Broadcasting the Call of the Bird of Paradise

PAPUA | Call of the Bird of Paradise

originally appeared at
DateThursday, March 4, 2010

Papua, Indonesia. Dancing Turtle Media.
Witness  |  Nick Chesterfield, Oct-Nov 2009Witness stories are considered biased viewpoints. If you would like to counter or clarify the argument, please write to the editors. Only well-written and well-argued stories or comments will be considered for publication. 

Papua, the easternmost Indonesian province also known as West Papua or Irian Jaya, which is populated primarily by indigenous Melanesian peoples but also by Javanese, Chinese and other groups, got into my blood thanks to its biting defenders. A magical place, of kind, proud and unbelievably diverse people. Some have accurately likened Papua to Eden, even suggesting it may be the biblical Eden, an image bolstered with the 2006 discovery of the famed “Lost World” in the Foja Mountains.

However, local Melanesian activists claim Papua is an Eden under threat from chainsaws, shovels, chemical pollution, and ore extraction equipment brought in by the government and foreign corporations in what the government claims to be an effort to develop the collective economy. Local people consider it a decades-long campaign to profit abroad at the cost of the indigenous people.

With twenty-nine of consumerism’s most desired natural resources in Papua, the global superpowers used the excuse of cold war geopolitics to exploit Papua with Indonesia as if it were fruit on a golden platter.

“We are desperately poor,” Nobertus [pseudonym], a student leader on the run told me after the 2006 killings of protesters in Papua. “They treat us worse than camp dogs.  It is apartheid living if you are West Papuan, and it is our Land, not Indonesia’s.  We have to watch the [Indonesia military, the TNI or Tentara Nasional Indonesia] steal everything from our land, nailed down or not. We have looked after our land as our father and mother for 60,000 years, and the Indonesians plunder everything in 40 years.  If this was your country, wouldn’t you fight for it?”

“Our Land is a mountain of gold floating on an ocean of oil,” Maria [pseudonym], an underground rural women’s organizer, explained to me on another occasion. “From the bottom of the sea to the tip of the highest mountain in Papua, both our Land and our people’s very existence is under critical threat. Everywhere [the Indonesian government decision-makers] take something from our land, there is violence, and it is the women who particularly suffer.”

Hundreds of people I’ve talked to make these claims, backed by the common themes portrayed in their collective views and photos. For years, foreign companies like the New Orleans-based copper and gold exporter Freeport have moved into this part of Indonesia, rallying the protection of the Indonesian government.

Everywhere the Indonesian security forces Melanesians fear are at work, so are local civil society networks like Maria’s, actively documenting every theft and human rights abuse dished out on the local people.

A savvy and fearless new generation of activists, citizen journalists and professional human rights workers like Nobertus and Maria is emerging in Papua, spurred into urgency by the increased violence of the Indonesian security forces seeking to increase their control over every aspect of economic life in Papua.  This new generation is combining new technology and old indigenous ways to disseminate time critical information to the world about the ongoing abuses.

Problem is, Papua doesn’t make the international news very much. Not for want of trying. Unique tropical ecosystems, rapidly shrinking glaciers, the largest area of rainforest outside the Amazon, it is home to custodians who have kept it as they found it for millenia in the most linguistically diverse place on Earth. As a jewel on our planet, Papua should rate more concern, especially in our era of figuring out how or if humans are going to survive on this planet. However, the story of West Papua has become one of the world’s most deliberately forgotten struggles for survival.

With the Indonesian government dramatically limiting foreign media access in Papua, documenting events there can be a hazardous enterprise.  The quest usually involves months of planning, fixing, creating a cover, sliding through malarial jungles and weeks of walking across some of the most challenging terrain on Earth. And ever present is the threat that Indonesian authorities may jail inquiring minds like the team of four Dutch journalists who were held this past spring. Worse, the detentions and limits on media recall the Balibo Five, a situation in nearby East Timor in the 1970’s when five foreign journalists were murdered right before the Indonesian military flooded into the province to quiet a growing secessionist movement.

Once one is out or able to file safely, most media managers refuse to air the story due to the commercial interests of their owners and the threat of getting their correspondents banned from Indonesia. Little wonder most journalists prefer the easier jobs.

Since 1999, I have been closely involved with the Papua issue, after several years with the Indonesian pro-democracy, and East Timor freedom movements. Initially involved as an activist, and noticed by those who do not wish for the Papua activists to distribute their news, my first journeys there necessarily saw me underground on mission. I collected abuse data, worked to build local capacity for doing so independently, and to assist in the escape of hunted non-violent activists to safer places.

Over time, I have tried to work with local networks to develop effective and timely grassroots citizen reporting capacity in human rights, environmental protection and community safety, and to get it out to international audiences. For my troubles, I was accused of espionage again in 2007 by Jakarta, and officially banned from returning.

During these events, international media would repeat the same refrain:  “If you get pictures or video in real time, we will broadcast it.”  Due to the limits on media, journalists could never get funding to go in, and so we had to smuggle in cameras, and then smuggle the tapes out. Often tapes would go missing or couriered to the wrong person, or the cameras themselves would disappear.  Many times, clarification was sought over insecure phone lines, and the tape would be intercepted, never to see the light of day. There had to be a better way.

Facing so many obstacles to getting their stories and advocacy out, Melanesian rights activists have had to develop new ways to communicate without being easily blocked or surveilled by those who wish to quiet them. Markus Haluk is a leading human rights advocate with the National Consensus Working Team, and is part of the new media movement.

“Real time advocacy is vital for the international community to act to end Papua’s suffering,” Haluk said. “As Human Rights advocates, we do scientific research into abuses, but because this information does not get out easily, the problems in Papua are only now getting known to the world.

“Papuan people increasingly understand the importance of technology in advocacy. Many more young people are speaking English now, and students especially are pro-active and professional in their online activism.” According to Haluk, “With this technology, we can release news from Papua to the world even at midnight.”

Technology is embraced quickly and improved on in Papua.  Children who were globally disconnected, living a traditional lifestyle twenty-five years ago are now flying the latest jet aircraft. And traditional highland warriors carrying Smartphones in their kotekas (penis gourds) are an increasingly common sight in Papua.

I have seen with my own eyes cannibalized aircraft wrecks used for every purpose imaginable, including working electronic weather stations, and avgas powered ploughs, and even an irrigation system powered by a converted piston engine from a wrecked American DC3.

In August, a striking example of the capacity and potential of this ingenuity and technological connectivity emerged. Papuan and Indonesian human rights activists began circulating graphic images captured and uploaded by Smartphone which apparently depict the death of a Yapen former political prisoner named, Yawan Wayeni. The activists claim that they risked their lives to photograph Wayeni after he had been shot three times and bayoneted by Indonesian police. The photos show him collapsing with bodily organs hanging out; then he falls unconscious.

Whether the event is accurate or why Indonesian authorities would do this is a vital subject for investigation by the international community. However, there is no doubt that Melanesian activists have proven the great potential for new media. From image capture in a frontline village to online distribution to the international community though dozens of online sites, the effort demonstrated the incredible opportunity for ordinary people who live in the bush to communicate with the world through new technology.

Prior to this, in March 2008, activists from the West Papua National Authority led by Jack Wainggai held major peaceful demonstrations in Manokwari and across Papua calling for a referendum to determine Papua’s future.  Indonesian police arrested eleven of them and charged them with makar, or rebellion, for this and for raising the banned Morning Star flag, which is a symbol for the secessionist movement.

Several mobile phones were smuggled into prison, and photos of the prison conditions and evidence of torture were sent to the world. This created major and sustained international attention and pressure on Indonesia for not just the case of the Manokwari Eleven, but for political prisoners across Papua.

Haluk has also been at the receiving end of regular death threats and harassment from security forces after his communications were intercepted.  But those same tools can be put to good use.

“Online and mobile advocacy helps us significantly.  When I was arrested by [Indonesian authorities] in April this year [for my work], friends from international networks were able to campaign directly for my release to the Police Chief and Government here and in Jakarta,” he explained.

In yet another complex dimension to this story, the Indonesian government also runs the mobile phone networks and internet service providers. In providing mobile communication for its own operations and business interests, it has provided cellular infrastructure in some quite remote locations. These areas, like some oil palm plantations or logging coupes, are the frontline of depredations against the civilian population. A wise, and well-funded military, would create a separate military communications infrastructure to conduct its operations, but in more places, local people are piggy-backing the infrastructure to expose abuses.

The Indonesian military’s notoriety for skimming profits has ensured that the opportunity to make more money from the Papuans was too attractive to resist, and so it encouraged the take up of prepaid mobile phones. This delicious irony is precisely the one that the new generation of tech savvy crew exploits, knowing full well the Indonesian authority can’t shut down its networks for fear of not making more money.

With guidance from indigenous churches who have made communications literacy one of the mainstays of the “Papua: Land of Peace” strategy, local people are using technology to disseminate, advocate, and agitate for respect of their human security.

Not waiting for the rest of the world to come to the rescue, many sectors of Papuan society spontaneously and independently began a dramatic take-up of social media technology, something which has exponentially increased since 2008.  Blogs, social networking and online media outlets are being utilized all over the country, encouraged by the emergence of a generation who came into adulthood after the Papuan Spring of 1999-2000.

At the beginning of 2008 there were probably about twenty Papua news sites and blogs; today there are over 3000. Even high school students have start strident pro-independence blogs, and used their social media to express themselves in many creative ways. Whilst not specifically created with an independence platform, most media springing up is taking on that form as a natural extension of Papuan aspirations.

Whilst all Papuans inherently want to exercise their fundamental human right of self determination, most people just want to live their lives free from state violence, and are gaining confidence daily in their ability to speak out.

Whilst digital activists were getting more savvy with the type of technology they were using, there remain significant risks.  Before the very recent advent of mobile internet access in Papua, the vast majority of Papuans had to brave military guarded internet kiosks.   Now many churches, schools and universities, at least in or near urban areas, have access.

Markus Haluk shares the concern of risk.  “Too many people do put their names to online activism openly, without the least care to their safety.  They know that the sender can be identified.”

However, many grassroots activists said that they are also unconcerned.  “What does it matter?  We are already dead under Indonesia, better dying trying to create change than staying silent.  We cannot always wait for technology,”said Moses, an online activist from the West Coast.

Tools are being developed according to Papuan needs for a wide variety of applications, and do not have to be restricted to just documenting abuses.  International help is required to make them safe, simple, and stable.

Live Images, video and online activism have the potential to create tremendous momentum in the awareness of the situation inside Papua, and have certainly already created much movement for international action.  By creating their own media, and their own narrative, Papuan people are reclaiming self determination denied for so long.


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