Protests broke out across Java and in West Papua in 2019 over racist treatment of Papuans by security officials and the public in Surabaya. Photo by Dhemas Reviyanto for Antara.


Just as it has in many countries around the world, the death of George Floyd in the United States has prompted a broader discussion about racism in Indonesia. Indonesians have adapted the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter to #PapuanLivesMatter and are drawing attention to the long history of racism toward Papuans in the country.

Violence is always a communicative act. As Papuan women human rights workers, church activists, NGO activists, and academics demonstrated a decade ago, every act of state violence in West Papua over the past 60 years has been racist or gendered, and often both. These acts usually involve Indonesian (that is, non-Papuan) men dominating Papuan men or women to show their power, their patriotism, or just because the idea of Papuan inferiority is so ingrained that there is no possibility of treating Papuans with respect.

Images of Papuan student Obby Kogoya from 2016 are now making headlines again because of the deadly force and demeaning acts of police. Officers held him to the ground, stood on his head and neck, grabbed his nostrils and pulled open his mouth. This just added to the many other images showing Indonesian police physically humiliating and demeaning Papuan detainees.

Though overt, visual brutality makes headlines, racist behaviour is more often subtly violent, as Philomena Essed argued in her foundational work on “everyday racism”. The everyday racial discrimination and risk that people of colour face when ‘driving while black’, ‘shopping while black’ and doing other mundane activities contrasts with the privilege that white people and other ethnic majorities take for granted.

In the case of West Papua, racism is not only perpetrated in openly violent forms by the police or military but is also quietly prevalent and ingrained in structures and assumptions that benefit Indonesians, as well as foreigners.

When protests broke out in West Papua last year after police and public racism towards Papuans in Surabaya, Papuan women scholars like Elvira Rumkabu and Ligia Giay wrote about the kind of racist experiences now being highlighted by #BlackLivesMatter protesters around the world. Giay described the colonial gaze she experienced as a “light skinned” Papuan living in Java, and the internalisation of the stigma that “Papuans are stupid” (orang Papua bodoh).

Like Benny Giay, Neles Tebay, Natalius Pigai and others, they pointed to structural exclusion, to everyday experiences of racism, and to persistent violence that demonstrates a disregard for Papuan lives. Rumkabu reminded readers that when Papuans are subjected to racist abuse, it is usually they, not the perpetrators, who are violently arrested and imprisoned.

But Papuans’ scholarly writing, tweets and rallies were overshadowed by the media attention that exploded on 23 Sept 2019 when 22 Indonesian migrant-settlers were killed and dozens of buildings set alight in the highland town of Wamena. The police said the violence was started by Papuan school students. The relatively high value placed on Indonesian lives lost compared to the unknown number of Papuans killed over the past decade alone was telling.

As civil society groups pointed out, there was a lot of concern for the hundreds of Indonesian migrants who were displaced but no such compassion for the thousands of Nduga residents forced from their homes by Indonesian military actions throughout 2019.

Racism also contributed to the media losing interest in Papuan protests. At the time, Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo told the world that Papuans had killed Indonesians in Wamena in cold blood. They seemed to confirm Papuan “savagery” and the global media bought it. An American analyst speculated that the Papuans who died during the violence were a “mob” killed by migrants trying to defend themselves.

Continuing a racist pattern of eschewing Papuan experiences in favour of suspect Indonesian government versions, the major media outlets swiftly lost interest. This problem is exacerbated by the government’s restrictions on foreign journalists travelling to and reporting from Papua, and its use of social media bots and advertising companies to spread false information. Since the government shut down internet and mobile networks during the 2019 protests, Papuans had little chance to defend themselves or contest the government’s version of events.

Later, further investigation by Papua-based journalists and the Jakarta Post revealed a totally different scenario based on 30 eyewitness accounts from indigenous and non-indigenous residents. They found that the police instigated the violence by shooting dead a young Papuan man, Kelion Tabuni, early that morning.

The police also admitted that the perpetrators of the arson and manslaughter were not from Wamena. This information, published two months after the incident, did not generate global interest.

And so, racism underpins brutality but also the violence of erasure, neglect, silencing, and impunity. Papuans cannot continually protest and attract sustained global attention over their racist treatment because they get shot and killed, tear-gassed, or charged with treason.

The Indonesian state and major institutions have shut down any discussion of racism by linking it to Papuan demands for independence. Prosecutors have recently demanded sentences of up to 17 years for Papuans who organised protests against racism in 2019. By contrast, Indonesian police kill with “near total impunity” and deny that racism exists. They say Papuans who protest are unwitting victims of manipulation and fake news.

However, racism towards Papuans is not confined to the police, or the media, or Indonesians. International scholars, employees and expats benefit from and contribute to racism in its less spectacular forms.

In the development sector, Papuans are stigmatised as less efficient and capable workers compared to Indonesians, are offered fewer opportunities and are paid less. Non-Papuan experts are brought in to manage, train and oversee Papuans, repeating colonial racial hierarchies.

In the research sector, racism is systemic and increasing. On the premise that they are more “accountable” and “efficient”, Java-based universities are used by international universities and other funders, sometimes at the insistence of the Indonesian government, to manage research conducted in Papua. They often appoint their own staff to oversee Papuan academics.

These same Java-based universities may also disavow discussion of racism, as occurred last week at the University of Indonesia. This reproduces racial hierarchies and is a clear continuation of the “stupid Papuan” stigma discussed by Ligia Giay and many others.

Turning closer to home, the Australia Awards Scholarships program has been in operation for many years, with hundreds of Indonesian recipients annually. Yet even with a dedicated focus on eastern Indonesia, anecdotally, few Papuan students meet entry requirements. Even if they overcome a deeply racialised education system and complete their undergraduate studies, Papuan students report that they then face extensive questioning by examiners about their links to any of the political “separatist” groups.

This system contributes to a convenient silencing of the region’s most entrenched human rights atrocities and prevents Papuan perspectives from being heard by Australians, not just on human rights, but on all the other important things occurring in West Papua. The reality is that a racially just and equitable system would see many more Papuans in Australia speaking out in ways that could jeopardise Australia’s relationship with Indonesia.

To eliminate racist violence in West Papua, it’s important to acknowledge that foreign interactions and relationships with Indonesia are upholding a violent, racist system. It is also essential to challenge the myths put forward by the Indonesian government.

When Papuans march in the streets, or publish books, or post on Facebook, or present to the United Nations, it’s time to listen to them, rather than an Indonesian government official who says everything is fine.


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