Preface to Filep Karma's 'As if We're Half Animals'

1 Dec 2014
Jim Elmslie

Filep Karma, born in 1959, lived his entire adult life under the shadow of the Indonesian military. In one of the darkest chapters of West Papua’s dark history since 1962– the Biak Massacre of 6 July 1998 – Karma was the key player in peacefully confronting the Indonesian state and demanding independence. His philosophy and practice of non-violence protest were met with extreme violence by the Indonesian military. Karma survived the violence of that day and his first long prison term, and is viewed by many in Papua and beyond as a kind of saint – a man prepared to give up everything to peacefully express an ideal – that his country should be free. For that he has been beaten, shot, serially incarcerated and threatened with death.

The title of this book, As if We’re Half Animals, is a powerful statement; five words that seek to explain 52 years of mistreatment under Indonesia. The fact is that West Papuans have been treated like ‘half-animals’ and that treatment continues until today, from Jayapura all the way up to Wamena in the central highlands, and throughout the country. Papuan men and women are caught up in ‘sweeping’ operations, or police road blocks or at simple protests over basic rights and are imprisoned, tortured and killed, seemingly at random. Not only are perpetrators of even the worst violence not held accountable (they are promoted), but soldiers gleefully record their atrocious acts on their cell phones as ‘trophies’. Like the big game hunters in Africa posing with dead lions, they are seen to squat proudly over the corpses of slain Papuans, grinning. In the taunts the soldiers make in one notorious video of a disemboweled and dying man in his village, they speak as if to a ‘half-animal’, as if the Papuans do not deserve the right to be treated as humans.

This entrenched inhumanity was most wrenchingly revealed to me at the Biak Massacre Citizens Tribunal, held at Sydney University on July 6, 2013. One survivor of the massacre, Tineke Rumakabu, described her treatment at the hands of a group of soldiers within an army facility. Twelve women and girls are stripped, beaten and raped by the soldiers. In chilling words Tineke told the Tribunal:

I saw a man showing us a little knife, the one you use to shave, and then he said ‘we are going to use this to cut off your vaginas, from above and below, and from the left and from the right.’ I saw a little girl, they raped her and then she died. All over the place it was blood everywhere because women’s vaginas and clitorises had been cut out and they had been raped many, many times. They also hit another woman with a bayonet and then cut off the neck and also the breasts of the woman.

Why? How can one answer that? How can one look inside another man’s head and figure out what chain of thoughts (or orders) must flow to come to the conclusion that this is a reasonable thing to do? Of the twelve women, eight are killed; four, including Tineke, manage to escape when Christian soldiers intercede on their behalf. Her testimony under oath and before eminent Australian lawyers is corroborated by reports of dozens of mutilated bodies being washed up on the shores of Biak, including that of a naked, headless woman, in the days and weeks after July 6th.

The treatment of Tineke Rumakabu was not an isolated event. A theme of Indonesia’s 52 year occupation of West Papua is extreme sexual and other violence carried out against both men and women, with impunity and apparent relish. Again, why? Rape and torture are a feature of every war, and the strange and horrible war that has unfolded in West Papua since the Indonesian takeover is no exception. Yet the accounts of cruelty meted out to the Papuans, such as to Tineke, go beyond rape, beyond ‘torture for information’. They are gratuitous acts, as Dr Budi Hernawan has shown. Acts performed for the pleasure or amusement of the perpetrators and as a demonstration of arbitrary power. Would soldiers and police do this to their own mothers, or wives, or sisters? No. Are they acts done in hidden locations by deranged maniacs? No. By soldiers, on duty, in their base. Presumably with the knowledge of their superiors. Something is seriously wrong here.

Filep Karma’s explanation is that Indonesian treatment of the Papuans is based on profound racism and religious prejudice. That to the Muslim and Asian Indonesian soldiers the (predominantly) Christian Melanesian Papuans are grossly inferior. So inferior that it is morally justifiable to mutilate them for pleasure; to kill them for sport. Many years ago John Rumbiak, the great Papuan human rights campaigner who suffered a debilitating stroke in 2005, also told me that at the heart of the problems in West Papuan was racism. Not just Indonesian racism, but the racism of the Western countries and the United Nations that allowed the 1969 Act of Free Choice to proceed with only 1025 Papuan representatives voting out of some 800,000 people. Why? Because it was widely agreed in Western and UN circles that the Papuans were too unsophisticated (read primitive, inferior, backward) to be able to comprehend the voting process, even when that process was meant to be deciding their future. So Western racism underscored and reinforced Indonesian racism; so the occupation of West Papua became a racially based occupation with Indonesian settlers encouraged to stream in at will.

Of course no historical process involving several million people over many decades can be reduced to one word. Indeed the family history of Filep Karma shows that he came from the elite of West New Guinea/West Irian/Irian Jaya. His father was a senior public servant under the Dutch and went on to serve as a regent of Wamena after the Indonesian takeover. Filep is highly educated, articulate and has travelled internationally. On the surface the Karma family seems to have been a beneficiary of both colonial systems, rewarded with high office and the perks that go with it. Yet when Filep joins the protests against then President Suharto in early 1998, and starts to call like many others for West Papuan independence, in fact leading the movement on Biak, he awakens the new, supposedly reforming, Leviathan of post-Suharto Indonesia. This book provides an inside view into the events on Biak in 1998 which allow the reader to comprehend the true nature Indonesian rule over West Papua. It is a journey into a moral abyss. The Leviathan is unleashed in the form of Indonesian soldiers turned loose to indulge their gruesome whims. To inflict premeditated terror on the population. For control.

The Biak Massacre showed that the Leviathan still ruled in Indonesian West Papua, even after the downfall of Suharto. This is something that most West Papuans instinctively know. Filep Karma rationalizes it by his title: As If We Are Half Animals. For how could a government supposedly engaged in promoting the welfare of its citizens condone this behavior? By relegating the Papuans to a sub-human category. This is similar to the situation in apartheid-era South Africa and the pre-war American South. Dehumanising the victim to rationalize control, to justify atrocity. The Papuans are not accused of being communists, but of being separatists, which means traitors, enemies of the nation, a threat that must be dealt with by the Leviathan.

Filep Karma is a “separatist”. He wants West Papua to be an independent nation. He believes that independence is a right to which the West Papuan people are entitled. (Although, of course, it can be argued that, as Theys Eluay used to say before he was assassinated by army special force in 2001, Papuans are not separatists because they never – voluntarily -- joined Indonesia in the first place.) Most West Papuans agree with Filep, but the Indonesian government, and probably most Indonesian people do not. For them West Papua is not only an integral part of Indonesia, it is also the site of final victory over the Dutch East Indies Empire, who had ruled for 350 years with the whip and the club and the avowed racism that underpinned all white colonialism. The whites were eventually tossed out, not just in Indonesia but from almost all their erstwhile colonies: by both pressure from independence movements and by the fact the European powers lost the stomach or capacity to wield the whip and club with sufficient force to keep the colonial peoples cowed.

In the resulting asymmetrical struggle the Indonesian state holds almost all the cards over the Papuans. Certainly overwhelming military power and a vast apparatus of semi-military social control. A population “imbalance” of two hundred or so to one in Indonesia as a whole and now a settler majority in Papua itself. Monolithic international support with the exception of Vanuatu. The active encouragement and support of global big business, eager for access to West Papua’s resources. It would appear a hopeless cause but the West Papuans continue to struggle on. Among the Papuan people the desire for freedom still burns, but action is stymied at almost every turn by the state through violent repression and by the knowledge, on all sides, that the Leviathan is always in the background.

There is a dilemma for Indonesia - the Leviathan does not just inhabit  West Papua but haunts the nation. From the mass killings in Java in 1965, to the massacres in East Timor, Poso, Aceh, and elsewhere, Indonesians know that brutality lurks not far below the surface of their nation. This is certainly something not confined to Indonesia: brutality is a universal trait of humanity; civilization the process of containing it. How can it be contained in West Papua? Only with truth and openness and uninhibited dialogue.

I spent some years on the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea, running a safari lodge in a river-bank village called Tambanum. Life is still very traditional there; subsistence farming and fishing, with a little cash income from selling artefacts. There are no ‘chiefs’ as such. Decisions are made collectively. The men meet in their Haus Tambaram to rest and to discuss issues that affect the whole village. I was there once when a major debate was underway on whether or not to attack a village downstream that had been established on the Tambanum’s traditional land when white missionaries moved an inaccessible tribe to the river’s bank. Another tribe had then taken the land that the first one had vacated and so they were unable to return. Some men thought that if the interlopers were not attacked they would become further entrenched, that traditional land would be lost and that the problem would grow worse for their children and descendants. Other men thought that if they did attack the police would eventually respond by attacking Tambanum, randomly beating and arresting people and burning down houses. There was no consensus.

Discussions went on for many days. In the Men’s House there was a large carved wooden Orator’s Chair, in the shape of a human-sized figure with a seat at waist height, placed in the middle of the earth-floored and grass-thatched building. On the stool’s seat lay a bundle of bound leaves from a hibiscus bush called a tangat. Each man would take his turn in the debate by clasping the tangat and striking the Orator’s Chair with it as he made each point. After a few minutes he would finish and lay the tangat back on the stool’s seat, signifying that the floor was open and the next man would move forward and say his piece. Meanwhile most of the men of the village reclined on the black palm benches all around or squatted next to the smoky little fires. They talked quietly and puffed on their home grown cigars as they listened.

After everyone who had wanted to speak had spoken no vote was taken; rather those who wanted to attack the village down river got together and headed off armed with their axes and spears. Those who did not want to attack stayed behind. The conflict with the interlopers was never really resolved – there are people still there today but they have not stolen much land. The police did come and arrest and beat a few men, but did not burn down any houses. The problem was not resolved, but mitigated, and the act of protracted dialogue built an understanding of what other people thought and why. Dialogue allows you to understand why you disagree with someone; it is an essential component of human interaction.

With the election of President Joko Widodo in 2014 a new era begins for Indonesia. Jokowi visited West Papua twice in his election campaign and has made it clear that he wants to tackle this profound conundrum. He can move quickly on critical issues that the Papuans are facing: human rights violations; health and education services, land rights and environmental and resource issues. While the long term effective survival of the Papuan people hangs on these issues, they also need and deserve more than economic development. The need to be able to tell their stories, to be heard and acknowledged.

President Widodo also has the opportunity to put a line under the repressive policies of the past – to start a new era. His election has already created a ripple of optimism amongst the Papuans who have been so badly let down in the past. Jokowi can emphasis that a new regime is in power with definite actions such as freeing political prisoners, by lifting media restrictions and by investigating past abuses, including the Biak Massacre. He can transform the atmosphere from one of fear and cynicism to one of hope for a better future.

Jokowi also wants to tame the Leviathan. He wants to strengthen democracy in Indonesia and reinforce human rights in West Papua. This is a direct threat to the dark forces within the nation and an existential threat for his Presidency. The most favoured lair of the Leviathan in Indonesia is West Papua: it lives there hidden in the obscuring mists of military, corporate and conglomerate domination. How do you fight such a beast? By hearing stories of the victims. By allowing the light in. By giving people a tangat to make their points. To use words not bullets. To use words as bullets of enlightenment.

Filep Karma’s is the story of West Papua and Indonesia. Through him we learn that however much a person is made to suffer there are some ideals that are worth more than life itself. By his courage we come to understand the nature of the Leviathan and how it can be overcome. It’s a story as old as humanity: good people standing up to injustice with truth their main weapon. 

'As if We're Half Animals' is available for FREE DOWNLOAD in Bahasa Indonesia, please click here