New Internationalist

They Walk On The Leaves Of Trees

Issue 344

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West Papua / GOVERNANCE

The wealth of its neighbours in PThey walk on the leaves of trees

The wealth of its neighbours in Papua New Guinea has been squandered by a Westminster-style Parliament. No wonder the type of democracy West Papua wants is still up in the air.

[image, unknown] Chris Richards finds an alternative model for West Papuan self-determination.

He is a human telegraph. He will travel for days to get the news. On foot and by car. Over the Papua New Guinea border, then through the jungle into West Papua. He will go there for important information and decisions – things that cannot be entrusted to e-mail or the risk of interception. He comes when summoned by one of the few members of his group still remaining in West Papua – in Wamena, Timika, Manokwari or Sarong. Or Abepura to where Mully lives. The human telegraph allows Mully to keep in touch with 3,000 people who have fled the country in fear of further beatings by the Indonesian military: members of DEMMAK (the Penis Gourd People’s Assembly) who now live with their leader, Benni Wenda, in the refugee camp in Vanimo, over the border in Papua New Guinea.

Mully (not his real name) is a law student with a vision. And now is the time for vision, for experimentation, for developing structures of government not yet tried before – distinctly West Papuan. DEMMAK’s model is based on tribal traditions – penis-gourd assemblies. They are designed to ensure that power does not collect in political parties but remains with the highland people, with tribal leaders retaining decision-making power while more educated lowland advisers and facilitators back them up.

Highlanders (those living inland, particularly in mountain areas) tend to see lowlanders (those living in the cities and towns around the coast) as untrustworthy and Westernized. Lowlanders tend to think of highlanders as backward. This division is reflected in the models of government each promotes, and the parties they back. While the Papua Council – the body that is trying to hold together all groups struggling for independence – has the firm allegiance of the lowlanders, it’s DEMMAK that retains the real confidence of highlanders.

Urban meets rural in the highland town of Wamena, where penis gourds stud the local markets.
Photo: Chris Richards

Male highlanders, at least. Women don’t have a vote at a tribal level yet. And the term ‘penis-gourd assemblies’ is unashamedly about men, to the exclusion of women. Penis gourds are sheaths made of a cultivated gourd: often the only substantial body covering that is worn by tribal men. I have seen them frequently in the Baliem Valley amongst the Dani and Yali tribes. They vary in shape and size around the country. Some are long and held erect by string, while others are shorter, broader, sporty models that won’t get tangled up in a dash through the forest. It is these examples of difference in culture, attitude and expression that distinguish West Papua from the Western world, and that DEMMAK wants to see represented in government – traditional features that Mully doubts the Papua Council will preserve.

Nevertheless, Mully says that DEMMAK supports the Papua Council – at least in the short term. He anticipates that, when West Papua gains its freedom, the head of the Presidium (executive of the Papua Council) will automatically become President, the 31 Presidium members will become the Cabinet, and the 501 panel members will form the legislative body of a parliament.

The term ‘penis-gourd assemblies’ is unashamedly about men to the exclusion of women

However, DEMMAK thinks that this structure mirrors too closely the existing Indonesian parliament, which has been tainted by corruption. ‘At the moment, the Indonesian Government says that it will give a tribe money for a pig project,’ says Mully. ‘But when this money comes out from Jakarta, every layer of the bureaucracy takes a cut until almost nothing is left for the tribe and its project. We’re scared that, if we keep something close to the present system, this way of working will be replicated.’

DEMMAK want a different long-term structure. Parliament would be filled with visionary advisors in law, politics and economics. Each tribe would elect a leader – a break from the present where the leader inherits the position from his father. A leader from the NGOs and the churches would join them. They would gather once or twice a year at Parliament to make decisions based on what their communities want to do, taking advice from the parliamentarians. The parliamentarians would also help facilitate decision-making – a vital component, given the range of attitudes the leaders will no doubt bring with them.

And women? There are some women members of the Papua Council, and they have their own group within the panel system. But they are not well represented anywhere. Mully is critical. He tells me that, traditionally, West Papuan women are second-class citizens. ‘Men say to women who want to talk: “You’re behind in the conversation. Just shut up.”’ But, he says, there is progress. The men were recently shocked when a women’s congress attracted 600 participants. Through events like this, women are developing into activists – speaking out publicly about what they can do for West Papua. Indeed, DEMMAK now thinks that the head of the Papua Council should be a woman, so that she can go and fight Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri ‘woman-to-woman’. ‘Ninety per cent of West Papuan men have been tainted by the Indonesian system,’ says Mully. ‘The women are still pure. At meetings now, men are falling silent when women talk. They talk the truth. They keep the peace. And they come up with good solutions.’

[image, unknown]

Paul Kingsnorth has a secret meeting with a legendary guerrilla leader, but can’t give him what he wants.

Long before I meet Goliar Tabuni, I have heard more than enough about him to be – shall we say, apprehensive. The local OPM (Free Papua Movement) members, who have arranged our clandestine meeting, have told me story after story about him. He is seven feet tall, with a beard like Thor’s. He can walk across the country in two days. He can ‘walk on the leaves of the trees’. He can make himself invisible. ‘When he comes,’ they say, ‘your hair will stand on end.’

In the event, Goliar and the two other guerrillas who flank him turn out to be the regulation short Papuan stature and to have genuine, if guarded, smiles. But that’s about all that is normal about them. They troop, barefoot, into the living room of our safe house in Timika – the town servicing the Freeport McMoRan gold and copper mine 60 kilometers away – and sit down. Goliar has a ragged beard, ragged clothes and ragged hair and smells like he has been living in a forest for 20 years. On his left is his deputy, a stout man with dreadlocks, a filthy MTV T-shirt, armbands, necklaces and very thick biceps. On his right is a vast, bearded colossus of a man, a Major, who leans wordlessly on a huge axe and glowers at me intensely from under his hat. A two-foot knife of cassowary bone is strapped to his arm. I decide to ask my questions politely.

Goliar Tabuni and his troops are prized targets of the Indonesian armed forces.
Photo: Paul Kingsnorth

Goliar is operational commander of the Timika branch of the TPN – the liberation army of the OPM. He is the rebels’ chief military strategist in the region, and spends most of his time hidden in the forest, living in camps, which are regularly moved around to avoid the Indonesian army. He claims to have thousands of men (there are few, if any, fighting women) under his command, but the real figures are unknown. He helped plan the 1996 kidnap of seven European botanists together with their researchers and guides – a kidnap purposefully pulled to make the world pay attention to the military and corporate pillage of West Papua. He’s also led sorties against the Freeport mine, with the so-far unsuccessful aim of closing it down.

These three tousled warriors are the heroes of every Papuan I have met. Veterans of an armed struggle that they have never come close to winning, largely because they are ‘armed’ only in the loosest sense of the word. ‘I have killed 3,606 people, by myself,’ Goliar explains, conversationally. ‘With axes, spears, knives – and with this.’ From a woven, rainbow shoulder-bag he pulls what looks like a Second World War revolver. ‘This is our only gun,’ he laughs, slightly despairingly. ‘The Indonesians have planes, soldiers, cars, machine-guns. They have hundreds of commanders here, thousands. All over this region we have one commander – me. If we had real guns, we could drive them out.’ He stares at me, intently. ‘What are you activists doing in England?’ he suddenly asks. ‘Can’t you get us guns?’

This is our only gun,’ he laughs, slightly despairingly

He looks disappointed when I explain that I can’t. I wonder how, and why, he keeps going. ‘We want freedom,’ he says, simply. ‘That is all we fight for. There are other ways, of course. Diplomacy is important. But fighting is important too. The Indonesians come here and they see that our land is sweet, like milk, and they want it for themselves.

They have not been interested in diplomacy, they have taken our land and killed our people.’

Things have changed in recent years, though. While, for decades, only the OPM were opposing the Indonesians, other bodies now exist – most notably the Papua Council and its Presidium (executive), which claims to have incorporated the OPM into its grand alliance for freedom. But the OPM disagrees. ‘The Presidium,’ sniffs Goliar, ‘has never given us anything. In our culture, if you have food, you share it with everyone. The Presidium has the sort of people who keep their food to themselves.’ In Papua this is a serious insult. ‘We have no cars, no guns, no money,’ he says. ‘The Presidium has all the money they need. They are not pure, or where would they get it from?’

I explain where – from corporations like Freeport and BP. Goliar’s eyebrows raise slowly. ‘Well,’ he says. ‘Freeport are killers and if we could we would close them down. Why should these corporations be able to come here and take our land and our resources?’ Recently, the OPM decided that no more corporations should be allowed to come here. ‘We know BP is coming.’ What is he going to do about it then, I ask. ‘If we can,’ he says, simply, ‘we will kill them.’

Goliar is clear that, come independence, the armed wing of the OPM will not be fading away. ‘We will be the army,’ says Goliar, decisively, ‘and we will choose the government. We will decide who is in it, not the Papua Council. We will say yes or no to presidents and governments. If I want you in the government, I will put you in the government.’ I’m flattered. ‘If the Papua Council are the government, where will they get their money from?’ he asks, rhetorically. ‘They will need to get it from BP, Shell, Freeport. The people will not stand for this. Freedom is not just about Indonesia, it is about controlling these corporations too.’

Goliar sits back and pours himself a cup of coffee from a blue china teapot that someone has brought in for him. It’s an incongruous sight, and he suddenly looks almost comical. ‘I knew you were coming to Timika,’ he says, from nowhere. ‘I could see you in the plane overhead. If I wanted, I could be in Wamena tomorrow [Wamena is hundreds of miles away]. You may have heard about my abilities. It is true. The forest gives them to me, and they are secret. Not even my two brothers here know. When my time comes I will pass these secrets on. But not yet.’

Then he suddenly reaches for my hand and shakes it, hard, with a smile in his eyes. ‘We will not give up,’ he says, simply. ‘When we are free you will come back here and see. Then the whole world will see.’

Paul Kingsnorth was in
West Papua researching his
new book about the global
resistance movement, to be
published by Simon and
Schuster in 2003.
Paul Kingsnorth

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