The Catholic Church ‘Attitude Towards Human Rights’ Violation in West Papua

By. Prof. Dr. Nico Syukur Dister, OFM

As in Papuan society in general, so also in its churches there are members who give it as their opinion that the western part of New-Guinea island has the right to be an independent state, and there are also members who consider this part of the island as the two most eastern provinces of the Republic of Indonesia. A main duty of the ecclesiastical hierarchy is to unify the faithful, and not to sow dissension. That’s why bishops and pastors think they are not allowed to take side with one of the two attitudes mentioned above, and against the other.  Recently a parish priest used What’s-App to speak his mind: “Of course the Church will not frankly support the call for Papua’s independence, but (the question is) how we together (viz. all the Christian denominations in Jayapura) unanimously raise the injustice that occurs in Papua.”

At first sight the priest’s statement is right. The question whether Papua must remain a province in the Republic of Indonesia, or should it become an own state neighboring the R.I., seems to be a political question, and therefore forage for politicians whereas it’s the mission of the Church to further faith and morality, for instance to protest against the violation of the human rights in West-Papua, of many years standing, up till now. But the distinction between politicians’ concern and the church’ concern has lost its relevance from the moment we ask whether or not every nation has a right to an own country. Rather many indigenous Papuans think about themselves as a nation and not as a tribe –only one amongst many others- within the Indonesian nation. With respect to that view, isn’t it an injustice that Papua is not yet independent? If it belongs to the Church’ mission (it means: the mission of all Christian denominations in Jayapura) “to raise jointly the injustice that occurs in Papua” (as said by the parish priest mentioned above), then the priest’s statement: “The Church will not frankly support the call for Papua’s independence”, only at first sight seems right, but on second thoughts it could be wrong.

Indigenous Papuans: a nation on its own or a tribe only?

Probably it’s just this question that lies behind the “pastoral letter”, published last month (29 May 2017) by the leaders of three churches in West-Papua (GIDI. BAPTIST and KINGMI), gathered as “Ecumenical Work Forum of Papuan Churches.”  These Church leaders said to their faithful that because of so many cases of violence, detentions, tortures and killings regarding civil Papuans, (the recent cases in Jayapura included) “there is no future for the Papuan nation within the Indonesian system.”  As far as I know, the other churches –for instance GKI and the Catholic Church- seldom or even never made such a clear and harsh statement. Why didn’t they make such statement? Perhaps for the following reason.

The heart of the matter –of both the independence engagement and the violation of human rights- is the question as put above: Is the indigenous Papuan population a nation by itself, so that it also has a right to an own country?

  • To answer “No, it is not” means to look upon the indigenous inhabitants as a particular tribe amongst many other tribes. According to this view all these tribes together are one singular nation: The Republic of Indonesia. So the independence engagement that acts on the assumption that the indigenous Papuans constitute a nation by themselves, has to be looked upon as an opinion, contrary to the status quo of the Republic of Indonesia whose area is laid down in law as “from Sabang till Merauke”. However, as far as one doesn’t take up arms or use other violence in fighting for independence, but only expresses peacefully her or his opinion, this expression cannot be labeled as a violation of the law, because it’s a universal human right to utter what we are thinking. So we may not be blamed or reprimanded, let alone be accused of trying to overthrow the government. Freedom of expression is guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nation 1948) and also by Indonesian law (TAP MPR RI No. XVII/MPR/1998).
  • To answer “Yes, it is” means that he Papua case looks like the case of the Jews at 1949 and the case of Kurdi People nowadays. Keeping in mind the principle that each nation has a right to an own country, the United Nations allowed Jewish people in 1949 to found the state of Israel. The Papuans didn’t get such a permission, and Kurdistan is not yet an independent country: the Kurdi are still scattered and are now living in five different countries (Turkey, Iran, Syria, Armenia and Iraq).

Each of these two standpoints has its own background. Only if this background is known, there is hope that:

  • The Republic of Indonesia will stop its acts of violence against indigenous Papuans (and other inhabitants of the western part of New-Guinea) who are pro-independence;
  • People, both in church and in society, who dissent regarding the case of independence of West-Papua, will be able to respect each others opinion;
  • The churches (including the catholic church) will be encouraged to determine their attitude towards the situation of Papua nowadays.

To know the background in question, hereby some additional words about the respective standpoints: pro-Unitary Republic of Indonesia and Pro-Papua Independence.

Why is West-Papua regarded as two provinces in the Unitary Republic of Indonesia?

Note: Nowadays the Indonesian government uses always the phrase “Unitary Republic of Indonesia – URI” [Negara Kesatuan Republik Indonesia – NKRI. The reason: The government that is facing radicalism, terrorism and people who sympathize with ISIS, wants to underline that only the unitary character of the state is capable to guarantee its unity. Therefore it condemns all movements, both from radical, extremist Muslims and from Papuans, that –according to the government- are incompatible with the unitary state. In point of fact there are many federal states in the world (for example Malaysia, German, Belgium and the United States of America), without any doubt about their situation as one state. T the end of 1949 and during some months of 1950, Indonesia was also a federal state: The Republic of the Unites States of Indonesia – Republik Indonesia Serikat (RIS). But after less than a year it was replaced by the unitary Republic of Indonesia. Suppose the law of special autonomy for Papua is truly implemented (what is not the case, alas!), then (de facto, not de iure, of course) Indonesia would consist of three federal states, viz. Aceh,  Papua and the rest of Indonesia.

When Soekarno and Hatta were fighting for Indonesia’s independency, the Dutch colonial government accused them of separatism. Soekarno was imprisoned in Flores and Hatta in Papua. So Hatta knew the Papuans, whereas Soekarno didn’t know. Talking about the extension of the independent state they were to proclaim, Hatta gave it as his opinion that Papua shouldn’t be included within the Republic of Indonesia, but according to Soekarno the boarders of the new state have to be the same as at the time of Netherlands Indies.  So Papua was included, as opposed to East-Timor that never was governed by the Dutch because it was colonized by the Portugueze.  The  President-in-spe and not the Vice-President, has gained the day. In accordance with international law, indeed, the boarders of the new independent states are the same as the boarders of the sometime colonized countries. To abandon this principle means that many parts of Africa will become a muddle. In 1945  the independency of the Republic of Indonesia was proclaimed but not before 1949 The Netherlands recognized it, with the exception of West-Papua that still remained a part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.  After the Dutch handed over the  governance to the United Nations (October 1962) and six months later he U.N. handed it over to Indonesia, (May 1963), – just after this conveyance of governance, West-Papua became an integral part of the Indonesian Republic, but only temporarily, viz. until a referendum in 1969 that was planned to decide whether Papua would definitively remain a part of the Republic of Indonesia, or become an independent state. When –as being the result of the referendum- its observers reported to the U.N. that the Papuans had made their choice: integration in the Republic of Indonesia, then the general assembly in New York sealed officially that integration. From then West-Papua was a province of Indonesia. So the cause is finished, isn’t it?  Really?

Fighting for an independent West-Papua: Why and How?

Daily we hear(d) on the Radio: “Satu Nusa, satu Bangsa, satu Bahasa kita” (One Fatherland, one Nation, One Language). The last one is right: one and the same language is used in West-Papua and in the provinces of Indonesia. But one native country and one nation? What determines that people have the same country and belong to the same nation? In my opinion, a main criterion is that people together have the same history. Just this condition has not been realized: the history of Indonesia -its struggle for independency included- is not the history of Papua. Moreover the characteristics of Melanesian race are much clearer regarding the Papuans than, for instance, regarding the inhabitants of Nusa Tenggara Timur: also in that Indonesian province there are people with frizzled hair, but in general it’s more true to classify these people (like the majority of Indonesians) as belonging to the Malayan race than to the Melanesian.

There is  another reason why one should fight for Papua’s independency. The so called “Act of Free Choice”, [“Pepera” 1969), meant as an act of the Papuans to determine their political future, is in fact a legal defect. For two reasons. First, the way it was broad about, was contrary to agreement.  One man, one vote was a got-up thing. But in point of fact the so called act of free choice was a vote by 1,025 men and women selected by the Indonesian military who were asked to vote by raising their hands or reading from prepared scripts in a display for United Nations observers. Second, the Unites Nations’ general assembly made the result of the Pepera valid in law, without taking cognizance of the abuses reported by the delegates who just were sent by the U.N. themselves to monitor the way of executing the Act of Free Choice. All these complications actually resulted in an Act of No Choice, as we can read, both in a searching study of P.J. Drooglever (Tindakan Pilihan Bebas – Orang Papua dan penentuan nasib sendiri, translated from the Dutch by J. Riberu and published in 2010 by PT Kanisius in Yogyakarta) and in many informative internet-sites. The assembly mentioned above validated the Pepera-result with a single hammer blow, without reading the content of the delegates’ report. The nations worldwide chose to prefer good commercial relations with Indonesia at the sacrifice of the rights of the Papuans.

Of course, rationally and using her or his brains, every indigenous Papua knows and recognizes the factual situation that nowadays West-Papua has become two Indonesian provinces.  However, as long as the indigenous Papuans don’t get what is due to them in justice, viz. to own a country as an independent and sovereign state, then all material help, given to them by the Indonesian government in the field of infrastructure, education and health care –although this aid is very important and necessary and will be accepted by them- all those material relief cannot extinguish the fire of independent engagement that will remain burning in the heart of each indigenous inhabitant. It’s impossible to put it out!

How to fight for West-Papua’s independency? Not by violence. Indonesia chose to use violence in fighting for its independency against the colonial regime of the Dutch. Two or three million Papuans who take up arms against more than two hundred million Indonesians, cannot win a military battle, either in a conventional or in a guerilla war. Using arms only means suffering harm. Much better is to fight in Mahatma Gandhi’s manner: no violence, ahimsa. By that way he delivered India from the evil of colonialism.

The Catholic (and other churches’) attitude towards the actual situation in West-Papua

The church does not only consist of bishops and other clergy. According to the motto of Jayapura Diocese after its pastoral synod in the seventies, “we are the Church”. Nevertheless, we may hope that the pastors are good shepherds who lead the way and march in front of the flock. To the  church as a whole –both leaders and other members-  the prophetic mission has been entrusted to blame the abuses that occur in society. To blame, criticize and correct for the purpose of bringing back the faithful and the society into the right direction.  As some Franciscan friars –together with their superior- in 2016 took part in a peaceful demonstration in front of the provincial parliament office and protested against the unpunished killing of teenagers by the governmental security forces in Paniai region, already a couple of years ago,  the catholic church performed its prophetic mission.

Not only bishops and parish priest are worthy to be called “church leaders”, but also religious superiors (m/f). Being aware of the church’ mission to continue in our time Christ’s role as a prophet, so the Franciscan Order in West-Papua founded and still organizes the Secretariat for Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation (JPIC). Two months ago (March 2017) its office published a study entitled Papua di ambang kehancuran – Beragam peristiwa dan fakta hak asasi manusia di Papua 2016 (“Papua on the threshold of destruction – Various occurrences and facts of human rights’ violation in 2016”).  The occurrences in question regard violence, very often used by police and army, in the form of arbitrary arrests, torture and killing of civil inhabitants of West-Papua. No wonder that Mgr. Leo Laba Ladjar OFM, Bishop of Jayapura Diocese, named these security forces “insecurity forces”. Law enforcement is very weak, especially regarding violence carried out by those forces. They enjoy a high degree of impunity.

When representatives of other churches heavily and loudly make a protest in carrying out their task as prophets, people ask: “Where is the voice of the catholic church”? Often its voice cannot be heard, because catholic leaders prefer to speak very seriously with the responsible “dignitaries” of army, police and government in private meetings and on a small scale. Many catholic bishops and pastors consider such a talk more effective than giving notice of protest publicly. They also are convinced of their duty to build bridges between two parts fighting against one another.  But it’s questionable whether such a private talk is more effective than a loud protest that resounds via the media.  The worsening of the human rights situation of the Papuans in the first half of 2017 does not prove that “the catholic approach” is more effective!

In order to play an important part in the Church’s prophetic mission, the Catholics and their leaders must speak publicly and very loudly in protesting every violation of human rights, while at the same time –on the one side- respecting the political conviction of each parish member and citizen, either pro-URI or pro-independency, and –on the other side- explaining why independence engagement is something genuine, especially when pursuit without violence: ahimsa.

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