May 09, 2017

West Papua: Locals Share Accounts of how Indonesian Occupation Affects their Daily Lives

Photo courtesy of  AK Rockefeller via / CC BY-SA

West Papuans have been suffering from discrimination, killings, torture, intimidation and the destruction of their land for economic purposes. In an article, five witnesses of the ongoing persecution in Western Papua tell their stories. The interviews clearly show the continued aggressions by the Indonesian State against indigenous people in Western Papua. They urge the international community to raise their voice in the international arena to stop human rights violations perpetrated by the Indonesian government.

Below is an article by New Internationalist


How does living under the occupation affect the lives of ordinary West Papuans? Indonesian human rights lawyer Veronica Koman spoke to five current residents of West Papua to hear their stories.

Rosa Moiwend

Rosa Moiwend is an independent researcher on social movements and self-determination, and a political activist. She lives in Jayapura, the largest city in West Papua.

Living in West Papua means there is always something going on which reminds us of the occupation. We see discrimination, racism and violence before our eyes every day. My grandparents experienced the Trikora [the military invasion by Indonesia in 1961]. At that time, my family was living in Ninati village in the south. Most of the family had to flee across the border to Papua New Guinea – only my grandfather stayed behind. Our old village has now been inhabited by other tribes, and we have lost contact with all of the family that crossed the border. That is the biggest personal loss to our family.

Many forms of daily discrimination have become normal in West Papua. The Indonesian occupation is not just about occupying territory, but also about changing our mindsets, how West Papuans see themselves. We are taught false things at school, particularly about our history. It is a kind of mental slavery: Indonesian teachings and doctrines tell us ‘because we are West Papuans, we deserve to be treated unfairly’, and we start unconsciously to accept this.

The manipulation of our identity by the Indonesian government is very dangerous because we are transformed from our core. We really feel like our identities are being transformed to be like the Indonesians. Our standards are being changed to Indonesian standards.

I have experienced this first hand. I used to read the afternoon news at a local TV show. I used to have small dreadlocks. The producer asked me to change my hair. He told me to lose the dreadlocks and straighten my hair so it looked ‘neater’, according to the national TV standard. I argued. ‘Papua Lens’, the name of the show, should have shown how Papua was, but they wanted to change me. They then transferred me to an off-camera role, and I quit. I still have my dreadlocks today.

On 16 March 2006 in Jayapura, everyone who had dreadlocks was arrested and their hair were cut. This continued for a fortnight. During that time, many indigenous people cut their hair. I did not want to do this, so I hid for quite a while and did not go home. It was not just about hair. We have dreadlocks not because we like reggae or Rasta, but as an ideology. Dreadlocks are my identity. A lot of my friends with dreadlocks feel the same. Dreadlocks have become a symbol of resistance and of a free West Papua, a challenge to what we were taught by the Indonesian state.

As a schoolchild, when I saw other people had straight hair, I dreamt of having long and straight hair. We all did. Even our toys referred to other people’s identity. It is the same thing with beauty products. For instance, there is not a powder that matches our skin color at a store.

Fortunately, the resistance is very strong and popular now. There are many t-shirts on which it says, “I am Papua, curly hair and dark skin”, which are getting popular among the youth in many cities. However, as long as the occupation is still happening, the repression of our identity will continue. What we get at school will shape our characters. Therefore, it depends on the parents to teach their children: about who they are their identities as West Papuans. If the parents do not do that, it could be dangerous, because then when West Papua is finally free, the generation taking control would be this colonial-minded generation. We would then have to work hard again to fight our own people. So this liberation movement is not only about physical resistance but also about resisting this mindset.

West Papua will be free; it is only a matter of time. When I was little, we heard our parents whispering when they talked about politics – they had to keep it inside the house. Now, it is more open and we can see it even in mainstream media. That is the result of the collective work of many different people.

Women have always been involved in this movement, but they have often taken different roles from the men. West Papuan men often see these roles as less important or less heroic. This is not true, especially because women do play important leadership roles, and take to the streets actively when there are protests. Mama Yosepha [Yosepha Alomang, winner of the 2001 Goldman Environmental Prize], a villager who did not even attend school, organized women to blockade the airport and the Freeport mine – no men thought of that.

Things are changing now. The movement is more open and advanced; women are taking on more and different roles. This is a national struggle, the responsibility of both men and women. All generations have to work hand in hand.

Hana Yeimo

Hana Yeimo is a sweet-potato farmer in Enarotali, a town in Paniai province, central West Papua. On 8 December 2014, four local teenagers were shot dead by security forces near her home while protesting against the beating of schoolchildren by soldiers the previous day.

I am married and have an 11-year-old child. On a normal day, other than farming, I usually play cards with my friends.

Police and military watch us all the time. Especially the military, who will shoot at us randomly and out of nowhere.

It was around nine in the morning when I heard gunshots coming from the direction of the fields. So I went out to check. The police and the military were shooting at my people. So I stood in between the security forces and my people. The security forces ordered me to go away and said ‘you could get shot’. I shouted back at them that I did not care, just go ahead and shoot me. They shot my people before my eyes. I threw things and almost hit a local official. My relatives told me not to act like that, in order not to be arrested. But I did not care, I just wanted them to go. I screamed at them to let us be free and independent, rather than being shot and killed out of nowhere. I screamed until I lost my voice that day.

On that field, children died because the military shot them. Many others were wounded. I helped the people who were shot into a car. My cousin was also a victim. I know all the other victims. The victims do not want to talk about the case anymore. They are tired of repeating the same story without any result.

Max Binur

Max Binur is an artist and cultural activist living in the northwest port city of Sorong.

I love arts and I am a humanist. My daily activities usually involve discussions with indigenous people in both towns and villages. We talk about the environmental destruction and about how to use local wisdom and culture as weapons against injustice. We paint and make sculptures and other artworks.

I am the founder of Belantara Papua, an organization for empowering indigenous people. We do environmental advocacy, monitoring and investigation with indigenous people who are affected by the presence of palm oil, mining and illegal logging companies. I also support indigenous people to use our culture in our struggle. Demonstrations will not solve the problem anymore and the government is already numb. So I use culture as a fighting tool.

I also empower children in villages who face difficulties in education, and help them to create schools in areas that lack them. We teach them how to build a school, or if that is not possible, how to build an art center. I also encourage them to dance craft and sculpt at the art centers. We are fighting the violence in West Papua through culture.

I first saw the violence of the Indonesian military when I was four years old. I used to live in Biak with my family. My father had been a police officer since the Dutch era. I grew up in a police environment. When I was a small kid, the police hit my head with a rifle butt. It made me gradually realize that state violence is very real. When I was at university in the 1990s, the Free West Papua movement was rising. I took part in big rallies. Finally, when I worked at an NGO in Jayapura, I became very aware of human rights violations. It transformed my perspective and my commitment to work for West Papua and its people.

I am very sure that we will be free, sooner or later. Either my children or I will enjoy such freedom. I am very certain.

Here is what we need from the rest of the world. First, help us publicize the human rights violations in West Papua. Second, pressure the Indonesian government to decrease the military violence in West Papua. Third, call for a replacement for the sham 1969 independence referendum, because that is the root cause of the problem in West Papua. Finally, help us voice our concerns in UN forums.


Filep Karma

Filep Karma is a civil servant in Jayapura.

I work at the office every day. But I usually ask for permission to leave the office when there are demonstrations like the ones organized by KNPB [West Papua National Committee]. People at the office understand my involvement in the movement so they are not surprised any more.

West Papuans are being pushed into dependency on the Indonesian government. The government keeps expanding into West Papua, so more and more West Papuans are being recruited as civil servants. Civil servants are bound by government regulations. But I refuse to obey such regulations, I do not care. Being sacked is the risk I take for my activism. Although according to the UN, everyone has the right to work – so as long as there is no violence in my activism, I should not be sacked.

Repression happens systematically everywhere across West Papua, and is getting worse. For example, we are not allowed to protest. Protest is a human right, but that is not the case in West Papua. Why cannot we raise the West Papuan flag? It should be allowed in a democracy. I am an optimist and am very sure that West Papua will one day be free.

In Biak in 1998, I was part of a peaceful action where we raised the West Papua flag from 2-6 July. The government invited me for negotiation at the parliament building. I refused the invitation; I wanted to be with the people on the ground. We were unarmed, but were rounded up by the police and the military. Instead of just arresting people, the military started shooting. Usually people are shot when they try to run away. I did not run away, I deliberately lay down and some other protesters did the same. The military threw rocks at those of us who were lying down – some of them stood up and were then shot. This was the Biak city massacre of 6 July 1998. The violence spread across the city, there was rape and mutilation of unarmed women and men. I was arrested, convicted and the district court sentenced me to six and half years, but this was later overturned by the president as part of a wider amnesty for political prisoners.

I was arrested again on 1 December 2004. All I did was protest peacefully. I had given a protest notification letter to the police as required by the law. People who raised the Morning Star flag during the protest, including Yusak Pakage, and me were arrested. Comrades held a rally demanding our release but we were ill-treated instead. I was sentenced to 15 years. On 19 December 2015, I was suddenly taken out of jail, without any clear legal procedure.

I think the right strategy is to fight peacefully and build international sympathy. We hope that the rest of the world will call on the UN to oversee an independence referendum for the West Papuan people. It would be even better if the UN acknowledged our right to be independent straight away and admitted that they made a mistake with the 1969 sham referendum. Also, why did they only include voters from inside West Papua? There were West Papuans in the Netherlands and elsewhere at that time. The next independence referendum should give West Papuans everywhere the right to vote.

Elizabeth Ndiwaen

Elizabeth Ndiwaen lives in the city of Merauke, in the southeast of the country, near the Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate (MIFEE) – a major Indonesian project including palm-oil plantations and industrial agriculture, which is planned to replace 1.2 million hectares of rainforest.

I am 34 years old. I am married with four children. My eldest daughter is a teacher, my second child just graduated senior high school, my third child is in junior high school, and my youngest is still in kindergarten. I maintain the home, and I sometimes work with the National Human Rights Commission and Pusaka Foundation on environmental and indigenous people’s issues.

Here in Merauke, we really feel the occupation. We are often oppressed, beaten and threatened. On top of that, there are 42 companies including MIFEE operating in Merauke. Every company has its own special-force police and military protecting the company. They often intimidate village people.

Before MIFEE began, we were poor but we were happy living on our own land. We used to enter the forest to look for food when we wanted to eat. However, when MIFEE came, they destroyed our forests. Our life became difficult. All of our rivers are too polluted to use any more. There is no support from the government towards our future.

I wish that MIFEE would stop operating here. We are planning to hold a meeting with people from 14 local regions about MIFEE this August.

West Papua will one day be free. West Papuans talk about this publicly now; we do not want to talk about it secretly any more. To all governments and people out there, I would like to say clearly that we do not want to be oppressed any more. We need justice.