The colonial notion of ‘civilising primitive Papuans’ has distorted Papuan perceptions of the world and themselves.
This distortion began with how New Guinea and its people 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.
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.
Only now have we come to understand that there is nothing grand about such projects. The colonisers, however, continue the myth of their grand narrative of ‘civilising the world’. It remains in their religious doctrines and legends, in their cultural and racial ideologies and is ultimately enforced by their weaponry.
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.”
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.
And so, Papuans are cut off from their roots and float like waterlilies on the surface of Indonesia’s settler colony – they appear free and vibrant, but in reality their roots have been severed.
Growing up in my village, I had no idea I was black and Papuan, or that being black, and Papuan was bad, until I moved to the colonial towns and cities. From that moment on, I knew I was living in a system designed to oppress and alienate people like me.
On both the Eastern and Western sides of this illegal colonial border, Papuans still live in a state of an induced coma. Papuans in West Papua are being reprogrammed to think of themselves as Asians, while Papuans in Papua New Guinea are being reprogrammed to think of themselves as Australians. As a result, Papuans have been physically, unnaturally, linguistically and philosophically dislocated from the centre of their own stories and forced to live in the stories of others. We are being held captive within this imaginary, illegal colonial border.
As long as we remain in this colonial induced coma, we will forever be beggars on our streets, while thieves from the West and East continue to drain the blood of our ancient lands, seas and forests.
One of the martyred great sons of Africa, Steve Biko, warned us: “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”