West Papuan voices from the ground

How does living under the occupation affect the lives of ordinary West Papuans? Indonesian human rights lawyer Veronica Koman spoke to five current residents of West Papua to hear their stories.


Clockwise from top left: Papuan and Indonesian students from People's Solidarity for Democracy (SORAK) create a street performance for West Papuan human rights in Bandung, West Papua, December 2016, photo by by Whens Tebay. Indonesian police at a West Papuan freedom rally, 2016, photo by Whens Tebay. A busy highway in Jayapura. Two-thirds of the city's population is now non-Papuan, photo by Koroi Hawkins. A West Papuan villager in the highlands, photo by Clare Harding. ©

Rosa Moiwend

Rosa Moiwend is an independent researcher on social movements and self-determination, and also a political activist. She lives in Jayapura, the largest city in West Papua.

Living in West Papua means there is always something going on which reminds us of the occupation. We see discrimination, racism and violence before our eyes every day. My grandparents experienced the Trikora [the military invasion by Indonesia in 1961]. At that time, my family was living in Ninati village in the south. Most of the family had to flee across the border to Papua New Guinea – only my grandfather stayed behind. Our old village has now been inhabited by other tribes, and we have lost contact with all of the family that crossed the border. That’s the biggest personal loss to our family.

Many forms of daily discrimination have become normal in West Papua. The Indonesian occupation is not just about occupying territory, but also about changing our mindsets, how West Papuans see themselves. We are taught false things at school, particularly about our history. It’s a kind of mental slavery: Indonesian teachings and doctrines tell us ‘because we are West Papuans, we deserve to be treated unfairly’, and we start unconsciously to accept this.

The manipulation of our identity by the Indonesian government is very dangerous because we are transformed from our core. We really feel like our identities are being transformed to be like the Indonesians. Our standards are being changed to Indonesian standards.

I have experienced this first hand. I used to read the afternoon news at a local TV show. I used to have small dreadlocks. The producer asked me to change my hair. He told me to lose the dreadlocks and straighten my hair so it looked ‘neater’, according to the national TV standard. I argued. ‘Papua Lens’, the name of the show, should have shown how Papua was, but they wanted to change me. They then transferred me to an off-camera role, and I quit. I still have my dreadlocks today.

On 16 March 2006 in Jayapura, everyone who had dreadlocks was arrested and their hair was cut. This continued for a fortnight. During that time, a lot of indigenous people cut their hair. I didn’t want to do this, so I hid for quite a while and did not go home. It was not just about hair. We have dreadlocks not because we like reggae or Rasta, but as an ideology. Dreadlocks are my identity. A lot of my friends with dreadlocks feel the same. Dreadlocks have become a symbol of resistance and of a free West Papua, a challenge to what we were taught by the Indonesian state.

As a schoolchild, when I saw other people had straight hair, I dreamt of having long and straight hair. We all did. Even our toys referred to other people’s identity. It’s the same thing with beauty products – at the store, there is no powder which matches our skin colour.

Fortunately, the resistance is very strong and popular now. There are many t-shirts which say ‘I am Papua, curly hair and dark skin’, which are getting popular among the youth in many cities. But as long as the occupation is still happening, the repression of our identity will continue. What we get at school will shape our characters. So it depends on the parents to teach their children: about who they are, their identities as West Papuans. If the parents do not do that, it could be dangerous, because then when West Papua is finally free, the generation taking control would be this colonial-minded generation. We would then have to work hard again to fight our own people. So this liberation movement is not only about physical resistance but also about resisting this mindset.

West Papua will be free; it is only a matter of time. When I was little, we heard our parents whispering when they talked about politics – they had to keep it inside the house. Now, it is more open and we can see it even in mainstream media. That is the result of the collective work of many different people.

Women have always been involved in this movement, but they have often taken different roles from the men. West Papuan men often see these roles as less important or less heroic. This is not true, especially because women do play important leadership roles, and take to the streets actively when there are protests. Mama Yosepha [Yosepha Alomang, winner of the 2001 Goldman Environmental Prize], a villager who did not even attend school, organized women to blockade the airport and the Freeport mine – no men thought of that.

Things are changing now. The movement is more open and advanced, women are taking on more and different roles. This is a national struggle, the responsibility of both men and women. All generations have to work hand in hand.

Hana Yeimo

Hana Yeimo is a sweet-potato farmer in Enarotali, a town in Paniai province, central West Papua. On 8 December 2014, four local teenagers were shot dead by security forces near her home while protesting against the beating of schoolchildren by soldiers the previous day.

I am married and have an 11-year-old child. On a normal day, other than farming, I usually play cards with my friends.

Police and military watch us all the time. Especially the military, who will shoot at us randomly and out of nowhere.

It was around nine in the morning when I heard gunshots coming from the direction of the fields. So I went out to check. The police and the military were shooting at my people. So I stood in between the security forces and my people. The security forces ordered me to go away and said ‘you could get shot’. I shouted back at them that I did not care, just go ahead and shoot me. They shot my people before my eyes. I threw things and almost hit a local official. My relatives told me not to act like that, in order not to be arrested. But I did not care, I just wanted them to go. I screamed at them to let us be free and independent, rather than being shot and killed out of nowhere. I screamed until I lost my voice that day.

On that field, children died because the military shot them. Many others were wounded. I helped the people who were shot into a car. My cousin was also a victim. I know all the other victims. The victims do not want to talk about the case any more. They are tired of repeating the same story without any result.

Max Binur

Max Binur is an artist and cultural activist living in the northwest port city of Sorong.

I love arts and I am a humanist. My daily activities usually involve discussions with indigenous people in both towns and villages. We talk about environmental destruction and how to use local wisdom and culture as weapons against injustice. We paint and make sculptures and other artworks.

I am the founder of Belantara Papua, an organization for empowering indigenous people. We do environmental advocacy, monitoring and investigation with indigenous people who are impacted by the presence of palm-oil, mining and illegal logging companies. I also support indigenous people to use our culture in our struggle. Demonstrations will not solve the problem any more, the government is already numb. So I use culture as a fighting tool.

I also empower children in villages who face difficulties in education, and help them to create schools in areas that lack them. We teach them how to build a school, or if that isn’t possible, how to build an art centre. I also encourage them to dance, craft and sculpt at the art centres. We are fighting the violence in West Papua through culture.

I first saw the violence of the Indonesian military when I was four years old. I used to live in Biak with my family. My father had been a police officer since the Dutch era. I grew up in a police environment. When I was a small kid, my head was hit with a rifle butt by the police. It made me gradually realize that state violence is very real. When I was at university in the 1990s, the Free West Papua movement was rising. I took part in big rallies. And finally when I worked at an NGO in Jayapura, I became very aware of human rights violations. It transformed my perspective and my commitment to work for West Papua and its people.

I am very sure that we will be free, sooner or later. Either I or my children will enjoy such freedom. I am very certain.

Here’s what we need from the rest of the world. First, help us publicize the human rights violations in West Papua. Second, pressure the Indonesian government to decrease the military violence in West Papua. Third, call for a replacement for the sham 1969 independence referendum, because that is the root cause of the problem in West Papua. Finally, help us voice our concerns in UN forums.

Elizabeth Ndiwaen

Elizabeth Ndiwaen lives in the city of Merauke, in the southeast of the country, near the Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate (MIFEE) – a major Indonesian project including palm-oil plantations and industrial agriculture, which is planned to replace 1.2 million hectares of rainforest.

I am 34 years old. I am married with four children. My eldest daughter is a teacher, my second child just graduated senior high school, my third child is in junior high school, and my youngest is still in kindergarten. I maintain the home, and I sometimes work with the National Human Rights Commission and Pusaka Foundation on environmental and indigenous people’s issues.

Here in Merauke, we really feel the occupation. We are often oppressed, beaten and threatened. On top of that, there are 42 companies including MIFEE operating in Merauke. Every company has its own special-force police and military protecting the company. They often intimidate village people.

Before MIFEE began, we were poor but we were happy living on our own land. We used to just enter the forest to look for food when we wanted to eat. But when MIFEE came, they destroyed our forests. Our life became difficult. All of our rivers are too polluted to use any more. There is no support from the government towards our future.

I wish that MIFEE would stop operating here. We are planning to hold a meeting with people from 14 local regions about MIFEE this August.

West Papua will one day be free. West Papuans talk about this publicly now; we do not want to talk about it secretly any more. To all governments and people out there, I would like to say clearly that we do not want to be oppressed any more. We need justice.

Veronica Koman is a public interest lawyer at the Jakarta Legal Aid Institute (LBH Jakarta). She provides legal representation for many West Papuans arrested for political activities.