Papuaphobia: Colonial Mythology Behind Papuan Genocide

Each year on 1 December, Papuans commemorate the conception of a new Papuan state. This was West Papua’s original Independence Day.

The Morning Star flag was first raised on that date in 1961 as the Dutch prepared West Papua for independence. Unfortunately, its statehood was short-lived. Two years later. On May 1, 1963, the Indonesian military invaded the independent sovereign nation and claimed it as its own.

Since then, the Indonesian government has endeavoured to eradicate any attempt to revive the dream of statehood through a sequence of military campaigns. All Papuan lives have, in one way or another, been shaped by these operations.

I was born in the highlands of Papua in 1977, during one of the most brutal Indonesian military operations in the highlands. During 1977-1978, Indonesian forces equipped with American and Australian-made aircraft and helicopters massacred more than 11 thousand Papuans in Jayawijaya, Kurulu, Ibele, Pyramid, Yalengga, Iluga, Prime, Makki Bolakme, Tagime, Kelila, Bokondini, Kobakma, and surrounding villages.

I was told a story about village mothers dancing and singing on the hillsides when they saw jet fighters flying overhead, thinking the planes were delivering goods. In reality, the jets were dropping bombs on the villagers. The Asia Human Rights Commission titled this massacre as ‘neglected genocide’ in their report in 2013 and presented a list of thousands of victims.[1]

Jakarta’s fear of an independent Papuan state is exemplified by this kind of ruthless response to anyone calling for an end to Indonesian rule. The assassination of the Papuan tribal chief Theys Eluay in 2001 and the killing of the senior commander of Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM Free Papua Movement), Kelly Kwalik, in 2009, among many others, sent a clear message about Indonesia’s attitude towards the raising of the Morning Star flag.

But the idea of liberation is written in the hearts, minds and blood of hundreds of thousands of Papuans. In remembrance of their sacrifices, the exiled leader of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP), Benny Wenda, called for a National Day of Prayer in 2020.

It has been nearly 60 years since Indonesia’s Western-endorsed military government revoked statehood with the complicity of the United Nations. In 1969, instead of a genuinely democratic referendum, the so-called “Act of Free Choice” was conducted; in it, of the 816,000 eligible Papuans, only 1,022 Papuan tribal representatives were allowed to vote. It has been widely acknowledged that they were coerced into voting in favour of integration with Indonesia.[2]  

Since the Indonesian invasion, West Papua has become a killing field. In late 2020, according to Benny Wenda, “West Papua is becoming a hunting ground by special forces.”[3]  Wenda was responding to the killing of pastor Jeremiah Zanambani at his village in Intan Jaya in September and the severe beating of 13 Papuan students on 27 October.

Victor Yeimo, a prominent Papuan, said based on media data and public statement that over the past three years from 2019-2021, Jakarta had sent 21,369 troops to West Papua, some of them referred to as “Satan Troops”, as reported by Arnold Belau on Asia-Pacific Report.[4]

Sadly, this overwhelming military presence in West Papua is not a new phenomenon. Indonesia has been sending military troops equipped with western-made and supplied war machines since 1963 targeting Papuans under different military operational name.

The West Papua National Liberation Army of Free West Papua Movement (OPM-TPNPB) is actively engaged in an ongoing war with Indonesian forces, which is being ignored by the international media.

Up to 500,000 West Papuans have died as a result of Indonesia’s occupation of the territory since 1962. Indonesian security forces have operated with impunity against Papuans for a half a century. These killings continue, but it seems the world doesn’t hear about them.

The Roots of Colonisation

We need to reflect on these killings with a fresh perspective. They are not isolated incidents. This violence has its roots in the myth of colonialism’s “civilising mission.” It is based on the Doctrine of Discovery and saving the savage pagan creature in demonic dark world that imperial conquerers employed to subjugate Indigenous people in across the globe.

The colonial mindset was conditioned by the idea that indigenous lands were more or less uninhabited. Any inhabitants that were in these lands were without values, norms or rules. Therefore, the task of a “civilised” man was to go into these unoccupied territories and stamp out anything that posed a threat to this mission.

In their minds, the mission was to bring Christianity, order, good values and civilisation, while exploiting the resources of the colonised land. The killing of original inhabitants was often considered inconsequential because, according to this logic, these people had no value as humans. As they saw it, the “civilisers” were not committing any crime; they were merely eliminating threats.

In this imperialist mindset, the torture and killing of original inhabitants of the “newly discovered uninhabited land” was totally justifiable. Such indigenous people were often depicted as monsters and savages who posed a grave threat to moral and civilised men. This Western fantasy was predicated on the idea that man (specifically white man) was destined to lead the world into a better future.

Peoples considered stupid, savage and primitive had to be enlightened by Western, Christian ideas. It was the white man’s duty to civilise the cavemen, monkey men and savage men, saving humanity from ignorance and paganism.

The Colonial Project and The Other

The frontier wars, forcible settlements and land confiscations by European settlers against the original inhabitants of Australia, Canada, America, New Zealand, parts of Africa, Latin America and Asia still haunt the psyche of the Indigenous people of these countries. For those governments today, establishing trust has become challenging as they continue to regard Indigenous people as a burden to the national story.

The colonial project was, and is, based on grossly distorted information and misconstrued ideas of the colonised subjects. The description of a ‘dark lost world’ with racist undertones was narrated in colonial textbooks such as Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1899), White Man’s Burden by Rudyard Kipling (1899), and Minutes of Education by Mathew Arnold (1852). Such writing reflects the deeply patronising views of colonialists.

Palestinian writer Edward Said illuminated the method and aim of rendering humans as less-than-human in his groundbreaking book Orientalism (1978). In it, he argues that the West constructs imagery of a mythical “Other” from “the East” and that every piece of literature written about the “Other” exists in order to advance the economic interests of imperialism. No work written about “Others,” he argues, is free from this overarching paradigm of exploitation.

The West portrays the “Other” as mysterious, exotic and somewhat demonic in its savagery, lacking the light of morality and civilisation. The idea of civilising the dark planet, concocted during the heyday of European enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, was cataclysmic for sovereign Indigenous peoples around the globe.

Those enlightenment ideas decimated the First Nations peoples of the Americas, Canada and Australia, and commodified millions of Africans and sold them into slavery. Hardly a person on the planet escaped the plague of the civilising influence of the West.

Indonesia: Legacy of A Dutch Colonial Project

Imperialist “civilising missions” have profoundly impacted Indonesia, and subsequently Indonesia’s attitude towards West Papua. The oppression of native Indonesians during Dutch colonial rule was portrayed in celebrated writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s 1980 novel Bumi Manusia (translated as This Earth of Mankind). In his work, Toer describes the racist hierarchy that dominates and rules this highly stratified society. The hierarchy and the impacts it had on day-to-day life for everyone fueled the fire of Indonesian nationalism against Dutch occupation, leading to the declaration of independence in 1945.

The attack on Papuans began with the demonization and denigration of its humanity and culture. Papuans were described in early colonial literature: unintelligent pygmies, cannibals and pagan savages – people devoid of value. Not only did this depiction foster a racist outlook but it misrepresented reality as it was experienced and understood by Papuans for thousands of years. Colonial literature says almost nothing of the value or the virtue of the people of New Guinea. This was the first attack against the humanity of Papuans.[5]

Papuans have been dislocated from the centre of their cultural worldview and placed on the fringes of the grand colonial narrative. They remain at the margins of the civilisational project – trapped by colonial symbols, images and vocabularies.

Papuaphobia: The root cause of a Papuan genocide

This pernicious colonial cultural lens has been used to launch a program of the dehumanisation and re-humanisation of Papuans. ‘Papua-phobia’ is the cultural lens. It is conveniently used as a Procrustean Bed, an arbitrary and ruthless coercion of fitting people into an unnatural configuration or form. Under this scheme, the allegedly ‘primitive’ Original Papuans will be destroyed and reconstructed in another image.

Our father, Bernard Narokobi (1943-2010) – the eminent Melanesian philosopher and jurist who was a central figure in Papua New Guinea’s transition from territory to independent nation – was conscious of this problem. In his seminal work, The Melanesian Way, Narokobi asked, “Will we see ourselves in the long shadows of the dwindling light and the advanced darkness of the evening dusk, or will we see ourselves in the long and radiant rays of the rising sun? We can choose, if we will.” [6]

But the Papuan people have been given no choice.

Indonesia attempted to answer Narokobi’s question by forcing Papuans to view themselves through the lenses of Pembangunan (development) and Kemajuaan (progress). Indonesians frame these concepts as good news to assure Papuans of their salvation. But, under their guise, Jakarta poisons Papuans with unhealthy food, alcohol, drugs, pornography, gambling and the ammunition used against them.

The rest of the world idly watches this genocide while exploiting West Papua’s resources for themselves.

These tragic circumstances have led to the destruction of Papuan clans and tribes, languages and cultural information – handed down orally – about their original world. Papuans are facing the same fate as the Indigenous populations of Australia, Canada, America, and New Zealand if they remain in Indonesia.

Colonisers of the West and East are conditioning Papuans to feel guilty of their identity and existence, and they have institutionalised this guilt as a virtue. Colonisers market guilt and virtue as a means of legitimising their deep psychological control over the colonised and oppressed.

The colonisers act as narcissistic sociopaths: they promise development, happiness or even heaven, while they commit genocidal and homicidal acts against Papuans. They portray themselves as the ‘civilised’ and the oppressed as the ‘uncivilised’ – a psychological manipulation that allows them to avoid accountability for the cultural destruction they wreak.

Indonesia’s labelling of Papuans as criminals has its roots in this pathological colonial mindset. Jakarta makes Papuans sick, then it diagnoses, prescribes and provides medication to cure the same illness it caused. Jakarta exterminates Papuans by controlling both poison and antidote.

Today, in Indonesia, Papuans are called bodoh (stupid), kotor (dirty) and terbelakang (backward). This is where the war starts—at the level of mind, language and conception. How can Indonesians and Papuans relate to each other on an equal footing when the Indonesian state has clearly been influenced by the colonialist mentality inherited from the Dutch? Thus, they do unto the West Papuans what the Dutch did to them.

Recognition of this “othering” of Papuan people is crucial to establishing engagement between Papua and the Indonesian state.

Indonesians view West Papua as a resource-rich Garden of Eden; however, the Papuan people are seen as a problem. To address this problem, Jakarta has adopted a policy of ‘securitisation’ of West Papua. This securitisation process has been deadly for the Papuans. It exposes the deep Indonesian contradictions of their own anti-colonial rhetoric that preceded the 1945 independence declaration.

Papuan genocide at the hands of Indonesia, and the unprecedented destruction of their ancestral homeland are products of European racism. Indonesians are merely imitating and replicating the Dutch colonial system of institutional racism in pursuit of resources beyond the borders of the Netherlands.

The myth of the so-called “civilised human” provided a mandate to “fully humanise” by way of forced religious, cultural, economic and political conversion, the “others” whom they considered lesser or improper humans. This is the crux of the colonial plague that has reverberated across the planet over the past 500 years.

It is called white supremacy and the souls of millions of non-white humans still bleed because of it. It is arguably the most dangerous myth ever concocted. The myth must be eradicated since it has been used as a procrustean bed for more than 500 years, fitting people into unnatural configurations or forms, which led to the enslavement and genocide of many original inhabitants of this planet.

Now we have come to understand that there is nothing grand about such grand civilisation project projects. Given the current condition of human species, nations around world not only facing GDP and other sociocultural and political crisis, but the global civilizational system itself has become bankrupt. As a species we need a new worldview to build a new future to ensure our species survival.

The colonisers, however, continue to propagate myths about ‘civilizing the world’, the ‘other.’ It persists in their religious doctrines and legends, in their cultural and racial ideologies and is ultimately enforced by their weaponry. The problem is not the othering itself, but instead the mindset that enables it. 

Indonesians still believe and practice this myth in West Papua. They want to love Papua, but they don’t love Papuans. They can’t because they believe in the myth of superiority and rightful domination internalised from their own experiences of Dutch colonialism.

The 21st Century Indonesian Initiative

The failed project of Special Autonomy, imposed upon Papuans in 2001 as a compromise for the growing demand for independence after Suharto’s new order collapsed, has largely been rejected by Papuans. Despite this, Jakarta still insists that Papuan elites reevaluate why the project failed.

Papuans rejected this idea by portraying it as a coffin containing many Papuan bodies. They buried this coffin, signifying that any ideas and policies introduced by Jakarta regarding the fate of West Papua would mean death for Papuans.

This colonial mindset borrowed from the West has also led Jakarta to applying dangerous definitions to control Papuan people. In 2021, the government in Jakarta labeled our liberation organisations, the OPM and its military wing, the West Papua National Liberation Army as terrorist groups to convince the international community to not support the struggle.

It intends to damage the integrity and reputation of the West Papua liberation movement, which has been gaining a lot of sympathy from international communities and institutions such as Africa Caribbean Pacific group of states, the Melanesian Spearhead Group, Pacific Islands Forum and the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Theirs is an old colonial game: the perpetrator publicly and loudly blames the victim making it difficult to expose the actual injustice and allowing the perpetrators to avoid being held accountable for their actions.

If Jakarta is sincere about a solution to West Papua’s problems, it needs not to reevaluate Special Autonomy. Rather, it needs to end the dangerous labeling of Papuans as terrorists and the crass dehumanisation of them. We need ordinary Indonesians to reimagine how they think about West Papuan people. We need solidarity across communities where we embrace a path of genuine decolonisation for all.

Establishing a global alliance with a new worldview

Our urgent duty is to build alliances with the people of the Melanesian Pacific, and with those in Indonesia, Asia, Europe, America, and anywhere else on this planet who stand against all forms of torture and suffering. As we shift from our thousands-year-old divisive worldview to one that is more interconnected and inclusive, we will be able to truly heal not only West Papua, but the rest of the world that has been devastated by this bankrupt imperialist system of war, savagery, and oppression.

[1] Sloan, J., Ho, M., & Reckinger, C. (2013). The neglected genocide. Asian Human Rights Commission.

[2] Musgrave, Thomas. “An analysis of the 1969 Act of Free Choice in West Papua.” In Chinkin, C. and Baetens, F (eds) Sovereignty, Statehood and State Responsibility, Essays in Honour of James Crawford. Chapter 12 pp. 209-228. Cambridge University Press. DOI: Chapter DOI:

[3] Wenda, Benny. 2020. SBS News. “West Papua ‘becoming a hunting ground’ as Indonesian forces open fire on student protesters.”

[4] Belau, A. (2021, March 15). Jakarta sends 21,000 troops to Papua over last three years, says KNPB | Asia Pacific Report. Asia Pacific Report.

[5] Ballard, C. (2006). Strange alliance: Pygmies in the colonial imaginary. World Archaeology, 38(1), 133–151.

[6] Narokobi, B. (1983). The Melanesian way. Institute Of Papua New Guinea Studies.

This Paper: “Papuaphobia: Colonial Mythology Behind Papuan Genocide” by Yamin Kogoya appeared in a book titled “Peace Action: Struggles for a decolonised and demilitarised Oceania and East Asia“, edited by Wellington-based activist Valerie Morse.

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7 months ago

Nowe kaonak wah ap nggain nina wone banggendak wah wah wah .
Abu wakendak nowe wah wah wah ap kaonak oohh

Reply to  Yamin Kogoya
7 months ago

Abu aber are yegendak nowe wa wa
Kaonak oh.

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