Cry the Morning Star: West Papuan struggle and identity in the face of Annihilation

talk by Nick Chesterfield at First Nations Struggles,
2nd Latin American and Asia Pacific Solidarity Gathering
Sunday October 22, 2006

I bring you warm greetings of struggle from the Land of the Bird of Paradise, the first peoples of which have been fighting for 44 years against the brutality of Indonesian militarism and colonialism upon their Sacred Land. As a man of proud Kaurna descent, I acknowledge the generosity of custodianship of the traditional owners of country on which I now stand, the Wurundjeri of the Kulin nations, and especially the welcome to country that has been provided to West Papuan people in this Land.I thank and am humbled also for the opportunity to talk to this inspiring gathering for proud indigenous warriors for peace and justice, and activists from both sides of our Pacific. It is slightly ironic that today we are looking at West Papuan identity and I have to deliver an apology from West Papuan speakers for not being able to speak. However, I, as a man connected through song and ancient blood to West Papuan people, am speaking here in solidarity with West Papua. It is up to us all here to remind the world that we believe in what our ocean describes us as. I hope we can make some effective and lasting connections so we can take on the forces together that make indigenous people’s lives hell right across the Asia Pacific region.I would like to start this with a little story of the Land that reinforced in my understanding the connection of Papuans to land and all in it, and to a strong and shared indigenous identity that defines their struggle for freedom.Last June I was running through the forests on a harrowing refugee mission across the West Papuan border, when I came to a strong realisation about the timelessness of West Papuan identity.

At the time, we were meeting refugees to take on a final crossing who after weeks literally running for their lives finally rested in a safe(ish) place. The TNI – the Indonesian military – were after the group, and we had just emerged from an area that had seen massive human rights abuses and removal of people from their land and put into concentration camps. Exhausted, all our crew collapsed just inside PNG knowing that for now the TNI would not be shooting at us tonight. Too tired and unsafe still to start a cooking fire, we – West Papuans, PNG people and myself – tried to relax. Into our camp, a blue tongue lizard came and lay between our group as we were lying in the forest avoiding the Indonesian Army patrols across the valley.

As the Maltanuangga (in my language group) came between us, one of the students remarked “that is my brother”. “Mine too” said a old friend from the inside, “our name is nungga” . “Narapela brata bilong mi tu,” from my brother. I looked at them all in delayed but acceptant shock, as that is my skin also, even the same word across thousands of kiolmetres, and wondered at the situation that developed in the middle of the jungle. Same mission, same dreaming, all of us lizard brought together in the same place, connected by storylines far more ancient than any invader has even had a culture, let alone an alien presence in our land.

Re-energised, we all sang our song together, same tune, different languages. We were aware of ceremony having the same form, and very quietly we all danced the same dance. It was a realisation that even after 44 years of genocide on West Papuan people, and over 236 years of genocide on my ancestors, (not to mention 8000 years of water) we still shared the same law and song. It connected me to the identity of struggle and realised as long as West Papuan people survived, they would resist.

West Papuan people are surviving despite attempted genocide, although this will not be the case if left unchallenged. But in the face of annihilation, even survival is a profound act of resistance. It is almost impossible to gain an accurate picture of the extent of genocide, due to, the fact that the Indonesian military ruthlessly forbids outsiders from conducting effective research into human rights abuses. The TNI routinely target both indigenous and Indonesian human rights workers, with many of our colleagues having been killed and arrested. The internationally agreed death toll since the invasion in 1962 directly attributable to violent means is a minimum of 100,000 -200,000 people. However if one considers that since 1962, the populations of PNG and West Papua were neck and neck at 1.2 million people. Today, PNG has a population of 5.7 million, yet West Papua has an indigenous population of 1.7 million people. What has happened to the rest? It is a question those who deny the scale of abuse must answer.

Right across West Papua, people are intensifying and asserting their right to their own identity, from knowing the world is finally beginning to pay attention to their immense suffering. West Papuan people have suffered from a daily marginalisation in their own land that makes apartheid look just, and West Papuans are routinely subjected to harassment, arbitrary arrest, imprisonment, torture, extra judicial killings. There is a systematic pattern of abuse and routine crimes against humanity that constitute clear acts of genocide.

However, most powerful is the force of cultural identity that challenges the very core of the occupation. The TNI are so threatened by West Papuans finding pride in who they are, that they brutally suppress any display or reverence for indigenous culture, including punishing people for speaking their languages.

Things that are uniquely Melanesian are always held up as symbols for freedom in West Papua. Key in the formation of the West Papuan national identity is the unifying story of the morning star. The Morning Star Flag is a potent symbol of resistance that West Papuans regularly are killed and arrested for. Little wonder the Morning Star has became a symbol of freedom, a representation of independence, and of a longing to be at home in one’s own land. There is a powerful creation story of Kumeseri – the Morning Star – in the Biak language. Legend has it that Manarmakeri, a humble village man, caught Kumeseri as the heavenly light descended to earth to drink palm wine. Manarmakeri struck a bargain with the star, receiving the gift of peace and renewal in return for letting Kumeseri go. Refusing to keep the gift for his tribe alone, Manarmakeri left West Papua on a journey to garner support for a new age of freedom, peace, and justice. Simply showing the morning star can bring death by TNI.

The perfect ilustration of this is the case of Filip Karma. Arrested in 2004, he was gaoled for 15 years with Yusak Pakage for treason. He suffered extreme beatings, torture and a rigged trial. His Crime? Peacefully raising the Morning Star Flag in Abepura on Decemeber 1st, 2004.
One of the most dearly loved figures in West Papuan resistance was the renowned musician and anthropologist, Arnold Ap. Ap was disturbed at the gradual erosion of Papuan identity through ethnic cleansing occurring, especially with the genocidal transmigration policy filling up Papua at the time with Javanese Islamic immigrants.

Ap formed the cultural group “Mambesak”, meaning Bird of Paradise in the Biak language – the symbol of the island of Papua itself – to proudly sing and dance traditional songs in language and in traditional clothing. He had been arrested and threatened repeatedly by the military for daring to give pride to something they wanted wiped out, and he knew that that his days were coming to a close. Just before he was murdered, he recorded in his prison cell his last song, ‘The Mystery of Life’. ‘The only thing I desire and am waiting for’, Ap sung in the closing words of the song, ‘is nothing else but freedom’. Like his music and life, the words came from the heart and gave voice to a desire that was at once personal and political, particular to his situation, but shared by all West Papuans. When Arnold Ap first began his work, however, many failed to understand his true purpose. ‘Maybe you think what I am doing is stupid’, he once said, ‘but it is what I think I should do for my people before I die’. Yet Arnold Ap knew something of the animating spirit of Papua that shaped and inspired his people. Mambesak’s simple underlying truth was that ‘we are Melanesians and this is our land’;

(Paragraph With thanks to Alex Rayfield, “Singing for Life”, Inside Indonesia 78

“We must Sing for Life. Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.”

Like singing for life, the carefully planned operation that resulted in the arrival on Cape York of the outrigger canoe with 43 West Papuan asylum seekers – one for each year of occupation – in January was also formulated as a cultural action, as well as a international non-violent action. The boat, made from one tree selected 18 months before the voyage, was made to the same design, and even made in the same shipyard, as the boats that the Polynesians peopled the Pacific with. The boat was intended to inspire people across the Pacific, and by using indigenous knowledge we all managed to outsmart every foil put in the way. During the search and rescue I was asked by the Navy at a 2 am coordination phone hook up how I was so confident they would find their way across. I just replied, “the Morning Star guides them, as it has for tens of thousands of years. They have only been doing that crossing for 8000 years, they are just returning to their old place. You mob have only had 200 years, and you still don’t know the currents. Remember whose land this is.” They could not argue with that. And they found them sitting happily under a tree. The outrigger certainly did the trick, and caused the necessary attention to show what is happening in West Papua.

In May, I was sent inside to locate and assist 600 students – the entire West Papuan student population – to get to safety across to PNG, but we only successfully made contact with 125 of these. The rest were either imprisoned, or unaccounted for, with up to 200 still feared dead. The stories I heard were ones of sheer terror and harrowing survival, even for a man who has heard and seen too much. Young indigenous People who were targeted for no other reason than their identity as Papuan people and that maybe some of them had been involved in peacefully demonstrating their opposition to the destruction of their country by the giant Freeport copper and gold mine, the largest mine on Earth.

There are conservative estimates that tens of thousands of people have been killed by the TNI security forces since the 1970s in the Freeport project area, funded at over US$50 million per year by Freeport McMoRan. The environmental devastation wreaked by the company is unparalleled, with poisoned tailings washed into the Ajikwa river, poisoning all animal and plant life in its path and wider, and destroying medicine and food sources for the Kamoro and Amungme peoples. The tailings mess is even visible from space. West Papua was invaded by Indonesia for this gold mine which provides 49% of Indonesian revenue, not including the bribes paid to the military.

On March 16 of this year, students and indigenous people from right across West Papua took dramatic action highlight the plunder of their Land by the Rio Tinto owned Freeport mine. According to the students interviewed in the border area, they took action to demand the Indonesian government and Freeport stop operations in Timika. It turned violent, with 5 agents provocateur killed by the crowd in a defensive action. The military, incensed at this challenge to their 43 years of impunity, responded in its usual brutality by issuing orders to take out the movement and attacked all the students, hunting down every last student in West Papua. It was a blatant attempt to massacre an entire generation of indigenous people defending their Land.

Most international commentators fail to grasp the importance of land to Papuan people. Careful custodianship and respect for Land is absolutely central to Melanesian identity, and those who seek to damage it for the future and considered akin to those who would rob and beat their grandmother. Land is Life in Melanesia, it is that simple. All this compounds the tragedy that is happening right across West Papua, not just with mining, but with 27 of the world’s most lucrative natural resources in large quantities present, what hope is there for those who seek to protect their Land? The corporations plundering there we all know well: Freeport /Rio Tinto, BP, Bechtel, Halliburton, BHP Billiton, the usual suspects. Even urban West Papuans are deeply hurt by the destruction of their land. One West Papuan told me that the reason the outsider is so brutal to Papuans is simply because they are in the way. In the way of a Mountain of Gold sitting on an Ocean of Oil.

We uncovered evidence within the northern border regions of systematic campaign of forest peoples being “cleared” from the forest during military run illegal logging operations, with many being killed. It is ironic that this is the same terminology they used on my ancestors. The military then takes them to central concentration camps which are inaccessible unless you have a pass, and the local people are not allowed out, with no access to health care or even basic sanitation. There is a word for forcible removal of populations on the basis of race, and I think we all know what this is. All of this is to fulfil the order for 800 million cubic metres of merbau timber, for the Chinese Olympic stadium. Destruction of people and planet for two weeks of drugged up sport.

It takes indigenous people to show that if you disrupt the balance of what is, you put the very existence of all life on earth at threat. Case in point is with the Indonesian military controlled illegal logging of the largest area of ancient rainforest on Earth. Not only are the military backed loggers committing crimes against humanity, but crimes against the planet and all our future. Being the natural generator the Asia Pacific monsoonal cycle, it does not take a rocket scientist to understand what happens if we lose any more forest in Papua. No Monsoon, no rain in China or Australia. No crops, no food. No food, no economy. No China buying our resources, no food to feed Australia. No water. With 2 billion hungry people in China – and we think we have global security issues now! Simply the naked self interest of our own human survival compels us to take action in defence of what West Papuans are trying to defend.

However, there are those in Australian public life, very closely linked not just the Indonesian military but with big business interests like Rio Tinto, who seek to cloud the facts of what is happening on the ground. It is in their interests to deny the scale of suffering so they can rip the natural resources out of Papua away from international concern. It is a powerful force, loosely termed the Jakarta Lobby. Recently, West Papua supporters have been made out by the Jakarta Lobby to be muddle headed idealists with no understanding of the strategic realities of the region. The Lowy institute report “Pitfalls of Papua”, written by a Jakarta Lobby academic, Rodd McGibbon, says that the pro-Jakarta forces have lost the battle of public opinion with the “West Papua Constituency”, with a national news poll finding that 76.7 % of Australians supported self-determination for West Papua. It urges the government to engage in the battle of ideas to counter our “Undue influence in the operations of Government in the Asia Pacific region”. If only they realised that full time West Papua activists in this country can really be counted on two hands. Myself and other comrades are heavily attacked with slander and innuendo, yet nowhere is there anything concrete apart from character assasination. However, nowhere in Pitfalls does McGibbon actually deny the scale of corruption and human rights abuses by the security forces and Indonesian government. It is interesting that after McGibbon completed his report, he was made Deputy Director of the Office of National Assessments, the highest spy agency in the country. We should be flattered really.

There seems to be no actual consideration whatsoever to the views of and the impact upon individual Papuan lives. The implied tone of this report is one of a return to white colonialist policy, as once again, never are the interests of West Papuan people even canvassed, let alone taken into account. It is all about the interests of the Dutch, the Americans, Australia, and the invaders, Indonesia. Someone is missing from the picture of determining the future of West Papua. But who could those people be?

Ah, that is right. West Papuans. It is only their country that they have been custodians of for over 20,000 years. Damn pesky black people, always getting in the way of resource theft, empires and white men. As a long term activist for indigenous peoples, and a man of Kaurna heritage, I have to say “Bloody whitefella: You take a country over and kill a people, and then tell everyone else, well we did it, so you can too.” Well some of us don’t believe that any more, whitefellas too.

It is vital that people in Australia and across the Pacific take action to stand with West Papua. After all, we are suffering from the same corporations, the same shared history of white man (and their Javanese proxy) greed, the same threat to the survival of life on Earth itself.

But finally I will close with the word of two inspirational figures in The Struggle for freedom in West Papua, John and Jacob Rumbiak.

“This is not the struggle of West Papuans alone, but for all those who believe in respect for other human beings and their cultures and in respect and reverence for this beautiful planet on which we all depend for life.”

“We win today, because we start today”
Free West Papua! Papua Merdeka!

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