Where’s the Solidarity With Papua?

A recent study by Mata Air Foundation and Alvara Research Center found that 34 percent of Indonesian college students and 29 percent of high school students would choose to help Palestine rather than eastern Indonesia in the event of a disaster of equal magnitude hitting each of them at the same time.

While the survey was about eastern Indonesia in general, my thoughts went straight to Papua, Indonesia’s poorest province, about which we know so little that apparently we don’t even have solidarity with its people, members of our own nation. And it somehow isn’t really that surprising, considering how Java-centric (and Western-focused) our country is in general.

How much do we know about Papua and West Papua?

I admit I don’t know enough about them. It’s only in this past year that I’ve devoted more time and attention to learn about what is happening there, what is the region’s history; beyond the headlines that we see in local media or the politicized mentions coming from government officials.

When they make it to newsfeed at all, reports and stories about Papua are mostly about incidents involving the police, and are often related to United States-based mining company Freeport-McMoran, whose operations there started in 1966.

Mainstream reporting on Papua and West Papua is barely informative, for many fail to include the context necessary to understand the complexity and grievances that cloud the lives of Papuans. As many activists have recently pointed out: popular narratives on Papua and West Papua tend to derive from officials rather than the people themselves. They are terribly one-sided and difficult to verify, as journalists are restricted from reporting on locations where the headline-making incidents take place.

[From here onward, I will be referring to both Papua and West Papua as “Papua.”]

But here’s the bottom line — it is not impossible to learn more about Papua. At the end of the day, it’s really a matter of willingness more than anything else.

Activists, researchers and journalists working hard to report on the region and the convenience of the Internet do give us a chance to expand our own knowledge. Personally, I’ve been recently particularly moved by a report launched earlier this year: “Sa Ada Di Sini.”

Compiled by Papuan Women’s Working Group (PWG), it details the experiences of Papuan women in the face of a never-ending conflict.

The participatory action research with indigenous women found that violence against them, both state and domestic, continues to take place.

The women do not have adequate capacity to seek justice, and are often burdened with economic struggles to keep their families afloat.

Their land rights are ignored due to customary laws, with many of them also facing a myriad of health problems from their (often very) physical workload and difficulty accessing health services.

In October, PWG held screened a documentary, also titled “Sa Ada Di Sini.” It was accompanied by a photo exhibition and a panel discussion, here in Jakarta.

One of the very first photos that attracted my attention was “Making Village Map” (“Membuat Peta Kampung”), which documented women sharing stories of how their farms “get smaller every day because they work on their own, while the men are busy dealing with politics in the cities.”

At the beginning of the documentary, we see women spending hours to bring water to their homes, burdened not only with the physical weight of this necessary task, but also the far distance that must be traveled.

There were also scenes of a women’s empowerment session, which left me speechless when I realized how little support, of any form, these women receive.

When we talk about the marginalization of Papua from the rest of the Indonesian society, we set course on an extremely complex, multilayered issue that started decades and decades ago.

While there is very little solidarity with Papuans in general, “Sa Ada Di Sini” reveals that there is even less solidarity with Papuan women, making them in fact doubly marginalized.

“This nation’s solidarity is almost non-existent [when it comes to] Papua and West Papua,” Ati Nurbaiti from the Jakarta Post said during the event in October.

For years, “security” has been the foundation of the government’s approach to deal with whatever goes on in Papua. These days, under President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo administration, it has added a layer of economic development on top of it.

Security measures became the government’s defense mechanism against scrutiny, and ultimately paved way to impunity among law enforcers.

“Sa Ada Di Sini” further strengthens the point that impunity is the root cause of many problems in Papua.

What feels bizarre to me is how easy it is to neglect what Papuans — and Papuan women especially — have to go through on a daily basis, even amid calls for empowerment and social justice that continue (thankfully!) to make it to the surface.

What I’ve written thus far is merely a quick glance to what is going on — what has been going on — in Papua for years. I don’t claim to know enough, or to have even an adequate understanding, but I think I’m getting there.

I know it’s easy to get lost in mainstream narratives, be it about Papua or about every other thing in the world, but then I remember this quote from Mark Twain: “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”

If you believe in democracy and the power of the people, then it’s time we take that privilege and use it for collective good. And how? By educating ourselves and others, engaging in discussions, arguing when when must, but remembering the value of open-mindedness when it comes to the diversity of our country, continent, planet.


(Photo courtesy of AJAR)