West Papua rising: artists under the Occupation

‘Singing is the most popular thing in West Papua. We sing every day and every night … and in the afternoons,’ seven year old Lamech Mora informed me. I met Lamech one Saturday lunchtime in a Brunswick Street café. He sat apparently absorbed in his screen, while never missing a beat in the conversation between his mother, West Papuan activist and Black Orchid String Band member Emilia Wainggai, and me.

Lamech might have been born in Australia, but West Papua, where he has travelled twice already, is clearly his heartland. He is proud that his grandfather made his own home in Jayapura ‘out of metal and wood’ and, despite his mother’s challenge, is in no doubt that he can understand his grandparents perfectly when they speak to him in their native Ambai. And Lamech made sure I appreciated that he too is a member of Black Orchid: ‘I sing and play the bongo’.

I had been delighted to accept Emilia’s invitation to catch up, as the current situation for writers and artists in West Papua was the theme of this essay. And since I planned to take photographs, I had asked her to bring something that best evoked for her West Papua and its struggle for independence. Emilia’s response was to bring her treasured son, resplendent in his Morning Star flag jacket.

I had first met Emilia, briefly, at a West Papuan fundraiser organised by the Australia West Papua Association, which I had attended out of a mounting sense of disquiet.

When Joko Widodo became president of Indonesia in July 2014, he committed to widespread improvements in human rights, and like so many others, I had hoped that this would translate into long-overdue changes for the oppressed indigenous people of West Papua. Yet two years on there was still little evidence of that. The dearth of reporting from this most opaque of countries suggested that the local press was still locked down and that the borders were still closed to international journalists.

One item in the Australian media particularly fuelled my concern about the Indonesian repression of freedom of expression and treatment of Indigenous artists, even those at a distance. Written by Stephanie Zillman for the ABC News, the article was titled ‘West Papua flag mural in Darwin remains intact despite criticism from Indonesian Consul’. Painted by Larrakia elder Juni Mills on a building in the CBD, the large mural depicts the Morning Star and the Aboriginal flags with two dark-skinned hands reaching out to each other in solidarity. Controversy ignited when ‘external pressure’ from an unidentified source was applied to have the mural removed. Many people remain sceptical of Indonesian consul Andre Siregar’s denial of involvement in the proposed obliteration of the ‘offensive’ artwork.

Finally, on receiving a transcript from Jason MacLeod of the West Papua Project my disquiet deepened even further. The transcript, a ‘collective narrative testimony’, is based on interviews of West Papuans conducted over the last twelve years. The transcript was compiled by Jason in collaboration with fellow Australian David Denborough, together with West Papuan activists and survivors of the 1998 Biak Massacre, Mama Tineke and Daniel Rayer. The document underpinned a dance, musical and vocal performance staged at the April 2016 Conference of the Australian Association of Pacific Studies in Cairns.

It suggests that for many West Papuans nothing has changed:

Injustices continue to this day. Today we face human rights violations, economic injustice, and every week thousands more migrants come in white ships and planes. We have become a minority in our own land. So much is already controlled by the coloniser. Our biggest fear is that we will all but disappear as a people.

The testimonies were so compelling – how I wished I had been in Cairns to see the performance – that I decided to seek out members of the West Papuan community here in Melbourne. I wanted to speak directly to them and hear first hand what life is like for Indigenous people in West Papua today, and how these writers and artists are faring. The fundraiser provided exactly that opportunity.

When Emilia introduced herself at the fundraiser, she explained that she was the sister of Herman Wainggai, the guest of honour, a prominent Free West Papua speaker and writer who had been in and out of Indonesian gaols for years. The goal of the fundraiser was to pay for his living expenses. Herman, who attended the event via Skype, currently lives in the United States in order to have better access to the United Nations General Assembly, to which he regularly appeals on behalf of his homeland for support in the independence struggle.

Before the malfunctioning Skype connection broke down completely, I managed to ask Herman how his country’s writers and artists are doing. He referred me to the Indonesian Government regulation number 77 2007, in which any expression of West Papuan culture or symbol of independence, especially the Morning Star flag, are prohibited. Herman concluded diplomatically: ‘I am hoping that the new government under President Joko Widodo will allow West Papuan artists and writers to express themselves freely’. I thought his use of the future tense telling.

What I began to notice during the event was that every time I asked a West Papuan participant about the situation for writers or artists I was greeted with a somewhat bemused reaction. It was as if singling out the fate of particular individuals in this communal society was a foreign concept. When I appealed later to Emilia for help in understanding this, she said simply: ‘In my country everybody is a writer or an artist’. I wondered where that left me and my quest.

I had assumed that West Papuan writers and artists would be published or exhibited, have an identity and reputation within the community, and therefore be reasonably easy for me to locate and investigate, as would be the case in Australia. But while opportunities for West Papuans to be published at home are gradually expanding – more on that later – what I understood from Emilia was that in her country creative expression is not simply identified with or limited to particular groups. That was why for her and her compatriots my question made little sense. Clearly it was time to change tack.

When I stopped to think about it, I realised that Emilia’s assertion was correct, that creative expression permeates West Papuan culture. As Lamech indicated, singing is one key example; dancing is another. And like so many Indigenous cultures with strong oral traditions, these performance arts have also always doubled as effective means of communication, never more so than when a community is under attack, as in West Papua during the last fifty years. As one of the witnesses from the West Papua project put it:

Despite all the injustices we have faced, we are survivors and we have many skills. We are wise about when to speak, when to stay quiet, and when to sing our songs. Some of these songs were written in prison for the future of West Papua. Some of our singers have been arrested and murdered. But we continue to sing freedom. We also have our dances. We wear our traditional dress, and dance traditional Papuan dances. Our Papuan culture helps us to love and care for one another. When we live inside our culture we are free.

The most famous composer of all, clearly referenced in this testimony, was the West Papuan patriot, anthropologist and freedom fighter Arnold Ap, as omnipresent in West Papua as Che Guevara is in Cuba.

In the 1970s, recognising the political danger inherent in the arts, the Indonesian Government banned West Papuan music. So Ap scoured the countryside recording music and song in as many languages as possible. He aimed to unify tribes whose 250 different languages had previously made political cohesion impossible. He was immensely successful in this, and his initiative ensured that music and dancing became integral to the struggle against the Occupation.

But Ap didn’t stop at recording. He also established a music group, Mambesak, to popularise singing in Indigenous languages. The group showcased multi-talented artists playing drums and ukuleles and guitars introduced by American servicemen stationed in Papua during the Second World War. Mambesak also featured the glorious four-part harmonies typical of Melanesian culture.

Tragically, along with so many others, Ap eventually lost his life in the struggle for West Papuan independence. Imprisoned ‘on suspicion of subversion’, he was shot in the back in 1984 while ‘attempting to escape’. Only hours before, he had penned these final lyrics to ‘The Mystery of Life’: ‘The only thing I desire and am waiting for is nothing else but freedom’.

But while Ap himself is no longer with us, his legacy endures. Although the band was outlawed, bootlegged cassette tapes of Mambesak performances are still treasured and circulated from the coast to the highlands. The band also spawned other music groups, like the famous Black Brothers, equally committed to disseminating West Papuan culture and languages and promoting independence.

In true West Papuan style, which would have delighted Ap, these groups are still today characterised by a web of interconnections, a veritable ‘who’s who’ of musicians, composers and activists from the region. This is definitely the case with the Melbourne-based Black Orchid String Band, many of whose members, including Emilia, arrived together in 2006 in a boat seeking asylum in Australia and have remained closely affiliated ever since.

When Emilia began telling me her story in the café she started with her connections and lineage. I realised just how characteristic that was. West Papuans all seem to know, or at least know of, each other. I couldn’t help thinking how doubly hard it must be to bear injustices when they are happening to people who matter so much to you. As one of the testifiers in the West Papua project put it: ‘We have always remembered those who were killed. We will remember them until we die’. Unfortunately, long memories coupled with strong connections are a gift to oppressors. Fear becomes embedded in the family and community narrative, making repression easier – especially when threats are ever present.

This was Emilia’s description of the origins and current impact of fear on herself and her family:

‘My uncle, Dr Thomas Wainggai, was a writer, a speaker and a leader. He was killed [in a Jakarta gaol in 1996] and then my family was targeted. The police, the intelligence, are always following us…’

‘You don’t even know they are behind you’, chipped in Lamech.

Emilia continued: ‘I’m always in the front line here in Australia when we are protesting, so I warn my family [in case the military should hear of it] to go to a different village for a while’.

At the fundraiser, another guest speaker, Andreu Arinyo i Prats, had highlighted the same issue: ‘Everyone in West Papua has lost someone, so they are all afraid of the police and the military’.

As he had flown in from West Papua the very day of the fundraiser, Andreu, a young citizen journalist from Valencia Spain, had invaluable insights to offer.

Determined to put to the test the rhetoric about the easing of restrictions for journalists in West Papua, Andreu had decided to photograph a student-organised protest march on 10 July, 2016 in the capital Jayapura. He no sooner took his first picture than he was arrested. He tells the full story on his blog.

Andreu eventually managed to extricate himself by convincing his captors that he was just a bumbling tourist.

On his experiences in West Papua, Andreu concluded: ‘I lost one and a half days of my life. Indonesia is a democracy, not a dictatorship anymore, but still it is prohibited to take photos of demonstrations. The new president of Indonesia says that things should change. But they haven’t yet’.

Check Andreu’s blog to see a photo of the marchers that he took surreptitiously. In defiance of the law, some people appear wearing their national flag, while others have the image of the Morning Star painted on their faces or bodies or woven into their nokens [string bags]. There are also men naked except for their banned highland kotekas [penis covers].

Despite their fears, some local people are tired of waiting for the Indonesian Government to make good its promises and instead are taking things into their own hands. And the world of writing and publishing is no exception. Self-published works are beginning to appear, and several courageous editors and publishers are taking a public stand on freedom of expression.

Reverend Benny Giay of Deiyai Publishing is one such person who, despite monitoring, harassment and even death threats, brought a cherished project to fruition in December 2014. Over a two-year period Giay had conducted a series of interviews in prison with Filep Karma. Before his release in 2015, West Papua’s most famous political prisoner had spent a decade incarcerated for declaring his aspirations for Papuan independence. Giay’s interviews culminated in a book, As If We Are Half Animals: Indonesian Racism In the Land of Papua. At the launch of Karma’s book, Giay bravely went on record: ‘President Joko Widodo must end all racism and discrimination in the land of Papua … [and allow] independent journalists to visit Papua’.

The West Papua Daily (Supporting West Papua’s Independent Media with a Global Voice) displays a logo which says it all – ‘Stand for Press Freedom’. In an article written on 21 June, 2016, staffer Victor Mambor described the dispute journalists were engaged in with local police over independence of the press. He reported that this reaction from his editor could not have been more supportive: ‘Journalist is assigned to cover the fact of ongoing event, any KNPB (National Committee for West Papua) rally was real happening, doesn’t matter if it was legal or not we should keep reporting it’.

It is not only within West Papua itself that the Morning Star is rising. There are growing signs of support for West Papuan independence internationally as well. Of particular significance was the decision of the Melanesian Spearhead Group in June 2015 to award West Papua observer status. This was done despite Indonesian opposition and reinforces the West Papuan argument that they are of Melanesian, not Indonesian, descent and should therefore be independent of Indonesia.

Despite the imposition of a half-century-long information embargo, West Papuans within and outside the country have always worked hard to alert the wider world to their plight. They have done this in a variety of ways: through traditional avenues, like singing and dancing and, increasingly, though still on a small-scale, through writing. And true to their oral tradition, they have been speaking publicly, as at the fundraiser, or one-on-one (or rather two-on-one) as when Emilia and Lamech spoke to me.

West Papuans are desperate to get their stories out there and I would love to have given voice to all the stories I heard. I can feel them nudging my elbow as I write this. But for now it seems only fitting to leave the last word to Emilia:

‘West Papua is a very hot issue at the moment. There is going to be the right time coming. We have been fighting for over fifty years now. I am not Indonesian. I want to go back to West Papua with Lamech when we get our independence – to live a simple life, freely and at peace.’   


Image: Musicians in the West Papuan Highlands / Music Freedom Report




This essay was originally commissioned by Pen Melbourne.            



Sue Jackson

Sue Jackson is a therapist, writer, photographer and activist. Find her writing at her website: suejackson.com.au.

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