film about nonviolent struggle in West Papua
Al Jazeera pulls film about nonviolent struggle in West Papua
Recently, I watched Pride of Warriors, a documentary about resistance in West Papua. The film maker, Jono Van Hest had asked me to comment on the film’s content as he prepared it for public broadcast by Al Jazeera. Then, after an article about the film appeared in the Jakarta Post it was suddenly pulled-off air, allegedly under duress by the Indonesian government, only days before the film was about to premiere. The documentary was inspired by the arrival of 43 West Papuan refugees in Australia in January 2006. Faced with an Indonesian ban on foreign media, van Hest smuggled six video cameras into West Papua. The result of this unparalleled access into the West Papuan resistance is a film that gets behind the media headlines to give an upfront and personal account of nonviolent resistance in West Papua. Two things about the film (and the storm-front that has opened up in the wake of Al Jazeera’s decision not to screen it) stand out for me.
Two things about the film (and the storm-front that has opened up in the wake of Al Jazeera’s decision not to screen it) stand out for me. The first is the film’-maker’s decision to portray the nonviolent nature of civilian-based opposition to the Indonesian government’s rule in West Papua. Van Hest has avoided making a romantic film about armed insurgents, small in number, waging a David and Goliath guerrilla war against the overwhelming might of the Indonesian army. Instead it is a film about the courage of ordinary Papuans – young people, students, customary leaders and a guerrilla commander – who have chosen a path of civil resistance over arms. These are all people determined to expand the contours of freedom in West Papua. It is also a story about the price of resistance under occupation.
By using the device of smuggling cameras into West Papua to introduce some of the ways West Papuans are nonviolently resisting Indonesian rule, van Hest highlights the desire of West Papuans to be able to enjoy some of the same rights that other Indonesian citizens enjoy in other parts of the archipelago. The film tells the stories of four individuals: Yani, the daughter of an independence leader, who was kidnapped and tortured because of her father’s nonviolent political activity; Matias Bunai, a customary leader from Paniai who is fighting to keep his culture alive; the rebel leader Tadius Yogi who has put down his guns and now advocates a peaceful solution to the conflict; and a group of young dancers who were interrogated by the Indonesian security forces for performing a dance. These are stories that the Indonesian government does not want you to hear. These are stories that West Papuans want to be told. These are stories that Al Jazeera now refuses to air.
People like Matias and the Sampari dancers are struggling for fundamental freedoms: the simple right to display Papuan symbols like the banned Morning Star flag; the ability to practise one’s own cultural traditions in peace. These demands could be realised under the framework of an enlightened Indonesian state. Instead they are met with harsh repression from the Indonesian security forces and a central government that refuses to talk about the root causes of the conflict. The irony is that this kind of bullying and intransience is exactly the type of behaviour that pushes Papuans towards a belief that the freedom they long for will only be realised in an independent state. With each act of repression the central government sows the seeds of further resistance and greater determination to be free. The fact that nonviolent campaigns calling for freedom of speech, the right to practise cultural traditions, and the reality that these stories can only reach the outside world when filmmakers like van Hest have the courage to ignore a ban on journalism and risk going into West Papua undercover, is the clearest indicator that the spread of democracy in Indonesia is yet to reach the shores of its restive Pacific periphery.
The second thing that stands out for me is that the Indonesian government’s alleged response to Pride of Warriors appears to be part of a sophisticated pattern of repression and control to maintain rule in West Papua. Brian Martin from the University of Wollongong has developed a framework to understand how powerholders attempt to inhibit outrage to injustice. This framework is useful for describing the Indonesian government’s response to dissent in West Papua. The government’s strategy has five mutually reinforcing elements: cover-up, stigmatisation, re-interpretation of reality, the use of policy and procedures to give the appearance of justice, and intimidation.
Firstly, the Indonesian Government maintains tight control of international media, international humanitarian and development work, and diplomatic visits. This effectively amounts to a ban on international media. The recent ban of Red Cross’s visits to West Papua and the attempt to prevent the broadcast of van Hest’s film is simply the latest in a long and well-established pattern of silencing and marginalising critical voices
Secondly, the Indonesian government stigmatises Papuan dissent. Because of anti-free-speech legislation like Law 77/2007 which bans the display of Papuan political and cultural symbols associated with the independence movement, the act of Sampai Dance Group, the young group of dancers featured in the documentary, who display the Morning Star flag in the opening ceremony of a conference, suddenly gets framed as subversion rather than free speech. Demonstrations are criminalised and simply to be indigenous and Black in West Papua invites discrimination and harassment. West Papua is saturated in racism. Daily Papuans get called ‘stupid’, ‘dirty’, ‘animal’ ‘drunkard’ and other documentary labels. The testimony of racist taunts by Papuan political prisoners and Papuan leaders and intellectuals is well documented.
Thirdly, the Indonesian government reinterprets what happens, expressing more concern about a film made by an undercover film-maker that documents nonviolent resistance than addressing the root political causes of Papuan grievances. In doing so the Indonesian government attempts to blame foreign involvement in its internal affairs as part of a tired pantomime in order to avoid addressing the political roots of the conflict and the Indonesian state’s fundamental lack of legitimacy in West Papua.
Fourthly, formal procedures are used to give a veneer of legitimacy to what Papuans will privately tell you amounts to an occupation. A clear example of how formal procedures are used to give the appearance of justice is the case of the first Human Rights Court in Indonesia. Two police officers (of a total of twenty-five officers named as suspects by the Human Rights Commision, KomNasHAM) from the paramilitary mobile police brigade (Brimob) were put on trial for the indiscriminate torture and killing of Papuan students in 2000. Despite overwhelming evidence the two men were acquitted and promoted. Another example is the much lauded but ineffectual 2001 Special Autonomy Law. The far reaching law was designed to address many of the root causes of Papua’s problems but has done nothing because the regulations that enable the law to be implemented have never been passed. This allows the Indonesian government to give the appearance of responding to Papuan concerns and satisfying the international community while doing nothing.
Finally, the Indonesian government will use threats and intimidation to silence dissent. It is certainly what happens to Papuan political leaders and their families, including Edison Waromi and his daughter Yani whose story of abduction and assault is featured in van Hest’s film. As any Papuan in the street will tell you, the culture of impunity in West Papua is alive and well. While Papuans receive jail sentences of 15 years for organising a nonviolent demonstration, only a few low ranking Indonesian soldiers and police have been sentenced to jail for human rights violations, including extra-judicial killings and torture. Even then it is only for a few years at the most.
Of course, Papuans are not passive or silent in the face of this repression. They expose cover ups, emphasise the overwhelmingly nonviolent nature of the resistance and the courage and humanity of those involved, reinterpret what happens as an injustice, moblise public concern (rather than rely on formal procedures), and resist intimidation and bribery. While these actions have been insufficient to bring about fundamental political change to date, they are significant.
What van Hest has done is amplify these stories of nonviolent resistance and brought them to a public who can take action in solidarity with the Papuans. That is what the Indonesian government is truly afraid of. By refusing to screen his film Al Jazeera has come down on the side of a withering of democracy. When it is eventually premiered, Pride of Warriors promises to blend the best of art, politics and investigative journalism. The very act of filming is itself a story of nonviolent action and solidarity with a people determined to be free, highlighting the power of the video camera as a tool for liberation.
MacLeod is based at the Australian Centre for Peace and
Conflict Studies at the University of Queensland where he
lectures in nonviolent political change and researches West