They are just Papuans

Inside Indonesia


They are just Papuans

The statement by President Yudhoyono that recent violent incidents in Papua are ‘small-scale incidents compared to those in the Middle East’ (Jakarta Post, 12 June 2012) is worrying. The worry is not only that, by comparing Papuans and people in the Middle East in this way, he appeared to confuse his constitutional duty to protect Indonesian nationals with his role as observer of world politics. It is also because his comment suggests the president views Papuans as living ‘bare lives.’

First coined by the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, a ‘bare life’ denotes a life that is limited to its biological and physiological dimensions. The term emphasises the emptiness of such life, a life that is devoid of meaning and value. Lived bare, the life of an individual is equivalent to a piece of meat. If someone destroys this life, it makes no difference because a bare life that is ended cannot be transformed into sacrifice. It has no higher meaning or significance.

Whenever a Papuan is killed in violent conflict in Papua, this attitude is on public display. Government officials proclaim their concern about ‘national integrity’ or ‘security’, in abstract and formal terms. We never, or rarely, hear them expressing sympathy for the victims, or acknowledging that their lives were valuable and dignified. Human dignity is overshadowed by abstract calculations that serve only the interests of the state. The lives of Papuan victims are thus made bare, made devoid of meaning and stripped of all recognition and rights.


A student demonstration in Jayapura.
(Budi Hernawan)

Violence on the march
The resurgence of violence in recent weeks in Papua is suggestive of this mindset. Since May 2012, unidentified killers have claimed three lives and left six others wounded in Jayapura alone. Most victims were civilians, including a German national, but a few of them were members of TNI (Indonesia’s National Armed Forces) and Police. The victims were attacked when they were on the way home from work, such as Private Doengki Kune, or busy at work, such as Tri Sarono, or simply enjoying leisure time on the beach, such as the German biologist Pieter Helmut.

The killers continue to operate freely. Law enforcers seem unable to stop the killings, or to prevent the killers from publically displaying the bodies they leave behind. Randomness has become the language of terror that the killers want to communicate to the whole Papuan population. Their message is crystal clear: they can target anybody regardless of nationality, occupation, gender, ethnicity, time and location. Their impact was great. For a time, the busy road connecting Jayapura and Sentani (where the Jayapura airport is located) was deserted by 6 pm.

The recent violence in the highland town of Wamena in June 2012 evinces a similar pattern. On 6 June two members of the armed forces, Private Ahmad Ruslan and Private Ahmad Sarifuddin, were riding a motorcycle when they ran over a three-year old boy, Debet Wanimbo and left him injured. Instead of being attentive and responsible to the victim, these soldiers tried to escape, triggering an angry reaction by locals. The locals took the law into their own hands. They stabbed Private Ahmad Ruslan to death and left another soldier in a critical condition. This situation immediately triggered retaliation by the soldiers’ comrades in battalion 756.

The soldiers rioted. They stabbed Mr Elinus Yoman (30 y.o) to death and injured 15 others, and destroyed a lot of private and public property. The commander in chief of the TNI eventually acknowledged, rather casually, that the troops ‘shouldn’t have over-reacted’ (Jakarta Globe, 13 June 2012). But their rampage amply demonstrates how the authorities persistently view Papuans as living bare lives, unworthy of protection or value.

The Wamena example is much more complex than what we see on the surface for two reasons. First, the violence fits into a long pattern that arises out of, and reinforces, the difficult relationship between locals and the army garrison permanently stationed in this area. This relationship has long been marked by cautiousness, suspicion and sometimes hostility. For many people in Wamena, the recent violence is reminiscent of the 2003 Wamena case, for which prosecution is still pending with the Attorney General. In 2003, there was an intensive military operation in the Wamena area following the burglary of the military arsenal there. According to a National Human Rights Commission investigation, during the search for the stolen weapons, soldiers indiscriminately arrested and tortured at least 30 innocent civilians, killed nine others and forcefully displaced the population of 13 villages.

Second, at the community level, the recent incident triggered a communal dispute between the family of the boy who was injured in the motorcycle crash, and those who suffered losses when the army ran amok. These victims blamed the family of the boy for the whole affair, and for the community’s suffering as a result. Some have demanded compensation from the family of the boy. Whilst this dispute can be settled by a payment agreed by both sides, the scars left by the dispute will remain recorded in the collective memory of the Wamena people.

In a different setting, the killing of a Papuan activist Mako Tabuni on 14 June further illustrates another example of the bare life status of Papuans. Mr Tabuni was an outspoken leader of West Papua National Committee (KNPB), a political organisation which campaigns and advocates for a referendum for Papua. Following a rally he helped organised, the police ambushed him while he was chewing betel nuts with his companions. Instead of upholding due process and arresting and processing Mr Tabuni according to regular police procedures, the police shot him dead, claiming that he resisted arrest and possessed weapons. This incident immediately triggered mob rioting around the crime scene and the burning of shops owned by non-indigenous Papuans. Innocent people became victims, regardless of their ethnic background.

The incident has fueled tension between indigenous and non-indigenous Papuans, and there is a danger of serious communal conflict in the future if these tensions are not carefully addressed.

An exit from violence?
Given the escalation of violence, the response of the president is inadequate. If the highest policy maker in the country has already dismissed the Papua conflict as being just small-scale, not as significant as other world trouble spots, and perhaps therefore not really worthy of attention, what can the Papuans expect? Can Papuans expect that the international community will invoke the principle of the responsibility to protect and intervene on their behalf? But apart from perhaps Vanuatu, no country has placed Papua high in terms of its national interests and foreign policy. Almost all the nations that count have repeatedly stated publicly to the Indonesian government that Papua is purely a domestic matter for Indonesia and that problems there fall within Indonesian jurisdiction in accordance with the principle of national sovereignty enshrined in the UN Charter. Furthermore, Indonesian foreign policy has deliberately isolated Papuans from international attention.

However, from history we learn that the weak cannot always be defeated by force permanently. In their recent book, Why Civil Resistance Works, Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan demonstrate that non-violent resistance movements have a higher success rate than movements that rely on armed struggle. Based on 323 case studies worldwide between 1900 and 2006, their study shows that non-violent resistance succeeded 53 per cent of the time, in comparison to only a 26 per cent success rate for armed struggle. In other words, it is not impossible for the Papuans living bare lives to reclaim their dignity by resorting to non-violent means. The prospects may seem remote, and the present outlook may seem bleak, but there is hope in resistance.

Budi Hernawan OFM ( is a Franciscan friar, a former director of the Office for Justice and Peace of the Catholic Church in Jayapura and a PhD scholar at the Regulatory Institutions Network, Australian National University.