Thursday, March 21, 2013

Freedom in Entangled Worlds: West Papua and the Architecture of Global Power

Freedom in Entangled Worlds: West Papua and the Architecture of Global Power

Review by Ed McWilliams for ETAN

Duke University Press, 2012, 305 pp., $25 paperback 

Available from ETAN, order here.

Freedom in Entangled World: West Papua and the Architecture of Global Power There is perhaps no more remote struggle for human dignity and fundamental rights, including the right to self-determination, than that of the West Papuan people who for millennia have made their homes on what since 1963 been the Indonesian-controlled Western half of the island of New Guinea. The absence of significant international awareness of the Papuan struggle reflects in part its off-the-beaten path location. But the international community's general ignorance of the decades-long suffering of the Papuan people under Indonesian occupation largely derives from its successful efforts to hide its inhumane actions there. For decades Indonesia has imposed harsh restrictions on travel to West Papua by international journalists and human rights investigators. Indonesia closed the office of the International Committee of the Red Cross in 2009 and is currently blocking a previously agreed visit by the UN's Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression. Indonesian governments for nearly 50 years have cleverly employed diplomatic leverage to keep the plight of the Papuans off the international agenda.

This is why Eben Kirksey's new book Freedom in Entangled Worlds: West Papua and the Architecture of Global Power is so important. Kirksey, a Professor at University of New South Wales in Sydney, skillfully employs his extensive travel within the area -- trips made despite Indonesian efforts to restrict his activities -- and his fluency in Bahasa Indonesian and working knowledge of several Papuan languages to present a richly detailed analysis based on innovative anthropological approaches. 

Kirksey explores the Papuan people's struggle for self-determination using a multiplicity of approaches. He looks carefully at Papuans collaboration with Indonesian state institutions, under conditions of military occupation and extreme power asymmetry. Not surprisingly, collaboration has often led to cooptation of the nearly powerless Papuans. Kirksey argues, however, that such collaboration, if imbued with "imagination embracing sweeping transformations on future horizons. Imaginative dreams [can] bring surprising prospects into view.... Clever engagement can bring specific goals within reach, even when collaborators do not share the same interests." He adds, "It is possible to maneuver for rights and justice in compromised situations."
The disillusionment in West Papua was more severe as security forces launched targeted assassinations and "sweeping operations" that devastated the lives of ordinary Papuans, especially in rural areas.

Inevitably, powerful interests turn on their nearly powerless collaborators, abandoning commitments, and even murdering individuals who have outlived their usefulness. Moreover, years of collaboration, absent a clear and articulated vision of the future only undermines local leadership. Kirksey cites widely respected Papuan theologian and cultural anthropologist Dr. Benny Giay who condemns churches, the Indonesian government, and foreign corporations for fostering the notion that "the Messiah or others animated by a messianic spirit will usher in a better future." Giay told Kirksey, "West Papuans have been left in the waiting room, waiting for outsiders to bring peace, happiness and justice."

Even the lightly-armed Papuan resistance inevitably has fallen into relationships with Indonesian power brokers, notably including the security forces. The Indonesian military has long employed the purported threat of the armed resistance to extort both the central government and foreign corporations for funds to expand its presence in West Papua. This presence has facilitated extensive legal and illegal military (and national police) businesses that exploit West Papua's vast mineral, timber and other resources. Kirksey details how the military's interests used a purported security threat to intimidate then Vice President Megawati Sukarnoputri during her visit to the region after which she and then President Gus Dur pursued antagonistic policies toward West Papua.

Perhaps the signature betrayal of the Papuan people was the failure of reformasi, the brief period of reform that swept across Indonesia after the overthrow of three-decade dictatorship of Suharto. However, Kirksey writes that it soon became clear that the "human rights abuses, corruption, nepotism, poor labor conditions and a host of other injustices" would continue at the direction of a reconstituted elite built around the Indonesian military. The disillusionment in West Papua was more severe as security forces launched targeted assassinations and "sweeping operations" that devastated the lives of ordinary Papuans, especially in rural areas.

Within a year of his taking office the military had abandoned President Gus Dur, the only Indonesian president to show sympathy for the West Papuans, in favor of the much more pliable and anti-Papuan Vice President Megawati. The government's betrayal of West Papua took concrete form in 2001 with "Special Autonomy" which purported to grant Papuans greater political autonomy and a share of the massive wealth extracted from their land. But the new revenues were instead absorbed by Indonesian-run administrative expansion and schemes aimed at ethnically cleansing Papua by introducing migrants from elsewhere in the archipelago.

The United States government, as Kirksey details, also betrayed the West Papuans (and America's commitment to justice) by siding with the Indonesian military in a complex 2002 case in which two American and an Indonesian teachers were murdered near the massive Freeport-McMoran copper and gold mining operation. Evidence developed by Kirksey and local human rights researchers (and surprisingly in the initial Indonesian police investigation) pointed strongly to a direct hand of Indonesian security forces in the killings. The U.S. FBI, after long delays imposed by Indonesian authorities, pursued an investigation that ignored the politically-inconvenient evidence of an Indonesian military role and settled on a theory that scapegoated the small Papuan armed resistance. This betrayal echoed the fundamental U.S. betrayal of the "New York Agreement," through which the U.S. government and the UN forced a turnover of Papua to rule by Jakarta in 1962.

There is a myth that Westerners will come to save the people of West Papua. We must throw out this myth.

Kirksey quotes Giay on the betrayal of the West (especially the U.S.): "There is a myth that Westerners will come to save the people of West Papua. We must throw out this myth. ... Look at America that sees itself as the teacher of democracy and human rights in the world -- still in remote areas [the U.S. firm] Freeport McMoran cultivates intimate relations with state security forces that are destroying the West Papuan people."

But Kirksey argues compellingly that on some occasions Papuans have successfully exploited the space separating the interests of their much more powerful corporate and government collaborators to advance Papuan goals. In 2000, Papuans drew on financial support from corporations to stage a massive congress which for a time appeared to bring unity and purpose to the Papuan struggle.
Ultimately, Kirksey expresses cautious hope: The emerging generation in West Papua has been "more careful in its coalition building," and it is "wrapping their freedom dreams around the architecture of the modern world system," he writes.

Kirksey's highly-analytical, richly-detailed account of the international, Indonesian and local power realities that underly the current Papuan People's struggle is groundbreaking. No sound understanding of that struggle is possible without this analysis.

Edmund McWilliams is a retired U.S. Foreign Service Officer who served as the Political Counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta 1996-1999. He received the American Foreign Service Association’s Christian Herter Award for creative dissent by a senior foreign service official. He is a member of the West Papua Advocacy Team and a consultant with the East Timor and Indonesia Action Network (ETAN).

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