The worst form of injustice is pretended justice. Papua in Indonesia had become a dangerous place to live, not because of the people who were evil but because of the people who didn’t do anything about it. Protests had gripped the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua. A flare-up in 2019 saw at least 33 people killed and dozens more injured in Wamena, Papua. This latest violence by security forces and pro-Indonesian civilian militias against Indigenous West Papuans wasn’t an isolated event, yet other citizens chose to remain indifferent towards it.

The people of Papua have experienced decades of violence against them from Indonesian forces. Indonesia has maintained a military occupation of the resource-rich territory of West Papua since 1963. Indigenous Papuans were stereotyped as primitive and animal-like by the Indonesian authorities. Consequently, Papuans chose to protest against it in the recent demonstrations.

Under the occupation, Papuans have also been subject to a grim list of horrors including torture, rape, killings, land dispossession and cultural desecration. Many Papuans have sought justice against this repression, including through peaceful protest and diplomacy. But in doing so, they have suffered brutal repercussions.

A particularly bloody example of how Indonesian security forces respond to Papuan calls to end the occupation can be seen in the little-known 1998 “Biak Massacre”. In 1998, from July 2 to July 6, a large number of West Papuans flew their outlawed nationalist Morning Star flag from the water tower in the centre of town on the Papuan island of Biak.

They had peacefully gathered to pray and demonstrate for freedom from Indonesian occupation. In retaliation, Indonesian security forces opened fire on the crowd, killing up to 200 Papuans and dumping their mutilated bodies at sea. The perpetrators of these acts have never been held accountable.

In 2013, a small group of West Papuan, Indonesian, and Australian-based academics decided to bring the atrocities committed during the Biak Massacre to international attention after 15 years of mere negligence and ignorance. They did so by holding a citizens tribunal at the University of Sydney.

The Australian government has signed the 2006 Lombok Treaty, stating that it will not interfere with political matters internal to Indonesia. Yet, they believed the Biak Massacre should not be kept a secret. They brought survivors of the Biak Massacre to Sydney to testify about their experiences. They also engaged several high-profile Australian jurists to examine the evidence against the Indonesian security forces involved.

The jurists found that the Indonesian government attempted to “downplay the seriousness of the actions perpetrated by its forces” and has made no effort to take action “against any persons for the crimes against humanity instigated against innocent civilians”.

They presented the findings of the tribunal to a cross-section of Australian members of parliament (MPs) in Canberra to throw light on the kinds of military actions being carried out in Indonesia against Indigenous West Papuans. One of the tribunal witnesses, Mama Tineke Rumakabu, who had been sexually abused and tortured during the massacre, testified about her experiences to the politicians. Although the Australian Government did not abandon the Lombok Treaty, as they had hoped, the MPs were visibly shocked by our reports and Rumakabu’s account.

Testimonies from survivors about what happened during the massacre, how it has affected their lives, and how they continue to advocate for the future of their country, became one of the most powerful parts of the tribunal experience. Equally moving were the West Papuan songs, which infused the solemn undertaking with a sense of hope and a determined celebration of an inextinguishable culture.

Singing and creating the combined testimony became, for the participating survivors, acts of healing, of ensuring the restrained legal procedure of the tribunal also privileged Papuan culture and foregrounded Papuan agency and voices.

Realizing the importance of art–in particular, music–in West Papua’s decolonization movement, members of the Tribunal’s organizing group were inspired to apply for a research grant to explore how art could be further leveraged to facilitate social justice in similar instances.

In 2015, the group of academics received funding from the Australian Research Council to investigate how music, shared between mobile phones, fosters community mobilization for justice in Melanesia. As part of this project the team developed an illustrated booklet of the tribunal testimonies titled “We Have Come to Testify: There Is Much We Want the World to Know”.

To accompany the booklet, one of the project’s research partners, the Wantok Musik Foundation, recorded West Papuan and other Melanesian musicians (including Tio Bang, Marcel Melthererong, Mama Tineke, Ferry Marisan and Ronny Kareni) performing songs commemorating the Papuans who survived the massacre. Australian Indigenous and Tongan singer, Radical Son, delivered a spoken-word rendition of the testimony.

These are available through an app for Android phones also developed as part of the project to track how the songs are disseminated by Melanesian listeners and what impact they have on raising awareness throughout Melanesia of human rights violations in West Papua. This project reflects and seeks to tap into the changing ways in which citizens are mobilizing for justice in Melanesia.

The West Papuan movement for self-determination is gaining more traction now than before. This is for several reasons.

 First, many Indonesian citizens are starting to recognize the injustice of the occupation and contributing in their own ways to support the cause.

Second, Pacific Island nations have in recent years represented the West Papuan cause at regional and international summits.

And third, due to Indonesia’s media ban in the territory, not  many were acquainted with the conflict in West Papua. However, citizens from the other regions is opening up about the issue for the world to witness the plight of the Papuans. Relatedly, digital media is allowing West Papuans to connect and organize internally, and network internationally.

West Papuans are still trying to deal with past grievances while enduring ongoing abuse.

It is the intention of this project, to amplify Papuans’ call for peace and justice in their territory and honour the unrelenting bravery of Papuans in the face of daily death and destruction.

Aayushi Bawa, Amity International School, Noida


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