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People have fought against repression in Papua through many avenues. Misael Noel/EPA

How telling stories through art and music helps West Papuans heal from decades of abuse

Protests have gripped the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua in the past month.

A flare up last week saw at least 33 people killed and dozens more injured in Wamena, Papua.

This latest violence by security forces and pro-Indonesian civilian militias against Indigenous West Papuans is not an isolated event. The people of Papua have experienced decades of violence against them from Indonesian forces.

Indonesia has maintained a military occupation of the resource-rich territory of West Papua since 1963. In the recent demonstrations, Indigenous Papuans have protested against their characterisation by Indonesian authorities as primitive and animal-like.

Under the occupation, Papuans have also been subject to a grim list of horrors including torture, rape, killings, land dispossession and cultural desecration.

Many Papuans have sought justice against this repression, including through peaceful protest and diplomacy. But in doing so, they have suffered brutal repercussions.

The ‘Biak Massacre’

A particularly bloody example of how Indonesian security forces respond to Papuan calls to end the occupation can be seen in the little-known 1998 “Biak Massacre”.

In 1998, from July 2 to July 6, a large number of West Papuans flew their outlawed nationalist Morning Star flag from the water tower in the centre of town on the Papuan island of Biak. They had peacefully gathered to pray and demonstrate for freedom from Indonesian occupation.

In retaliation, Indonesian security forces opened fire on the crowd, killing up to 200 Papuans and dumping their mutilated bodies at sea. The perpetrators of these acts have never been held accountable.

Seeking justice

In 2013, a small group of West Papuan, Indonesian, and Australian-based academics, of which I was a part, decided to bring the atrocities committed during the Biak Massacre 15 years previously to international attention. We did so by holding a citizens tribunal at the University of Sydney.

A citizens tribunal is a public hearing, trying alleged perpetrators (whether they are in attendance or not), in the court of public opinion.

It has no legal standing, but can raise public awareness of a crime committed in a different jurisdiction. Such tribunals provide a platform for victims to voice their experiences when they have otherwise been ignored.

The Australian government has signed the 2006 Lombok Treaty, stating that it will not interfere with political matters internal to Indonesia. But we believed the Biak Massacre should not be kept a secret.

We brought survivors of the Biak Massacre to Sydney to testify about their experiences. We also engaged several high-profile Australian jurists to examine the evidence against the Indonesian security forces involved.

The jurists found that the Indonesian government attempted to “downplay the seriousness of the actions perpetrated by its own forces” and has made no effort to take action “against any persons for the crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated against innocent civilians”.

We presented the findings of the tribunal to a cross-section of Australian members of parliament (MPs) in Canberra to make them aware of the kinds of military actions being carried out in Indonesia against Indigenous West Papuans.

One of the tribunal witnesses, Mama Tineke Rumakabu, who had been sexually abused and tortured during the massacre, testified about her experiences to the politicians.

Although the Australian Government did not abandon the Lombok Treaty, as we had hoped, the MPs were visibly shocked by our reports and Rumakabu’s account.

Words and music for healing

Testimonies from survivors about what happened during the massacre, how it has affected their lives, and how they continue to advocate for the future of their country, became one of the most powerful parts of the tribunal experience.

Equally moving were the West Papuan songs, which infused the solemn undertaking with a sense of hope and a determined celebration of an inextinguishable culture.

Singing and creating the combined testimony became, for the participating survivors, acts of healing, of ensuring the restrained legal procedure of the tribunal also privileged Papuan culture and foregrounded Papuan agency and voices.

Realising the importance of art–in particular, music–in West Papua’s decolonisation movement, members of the Tribunal’s organising group were inspired to apply for a research grant to explore how art could be further leveraged to facilitate social justice in similar instances.

Art for awareness

In 2015, several colleagues and I received funding from the Australian Research Council to investigate how music, shared between mobile phones, fosters community mobilisation for justice in Melanesia.

As part of this project our team developed an illustrated booklet of the tribunal testimonies titled “We Have Come to Testify: There Is Much We Want the World to Know”.

To accompany the booklet, one of the project’s research partners, the Wantok Musik Foundation, recorded West Papuan and other Melanesian musicians (including Tio Bang, Marcel Melthererong, Mama Tineke, Ferry Marisan and Ronny Kareni) performing songs commemorating the Papuans who survived the massacre. Australian Indigenous and Tongan singer, Radical Son, delivered a spoken word rendition of the testimony.

These are available through an app for Android phones also developed as part of the project.

We are in the process of taking this app back to our field locations in Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Papua New Guinea to track how the songs are disseminated by Melanesian listeners and what impact they have on raising awareness throughout Melanesia of human rights violations in West Papua.

This project reflects and seeks to tap into the changing ways in which citizens are mobilising for justice in Melanesia.

Seeking peace

The West Papuan movement for self-determination is gaining more traction now than before. This is for several reasons.

First, many Indonesian citizens are starting to recognise the injustice of the occupation and to support West Papuans.

Second, Pacific Island nations have in recent years represented the West Papuan cause at regional and international summits.

And third, social media is opening up the conflict in West Papua for the world to witness as it never could before with Indonesia’s media ban in the territory. Relatedly, digital media is allowing West Papuans to connect and organise internally, and network internationally.

West Papuans are still trying to deal with past grievances while enduring ongoing abuse.

It is our intention, through this project, to amplify Papuans’ call for peace and justice in their territory and honour the unrelenting bravery of Papuans in the face of daily death and destruction.

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