The Road: Uprising in West Papua
by John Martinkus
Published May 2020
There is a short story in John Martinkus’s compelling book The Road: Uprising in West Papua that I like. He writes, ‘When I was in West Papua in 2002 and 2003, I shared a laugh with a diplomat I met over dinner at a high-end hotel. I asked him about the Australian diplomats, whether they ever came to Papua. He replied with the old phrase: Hear no evil, see no evil. We both laughed cynically at that underlying truth’. This moment is telling, not only of Martinkus’ understated narration but of his fondness for stories and characters. Indeed, across the book, his small-scale stories and characters are more revealing than his grand historical narratives.
For many observers and foreign journalists, West Papua, the western half of the New Guinea island, is a fascinating yet mysterious place. For thousands of years, the Papuans have built their sophisticated agriculture, developed management of sustainable resources with stone technology, and maintained more or less egalitarian polities without turning to western liberalism.
After its encounter with Europe, West Papua became the epitome of primitivism, one of the last frontiers of western orientalism. Since the sixteenth century, explorers and anthropologists have travelled to this part of the world and chronicled their encounters with the strange terrain and wondrous people. In his Malay Archipelago (1890), British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, for example, writes, ‘I looked with intense interest on those rugged mountains, retreating ridge behind ridge into the interior, where the foot of civilised man had never trod. There was the country of the cassowary and the tree-kangaroo, and those dark forests produced the most extraordinary and the most beautiful of the feathered inhabitants of the earth – the varied species of Birds of Paradise’. While he praises the Papuans as ‘very handsome, being tall and well-made, with well-cut features and large aquiline noses’, he also remarks, ‘like all savages, [the Papuans] are quite careless’. The admiration of their land, animals, plants, and later, their minerals is paired with disgust and aversion to their civilisation. This paradox of fascination and denigration would colour almost all western and Indonesian representations of Papuans and West Papua.
Martinkus does not share Wallace’s disparaging attitude, but his narrative does at times echo Wallace’s trope of discovery. As a journalist, Martinkus has extensive reporting experience in conflict areas like Iraq or Afghanistan. The Road, he says, is based on years of journalistic works and trips to West Papua, ‘mostly in search of conflicts to report on. I wanted to go where no Western journalists were allowed’. The narrative of ‘discovery’ is what motivated Wallace and other explorers and anthropologists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In its contemporary manifestation, this narrative takes the form of zeal for being the first westerner, the first white person in the Black and brown people’s land; it has morphed into neocolonial themes of ‘discovery’ in western journalism and documentary filmmaking. The key word is discovery – of atrocities, of secret wars, or humanitarian crises.
Martinkus does not tell us why he is in constant search of conflict, but in some of his stories, he points to a media industry that is hungry for titillating news of atrocities. He writes, ‘As I had found in East Timor, in order to get a story run, you had to have more than ten dead.’ This hunger may have something to do with the west’s fascination with horrors happening in remote places. Or it is, as Edward Said suggests, ‘a distribution of geopolitical awareness’ into literary and journalistic forms. In its core, however, the narrative of discovery is a subtle method used to illustrate what Gloria Wekker calls white innocence; that the fascination with war-torn or troubled countries in the Global South obliterates the fact that these troubles only began to occur with the arrival western colonial powers.
Martinkus is correct to say that West Papua is a place like no other. It is still one of the most difficult places to report from as a journalist. It has one of the most prolonged conflicts between the state and indigenous people in the world – some call it a slow-motion genocide. Furthermore, it also has a special relationship with Australia, not only because of its geographical proximity and Australian history – Australia once occupied the eastern part of the island and Australian soldiers fought the Japanese from this island during World War II – but also because West Papua seems to be, using Edward Said’s term, the oriental other of white Australia. Papuan independence movements brilliantly use this link for their campaign; they say, ‘The ongoing conflict in West Papua is a secret war on Australia’s doorstep.’ The question for journalists like Martinkus, then, is: what does it mean to write accounts of suffering and atrocities on Australia’s doorstep?
He recalls an Australian diplomat telling him that Australia deliberately turns a blind eye to what is happening in West Papua. No doubt that diplomat was being honest and pragmatic. Nevertheless, the fate of more than one million indigenous Papuans was decided in the early 1960s in the face of Australian inaction. As Martinkus himself writes, ‘It was a diplomatic fluke and not a military victory that won Indonesia the territory of Dutch New Guinea’.
In the first few chapters of the book, Martinkus details what is now pretty familiar history of West Papua. Living as independent small-scale tribal societies until the late nineteenth century, the Dutch incorporated West Papua into the Netherlands East Indies only in 1898, even though several attempts had been made to pacify this large area under the Tidore suzerainty. Until World War II, less than half of the territory was governed by the Dutch colonial government. When the Allied Forces, which included a significant number of Australian soldiers, landed in Hollandia (Jayapura) in the 1940s, most of the Highlands did not have a government post.
After a prolonged conflict with the Netherlands, Indonesia declared independence in 1945, the first nation under European rule to do so – and it sent infiltration missions to the area. For the first Indonesian president, Sukarno, Indonesia had a moral and political obligation to liberate West Papua from the shackle of Dutch colonialism. The Papuans, whom John F. Kennedy called ‘primitives’, however, had another plan.
Educated by Christian and Catholic missions, including the Australian Baptists, since the early twentieth century, several Papuan elites were sent to Fiji or Australia to attend the South Pacific Conference in the 1950s and 1960s. Some Australian politicians imagined a Melanesian federation that would accommodate all dependent territories in the region, including West Papua, into an independent entity. Geopolitics, anthropology, and kinship strengthen the idea of this Melanesian solidarity in West Papua. The politics of decolonisation intensified after the recognition of Indonesian independence in 1949; the Papuans began to consider themselves as a nation – with their eyes fixed upon their Melanesian brothers and sisters in the east. But instead of independence, West Papua was transferred from the Netherlands to Indonesia, with the support of the United States and Australia.
While an understanding of West Papua’s colonial history is important in order for readers to understand its current issues, Martinkus pays more attention to contemporary stories. He moves onto the roads, for example the 4300-kilometre Trans-Papua Highway, an Indonesian government infrastructure project that would link the east to the west, the north to the south of West Papua, piercing one of the world’s richest tropical forests and mineral belts. Similar to their Dutch colonisers, who built the great Post Road that took the lives of 12,000 Indonesians who worked as forced labour, the Indonesian government envisioned that the roads would bring ‘development’ and ‘progress’ to the Papuans. Joko Widodo, Indonesia’s current president, personally committed to spending 10 per cent of Indonesia’s transportation budget for infrastructure development in the provinces. The president also tasked the Indonesian military to supervise, and in some cases, construct the roads themselves. In the eastern part of West Papua, the Trans-Papua Highway would penetrate the Central Highlands, which for long has been West Papua’s backwater and the epicentre of Papuan resistance against Indonesia. While there is no record of forced labour being used, Martinkus points out that the Trans-Papua Highway ‘was like a spear through the heart, killing [Papuan] traditional life and claims on the land’.
As Papuans predicted, the roads were not built for them, but instead, to intensify resource extraction, deforestation, and dispossession. The roads also bring more Indonesian settlers and security forces. In December 2018, a group of guerilla fighters affiliated with the Free Papuan Movements killed 17 Indonesian workers working for the Trans-Papua Highway in Nduga. In retaliation, Indonesia carried out one of the most brutal military operations in the region. The Indonesian security forces bombed villages and forced 45,000 Ndugas to flee to the jungle and neighbouring regencies for safety reasons; many of them women and children. The Nduga people are not unfamiliar with this level of violence, but the arrival of the roads added new wounds to their ongoing killing and displacement. Suara Papua, a local news portal, reported in December 2019 that 238 Papuans died, some from gun wounds, and others from illness and hunger. Martinkus writes of the struggles of these men and women fleeing the operation. He includes a series of photographs showing women and children climbing dangerous cliffs and crossing torrential rivers. A representative caption: ‘On 2 February 2020, Putri Santika Kamarigi, a baby aged one week and one day, died in a refugee camp after fleeing Indonesian military action in Nduga.’ Those pictures are more profound than any words that I read in the book.
Martinkus writes about the roads from the perspective of the Papuans, and for them, the roads have become their via dolorosa. Compared to other journalists writing about the region, however, Martinkus refrains from taking the space of the Papuans. Instead, he largely effaces himself from the narrative. He dwells on their plight, but he rarely details their personal characteristics. He protects their identities while simultaneously avoiding the colonial gaze of many of his predecessors, who by focusing on Papuans’ appearance evoke the West’s patronising sentiment of pity. This treatment stands in contrast to how he narrates Indonesia. This stylistic choice conveys insight into the paradox of Indonesian colonialism in West Papua.
Consider his analysis on the root of Indonesia’s occupation of West Papua. He rightly points out that Indonesia’s defensive claim of the region is not merely a result of a rational calculation, or a geopolitical interest but also of pride and honour. He uses the word ‘fixation’ to refer to Indonesia’s obsession, which, for me, reflects not only his apt observation of Indonesian nationalism but also his dissatisfaction with data-driven journalism. Scholars have proposed a variety of reasons for Indonesia’s claim over West Papua. Benedict Anderson, for instance, argues that the Indonesian nationalists had imagined West Papua as part of the map, of the anti-colonial logo of Indonesian nationalism. Some Marxist scholars and journalists propose that West Papua’s wealth is Indonesia’s primary draw. Another scholar contends that West Papua is useful for the Indonesian military as the region becomes the primary source of their legitimacy and protection rackets. All of these reasons are correct, but they only partly explain Indonesians’ support of the occupation of West Papua. Indeed, as I can testify as an Indonesian, Indonesia’s existence as a nation seems to hinge on the occupation of West Papua; thus any question about West Papua can easily be perceived as a question about Indonesia.
Benny Giay, a Papuan intellectual, rightly states, ‘There is no modern Indonesia without West Papua.’ But an Indonesian modernity that incorporates West Papua stems from a racist view of the Papuans. In a series of debates at the Preparatory Committee for the Indonesian Independence from May to August 1945, Mohammad Hatta, Indonesia’s first vice president, argued that Indonesia was not in a position to assume responsibilities towards this lagged territory. Papuans’ ethnological difference was enough reason to grant them rights to self-determination. Sukarno used the same pretext and bolstered it, using the word that Kennedy introduced to claim Indonesia’s mission to ‘elevate’ and ‘emancipate’ the Papuans, to ensure that they are as equal and as advanced as their fellow Indonesians. Martinkus discusses the implication of this racist view towards the Papuans in an extensive commentary on the now highly publicised ‘racist incident’ in Surabaya in 2019 where Indonesians called Papuans ‘monkeys.’ Martinkus argues that Indonesian racism is not only rooted in the colonial residue of white supremacy but is built on the local sentiment of fear. He says, ‘The Indonesians deride the Papuans, demean them and treat them very harshly, but at the root of that derision is a deep fear. They are fundamentally scared of the Papuans’. Fear is the Indonesian epistemology of racism.
Martinkus’ study of small characters and his perceptive insight into the Indonesian mentality shed light on this complex emotional and political terrain. In his previous book Paradise Betrayed (2002), he argued that the violence that is taking place in West Papua is being carried out by the same figures in the Indonesian military who were sent to Timor Leste in the 1990s. Similar to western colonial powers, the Indonesian military moved around their soldiers from the two or three most problematic areas in the country: Timor Leste, Aceh, and West Papua.While Timor Leste got independence in 1999 and Aceh signed a peaceful agreement in Helsinki in 2005, West Papua is now the last remaining area where the Indonesian military rules with impunity.
In The Road, he writes of an Indonesian soldier whom he encountered in Merauke:
An Indonesian soldier with a small Papuan boy stepped onto the road and flagged us down. They got into the back seat and told the two now-silent Javanese men in the front to keep driving. Intentionally or not, the soldier had the barrel of his M16 pointed at my head as he started speaking in English. ‘I am from Kostrad. You know Kostrad. They send us to where it is danger,’ he said. I went to light a cigarette, and he grabbed the pack from me. He seemed to know what I was doing – and what I was doing there in particular. The soldier laughed and said he thought I was CIA. ‘You know, like James Bond. Ha.’ He then started telling me how he had been in East Timor, in Lospalos in 1994 and Suai in 1995.
Martinkus’ narrative is especially powerful in a moment like this. His portrayal of the personal embodiment of colonial relations illuminates that the problem of West Papua is not merely a political problem, but also an affective one.
As a work visibly concerned with the fate of Papuans, The Road: Uprisings in West Papua contributes to a growing body of literature that addresses the problem of Indonesia’s imperialism. It is a brave attempt, and in some parts, a highly interesting summary of the current state of Indonesia-West Papua conflict. But like most works of this kind, it is hindered by its commitment to the journalistic-travelogue genre of presentation. Martinkus has to settle for an abridged history, the brief and simplified narrative, to provide the backdrop for the complicated issues that define contemporary West Papua. He is also still trapped by old colonial tropes, for example his description of the Baliem Valley as isolated. In the present day, the Valley is quite busy, with Indonesian settlers opening shops in the marketplace while Papuans from all over the Highlands gather in every corner of the urban streets. As the book title also suggests, the Papuans are not silent or passive victims of Indonesian occupation. They have a lot of opinions about their situation and the independent movement is not the whole story, nor the miseries.
Martinkus writes this book partly in honour of his predecessors who have died reporting from the region. It is here that Martinkus makes his strongest point, not about Papuans – but about Australia and its media industry which dictates what kind of stories can get into its readers and viewers. It is true that international coverage of West Papua is quite limited due to the censorship and strict Indonesian permit regime. Indeed, since the beginning of its occupation, the Indonesian government, especially the military administration has limited the access of foreign journalists who report on the region. But although digital media has intensified information war involving control, manipulation, and production of false information by the Indonesian security forces, it has enabled the Papuans to produce their own news and representations to the outside world. News portals like Tabloid Jubi and Suara Papua are run by Papuans and offer both English and Indonesian news. Social media has also allowed people outside the territory to witness – live – what is going on in there. Thus, in such an account, we have to ask why we need a book like The Road. What does this book do to and demand from readers who can easily access any information about West Papua from the internet?
Journalists like John Martinkus have risked their lives by reporting from West Papua. What they bring to readers are, to borrow Susan Sontag’s words, ‘full frontal views of the dead and dying’. For me, at the centre of The Road is the litany of a witness burdened by the gravity of knowing and seeing the dead in full frontal view. But the book shows that while writing has its virtue, it is not nearly enough. Sontag suggests that we should not take the ‘we’ for granted when ‘the subject is looking at other people’s pain,’ but what is clear is that the ‘they’, the Papuans who are the living dead, dying under Indonesian persecution, also see and demand a response, an action. John Martinkus’s The Road: Uprising in West Papua magnifies their stories so that we not only see but act.
Giay, Benny. 2020. Orang Papua Mesti Ambil Alih Kendali [The Papuans have to take over the driving wheel of their lives]. Jurnal Wacana 21(38):np.
Martinkus, John. 2002. Paradise betrayed: West Papua’s struggle for independence. Melbourne: Black Inc.
Said, Edward W. 1978. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books.
Sontag, Susan. 2004. Regarding the pain of others. New York: Picador.
Wallace, Alfred Russel. 1890. The Malay Archipelago : The land of the orang-utan and the bird of paradise, a narrative of travel with studies of man and nature. London: Macmillan.