The exile who fights for the rights of all PapuansPublished by MAC on 2003-02-27
The exile who fights for the rights of all Papuans
By Martin Flanagan, The Age Melbourne
February 27 2003
Human rights advocate John Rumbiak fled Papua a year ago. Local police had warned him that his investigation into the assassination of Papuan independence leader Theys Eluay in November 2001 had put his life in danger. After he was alerted to this, a group of armed men Rumbiak believes belonged to Kopassus, the Indonesian paramilitary group, took up residence in a house near his own and began monitoring his movements.
Since he left the troubled Indonesian province, Rumbiak says one of the directors of Els-ham, the human rights organisation for which he works, had been attacked and shot along with a member of her family.
Rumbiak, who comes from the island of Biak off the north-west coast of Papua and is now a visiting scholar at the University of Columbia in New York, is in Melbourne for tomorrow night's Morning Star Concert at the Victorian Arts Centre. Rumbiak says the concert, organised by musician David Bridie, is an opportunity for Australians "to be really educated about what's going on in West Papua. They're going to learn about Papuans as people, that they have a culture, and the problems they're facing."
Rumbiak says the Papuan people will cease to exist as an independent identity within 10 to 20 years if the present rate of assimilation in the province continues. "Their culture will be extinct," he says. As such, he believes Indonesian Government policies in the area come within the definition of genocide. Els-ham estimates that there have been 100,000 extrajudicial killings in Papua since the province was taken over by Indonesia in the 1960s. "That number doesn't include rapes and people who have disappeared. These are only confirmed deaths."
Rumbiak says Papuan culture is also threatened by transmigration, which has brought a million people to the province from other parts of Indonesia, the degradation of indigenous culture, and the accelerating rate of HIV-AIDS. A recent addition to the Papuan scene has been an Islamic militia called Laskar Jihad which, Rumbiak says, has connections with the Indonesian military. "The Muslim community is being manipulated to create conflict." Rumbiak says his inspiration is Tuarek Narkime, chief of the Amungme people who were the original owners of the land now occupied by the giant Freeport gold and copper mine. The impact of the mine and the local activities of the military led an outraged Narkime to paint his body with mud, don his penis gourd and walk from his village to Freeport's company town, Tembagapura, and make a statement of protest.
Rumbiak quotes him as having said: "Gentleman, I am angry with God! Why has He created such beautiful mountains, valleys and rivers, rich with minerals and placed us - the indigenous peoples - here in this place that attracts so many people from around the world to come, exploit our resources and kill us? You had better kill me now, kill all of my people, all our livestock, dig a big grave and bury us all, and then you can do whatever you want on our grave!" Rumbiak says Chief Narkime once told him that, as great as the provocation to the Papuan people has been, "our minds and hearts have to be as clean and white as Nemankawiarat (the glacier-capped Carstenz mountain peak) when you fight for truth and justice for your people and your land".
Rumbiak says for this reason the Papuan struggle has been built around integrity, non-violent direct action and compassion. Greens senator Bob Brown refers to the Papuans as "our invisible neighbours". Rumbiak agrees. He says the world simply doesn't know about Papua. "To begin with, Papua is isolated. The only way to get there is a six-hour flight from Jakarta. Diplomats say it is too hard to visit. If you're a journalist, you can't get there without a permit from the Information Department in Jakarta and when you arrive you have to go to the police for a pass permit."
Rumbiak says the international perception of the Papuans is of a primitive Stone Age people. Laskar Jihad calls Papua "the Land of No Religion". At the same time, multinational corporations have been given access to the region's forestry and mineral riches. Rumbiak says these industries have brought with them prostitution, which has inflamed the region's AIDS epidemic.Rumbiak says Australians have a moral responsibility for what is happening in Papua. "Australia is one of the countries that has benefited politically and economically from what is going on in West Papua," he says. Rumbiak believes this is not the struggle of Papuans alone. "This is the struggle of anyone, no matter where they are in the world, who believes in respect for other human beings and their cultures, and for the beautiful natural planet upon which we all depend for life."