Today: June 14, 2024

A new book on nonviolent action in West Papua

Although West Papua is only about 125 km from Boigu Island, Australia’s northern point, very few Australians know much about it. It is a beautiful land, but it is shrouded in secrecy. Part of the secrecy arises because it is currently under militarily occupation by Indonesia.
The Indonesian government has enforced a policy to keep foreign journalists out of West Papua in an effort to prevent stories of human rights abuses, economic exploitation, and lack of health and educational services, which are being experienced by indigenous Papuans, from reaching the outside world. The Indonesian authorities do not want others to know of Papuan struggles to achieve merdeka(independence, liberation, identity, human dignity, self-reliance, material and spiritual satisfaction).
Jason MacLeod, a Quaker educator, organiser and researcher, has written an astounding book, Merdeka and the Morning Star: Civil Resistance in West Papua, in which he gives an in-depth analysis of this struggle, the most protracted violent conflict in the Pacific.
He writes from both an academic and a practitioner viewpoint. He tells that as a 19-year old he dropped out of university and traveled to Papua New Guinea in search of adventure. In a remote area on the Keram River he collapsed with cerebral malaria, and it was only because of the efforts of two Papuan health workers that his life was spared.
This experience led him to a life’s journey of solidarity with the Papuan people. His research is based on 14 years of interviews with more than 150 groups and individuals, participant observation and dialogue, on facilitating skill-building community workshops on strategic nonviolent action with more than 450 Papuan activists, and is informed by current theory of civil resistance.
MacLeod begins by relating the historical and political background to the conflict. Belatedly in 1961, the Dutch created a Papuan national legislature and the Morning Star flag was adopted by the Papuans as their symbol. These events led to an invasion of West Papua by Indonesia, and in 1962 the Kennedy administration brokered the New York Agreement and Indonesia took over administrative control of West Papua.
The Papuans were neither involved nor consulted in this process.
Under the New York Agreement, a referendum for self-determination was to be carried out, but instead of allowing universal adult suffrage, Indonesian authorities handpicked 1,025 participants, and then the military terrorized villagers and executed those who dissented.
The result was declared 100% in favour of integration with Indonesia. It was not challenged at the time or later.
The Indonesian government interprets their control of West Papua as being sanctioned by the United Nations, while the overwhelming majority of Papuans feel the process was a sham and they have not been given a chance to choose whether or not they wish to be part of Indonesia.
Resolution of the problem is very complex because besides the denial of self-determination, the issues of racism, state violence (more than 100,000 Papuans are estimated to have been killed), economic exploitation (e.g. large-scale projects like the Freeport-McMoRan/Rio Tinto mine, and logging) and migration (estimated to reduce Papuans from 96% in 1971 to just 29% of the population by 2020) add interactive layers of direct, structural and cultural violence.
MacLeod quotes research by Chenoweth and Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works, which shows that nonviolent campaigns are more than twice as effective as violent campaigns to achieve national liberation, democracy and equal rights. But secession struggles against occupation are more difficult and chances of fully achieving success for either violent or nonviolent campaigns fall dramatically.
After exploring the dimensions of problem, MacLeod outlines the sources of Indonesian power in West Papua and the strategies employed to maintain state control. This perceptive analysis of the root causes of the conflict, the opponent’s sources of power and their strategies of rule provides essential information to develop civil resistance strategy.
Papuan civil resistance has a long, largely unknown, history stretching back to the 1850s. Making these stories known, stories that give a collective identity to Papuans and strengthen civil resistance, was a prime reason why MacLeod wrote this book.
He provides a critical analysis of the strategies, the successes and failures, of case studies, missed opportunities, and the evolution from sporadic protests to unified campaigns. Over time there has been a transition from armed struggle in the mountains or jungles of the interior towards unarmed resistance in urban areas, carried out by younger Papuans. MacLeod provides an analysis of the dynamics which has led to these shifts, a transition that is still going on.
In his last chapter, MacLeod offers a framework for nonviolent liberation. He argues that success hinges on increased movement participation, enhanced strategic skillfulness, greater unity, the ability to attract greater support from within Indonesia and also internationally, and taking advantage of political opportunities. He admits the immense difficulty of the task, but civil resistance has already achieved some notable advances in Papua, as he documents.
Jason MacLeod
In a moving epilogue, MacLeod presents testimonies of Papuans, telling of the great suffering they have experienced, and sharing insights into how they survive and hold onto hope.
The drama and excitement of events leading up to the United Liberation Movement for West Papua application for membership to the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) are captured in a thrilling postscript. Membership in MSGrepresents internationalising of the West Papuan issue, which is exactly what Jakarta was trying to avoid.
This is a very valuable study, filled with penetrating insights, by someone who is both a participant and an academic. It deserves a wide readership and I highly recommend it. It gives a discerning overview of the current situation in West Papua and provides a vision of the potential of nonviolent civil resistance.

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