Jason MacLeod, Queensland Regional Meeting and Dale Hess, Victoria Regional Meeting
In January and February 2015, eleven people – six Quakers, a Mennonite, three Catholics and a Methodist – from three countries (Australia, the United States and Fiji) travelled to West Papua. Officially, we were invited to attend the 160th anniversary of the Gospel arriving in the Land of Papua. However, the genesis of the delegation – what we termed a peace pilgrimage – was a longstanding relationship the co-leaders of the pilgrimage had with Reverend Dr Benny Giay, the Moderator of the Kingmi Church in West Papua. Two years prior to the pilgrimage, Reverend Giay wrote a letter to two of the leaders of the pilgrimage. In that letter, he said that Church leaders in West Papua feel as if they are “surrounded by violence” and “cannot escape.” Reverend Giay went on to ask if outside people of faith could accompany the church in some way. That question stayed with the co-leaders. It kept them up at night until slowly the idea of a peace pilgrimage to West Papua emerged.
West Papua is located on the western rim of the Pacific. It is one half of the island of New Guinea. The eastern half is Papua New Guinea, an independent state since 1975. The western half is West Papua, made up of two provinces, Papua and Papua Barat – The land of Papua – which is another name West Papuans give to their country that has been forcibly occupied by the Indonesian Government since 1963. It is the Pacific’s Palestine, less well known by Australians but greener – 75% of the mountainous interior is cloaked in rainforest – and much closer. From Boigu Island in the Torres Strait, Australia’s northern most island, you can wade across to Papua New Guinea. From there it is a few days walk to the West Papuan border. West Papua may only be a swim and walk away from Australia, but it may as well be the dark side of the moon. The country is what journalist, Mark Davis, called a “secret story”, hidden from the outside world by the vagaries of geopolitics and a policy of keeping foreign journalists, human rights workers and even diplomats out.
Rev Dr Benny Giay was not being dramatic in his letter. Only a month before we travelled to West Papua, four young people, some of them in primary school, were shot dead by the Indonesian Police in Paniai, in the remote highlands. One of the young people had been savagely beaten by the army the night before. He and his friends had been holding a vigil at a makeshift roadside chapel when a car drove by without its lights on. The young people yelled at the driver to put his lights on. The car stopped and soldiers hopped out and proceeded to beat the boy. The next day, on 8 December 2014, the boy’s friends went to protest the beating. When they arrived in town, they saw the car driven by the soldiers. Angry, they started hitting the car. That is when the police opened fire with live ammunition, killing four. Despite calls by civil society for a thorough and independent investigation, no action against the police had been taken. The response of Joko (Jokowi) Widowo, the current Indonesian President, has been tepid.
The purpose of the pilgrimage
The pilgrimage’s four objectives were to:
- Build relationships between pilgrims and Papuans;
- Offer moral encouragement that in small ways helps break down Papuans’ experience of international isolation;
- Engage Regional and Yearly Meetings of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Australia, the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission of the Archdiocese of Brisbane and the Pacific Conference of Churches in learning more about West Papua and exploring interest in advocating with and on behalf of Papuans;
- Identify if Papuans and outsiders are willing to explore what it might mean to accompany West Papuans in their nonviolent struggle for justice and to maintain long-term relationships with a shared concern for nonviolent struggle, peace and justice; and if there is interest in this aspect, exploring what accompanying Papuans and the nonviolent movement for freedom and rights might look like.
Significant progress was been made on all these objectives. As organisers and pilgrims, we feel that the visit surpassed our expectations.
Some initial outcomes of the visit
We can already discern some significant outcomes from our visit:
- We were a nonviolent presence and source of moral encouragement for people looking for ways to cast off fear. That encouragement was most visible in Byak and Paniai where the weight of repression has fallen heaviest. Papuan human rights defenders and community advocates told us repeatedly that our visit communicated tangibly that they are not alone, that outsiders care about their plight.
- In small ways, our presence expanded – even if momentarily – the political space for those we met. That effect seemed to linger long after we left.
- Our visit also contributed to eroding West Papua’s international isolation. By intentionally not cooperating with the Surat Jalan system – a system of requiring written police permission to travel throughout the country – we have contributed to the Papuan-led opening-up of West Papua to access by foreign media and international human rights organisations.
- We also helped contribute to village development. As part of the preparation for the visit to the highlands, we constructed a toilet and shower block for the village. When the Nabire-Timika road is sealed, that will make it easier for the village to open a small guest house for travellers. Our visit, which concluded with a pig feast on the last night, was part of an important cultural practice of exchange and mutual obligation through which wealth is redistributed.
- The visit led to an opportunity for significant ecumenical dialogue between churches from West Papua and other parts of the Pacific and directly led to Benny Giay’s church, the Kingmi Church of Papua, becoming a member of the Pacific Conference of Churches.
As pilgrims, together in a momentary community, we also learnt much about ourselves and each other. In very stressful settings, we tried to extend care and trust to one another. Even when we failed and hurt each other, we were held in love by the group. The way we all tried to practise fearless conversation, listened, sought to transform the ways we have internalised the forces of empire, and extended forgiveness and mercy was an inspiration and a source of hope, even when we fell short. The friendships we made and experiences we had will continue to resonate for years to come.
In Byak, we met with a community of survivors of State violence, survivors from the 1960s when the Indonesian military forcibly annexed West Papua as well as survivors from the 1998 Biak Massacre. Our group was taken to a meeting house used by customary leaders where we experienced a traditional welcome. Perhaps it was only 15 minutes into our discussion when the local police, members of the intelligence services and head of Immigration arrived. Seven of us were interrogated at the Immigration Headquarters, and then released without charge. The next day a Papuan member of our group was intensely questioned at our hotel, until she rang Ruben Magay MP, a senior member of the Provincial Papuan Parliament, who explained to the Immigration Officer the finer points of Indonesian law and the Indonesian Constitution which, in theory at least, guarantees basic freedoms.
In Jayapura we had an opportunity to meet with Catholic peace, justice and human rights defenders, with student activists and resistance leaders. They spoke movingly of the way they are accompanying political prisoners, seeking to make visible humanising values, and their hopes that the Church will stand in defence of Gospel values in what is a very difficult and delicate situation.
We also travelled to Paniai in the remote Papuan highlands. To get there we had to pass through a military roadblock and pay an illegal toll. The sign above the military post boldly declared
“warriors protect the people”. It is not clear what “people” the words referred to. The mothers of the children shot dead last December certainly did not feel protected. Underneath were the words “bravery, honesty and responsibility”. Amongst those who work for the Indonesian State, particularly the security forces, these qualities are in short supply. We all sank lower into our seats in the car hoping that the black glass really was impenetrable to the armed military officers’ gaze. After the 8 December killings, the situation was extremely tense. It now seems that this will be one more example in a five-decade long list of cases of security force impunity. It did not take much dialogue to peel back a layer of fear amongst many of the people we talked to in Paniai.
Our final visit in West Papua was to Mansinam, a small island off the coast of Manokwari. We were invited guests for the 5th of February festivities celebrating 160 years of the arrival of the Gospel to the Land of Papua. The army, navy, paramilitary police and regular police were all there. We even saw a man wearing a militia t-shirt filming the thousands of guests.
Our report was presented to the NCCA executive by Julian Robertson shortly after the pilgrims returned. Church leaders were moved by Julian’s presentation and decided to send a delegation to lobby politicians in federal parliament and another delegation to West Papua.
The parliamentary delegation, led by Kelvin Alley of the Salvation Army, included three Friends – Julian Robertson, Dale Hess and Jason MacLeod – as well as fellow pilgrim Peter Arndt, Executive Office of the Catholic Commission of Justice and Peace of the Archdiocese of Brisbane. The pilgrimage has led to further visits and ongoing small efforts to transform the conflict.