New Internationalist

Playing Up The Primitive

Issue 344

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West Papua / CULTURE

Playing up the primitive

After being buried under 40 years
of Indonesian rule, West Papuan
culture is still very much alive
and kicking, as Eben Kirksey
finds out.

[image, unknown] In May 2000 thousands of the Mee people greeted Megawati Sukarnoputri – who was then Indonesia’s Vice President – when she visited the highland outpost of Enarotali. Running counter-clockwise around her helicopter in a raucous dance called waita tai, wearing grass skirts and penis sheaths, the Mee waved Morning Star flags while shouting a singsong chorus. In front of the crowd stood a group of OPM (Organisasi Papua Merdeka) independence fighters armed with bows and arrows. When Megawati stepped on to the tarmac they presented her with a sign that read: ‘THE PAPUAN PEOPLES ASK FOR FREEDOM’. By all Mee accounts, she literally ‘pissed in her pants’. Scrambling back into the helicopter, Megawati was airborne within moments, apparently terrified by what she saw as a threat of ‘primitive’ violence. For a brief moment, the Mee had been able to assert their political aspirations in cultural terms. This seems to have instilled a deep terror in Megawati. In December 2001 Megawati, by now Indonesia’s President, cancelled a long-planned visit to West Papua.

The Indonesians have tried to suppress Papuan culture. Historically, any Papuan cultural expression that does not fit neatly within Indonesian national ideology has been silenced.

In 1978 Arnold Ap, who was Curator of the Bird of Paradise University Museum, founded a musical group called Mambesak. This band fused themes and melodies from local cultural groups into a regional Papuan musical style. They played songs of freedom. Their music was aired on local radio stations in urban centres around West Papua and played on battery-powered boom-boxes in the remotest of villages.

The Indonesian authorities decided to take action before Arnold Ap’s renown as a Papuan cultural icon grew out of hand. The élite military task force that is now known as KOPASSUS took Arnold Ap into custody in November 1983. After being detained for 66 days with no formal charges Ap was taken by prison guards to a beach where he was shot dead with a spray of machinegun fire. According to official Indonesian accounts Ap was shot while trying to escape from jail.

The Indonesian government has also taken colourful and very lively traditions and tried to collapse them into lifeless fragments consistent with their concept of adat (custom). A surviving member of Mambesak named Joop Roemajauw, who fled Indonesia shortly before Ap was killed, describes how the Indonesians use the concept of adat in an unsuccessful attempt to absorb apolitical parts of Papuan culture. For instance, every Friday morning, throughout the Indonesian archipelago, people – from school children to civil servants – engage in a mandatory callisthenics regime. In the 1990s Yospan, a dance from Roemajauw’s own cultural group typifying Papuan adat, was introduced as part of this weekly ritual. Hearing about overweight government bureaucrats shuffling grudgingly along to the same music that inspires all-night Papuan dance parties makes Roemajauw feel sick.

The selected fragments of Papuan cultural adat that are incorporated into Indonesian national identity function nicely within a racist system of discrimination that devalues Papuans as primitives. The Indonesian-dominated tourism industry in West Papua markets them as half-naked dancing tribesmen. Penis gourds, wood carvings of ‘the noble savage’ and postcards of ceremonial war dances bring in tourist dollars, encouraging contemporary Papuans to emphasize their ‘authentic’ adat.

Leopold Pospisil, who is a Yale University anthropologist, told me about a traveller who intended to demonstrate that Papuans are backward. He paid a 13-year-old girl, who happened to be Pospisil’s friend, to perform a silly dance. After the girl performed the dance Pospisil became angry with her for making a fool of herself. The girl retorted: ‘I am not so sure who is actually more stupid – I who performed the silly things, or the gentleman who paid for the performance.’

We will know that independencehas truly come to West Papua when a foreign CEO puts on a penis sheath

There is more to Papuan culture than a collection of dance steps, dusty museum curios and pop songs. Deep, sometimes mystical, convictions drive Papuan cultural resistance to Indonesia rule. According to Viktor Kaisiepo, who is a prominent Papuan leader exiled to the Netherlands, the membership of the OPM extends beyond the realm of humans. The rainforest – in the form of malarial mosquitoes, venomous white snakes and other dangerous creatures – regularly kills Indonesian soldiers. The Mee tell stories about a beautiful she-demon in the rainforest who invites Indonesian soldiers to sleep with her. But when the soldiers take off their clothes and try to mount the demon she vanishes and the soldiers immediately die.

The word merdeka (freedom) – an important political concept – is also key to understanding contemporary Papuan culture. This powerful concept unites West Papua’s diverse cultural groups. Merdeka is broadly defined by Papuans: it is variously a desire for divine salvation, equitable development, environmental sustainability and political independence. Christianity has been practised in West Papua for nearly 150 years and a distinctively local form of this religion flavours Papuan aspirations for freedom. American anthropologist Brigham Golden describes merdeka as a liberation theology of moral salvation; a Christian desire for a world of human dignity and divine justice. Roemajauw equates merdeka with nirvana.

But once the political component of merdeka is realized – and it will eventually be realized – Papuans will face the fresh challenge of re-establishing an independent cultural identity. There is a danger that cultural solidarity will become fragmented, jump-starting local ethnic conflicts. For instance, with over 250 distinct cultural groups and dialects, arguments about a national language are sure to take place.

In the years leading up to the independence of Frantz Fanon’s homeland of Algeria he wrote: ‘Every colonized people finds itself face to face with the language of the civilizing nation; that is, with the culture of the mother country… The colonized becomes whiter as he renounces his blackness, his jungle.’ Indonesian may be the only language that could serve as the lingua franca of an independent West Papua. This would result in continued dependence on Indonesia.

A more subtle and possibly more complicated problem is the language that would be used to talk about culture in post-independence West Papua. The adat concept makes tourist fetishes out of cultural fragments and alienates many Papuans from indigenous religion. It is possible for Papuans to go beyond this Indonesian idea. They can embrace a modern role in an international community and at the same time maintain distinctively local visions of reality.

An exiled spokesman for the Penis Gourd People’s Assembly (see article) has an innovative vision for the future of West Papua. He would like to incorporate each of the Papuan cultural groups as Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). In this hypothetical nation each tribal NGO would have its own autonomous territory. Tribal elders appointed to a board of directors would govern each NGO. Mee Inc, for example, would directly negotiate with the Korean logging firms that are currently clear-cutting their land. This would ensure that any resource extraction is done according to local norms. Rather than supporting a top-heavy bureaucracy in the cities, profits from development projects could be channelled directly into local communities. A national legislative assembly and judicial system – composed of representatives from the NGOs – could help mediate relations among the different groups.

Partly this vision relies on international acceptance. Globalization does not like to accommodate local government based on indigenous cultural terms. We will know that merdeka has truly come to West Papua when a foreign CEO puts on a penis sheath and dances waita tai in hope of brokering a deal with the Mee Inc board of trustees.

Anthropologist and historian
Eben Kirksey is a Marshall
Scholar at the University
of Oxford.

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