like an army, though it does not have weapons, 'because we can't get them'. (A leaked Indonesian military document suggested there were fewer than 200 guns in the hands of independence activists across the two provinces.)

But these activists insist armed conflict is not their preferred option: 'The other options, the legal, political, advocacy for a referendum, are all ongoing,' Bahabol says. They appeal to nations around the world, particularly 'Christian nations', for help.

Papua, though, has changed since the 1960s. Perhaps 50% of its population originally comes from other islands in Indonesia, some under a Suharto-era policy of 'transmigration,' with the intention of swamping the troublesome ethnic Melanesian majority. More recently, migration has been a spontaneous movement of individuals and families from other poor parts of Indonesia in search of economic opportunity.

If race and religion are the main motivations for seeking independence, it raises the question: what would happen in an independent Papua to all these recent migrants? Bahabol said it was 'not decided yet...We'd have to consider these things, but perhaps they'd have to go back home.'

The men in this darkened room know that their cause is supported by many Western activists, as well as a broader Papuan diaspora. But Balingga is frustrated that these people too often focus on human rights issues to drive their cause. 'The main picture that gets out internationally is that people get killed and that is why we should have freedom. But that is not the true reason in our hearts,' Balingga insists. 'It's much bigger than just killing people. We want our own country because we're different.'

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