Facts, Feasts & Forests: Considering Approaches to Truth and Reconciliation in Tanah Papua

By Todd Biderman and Jenny Munro

From Flowers in the Walldownload full chapter

What sorts of “truths” are included in “truth and reconciliation” and from whose perspective? In Tanah Papua we have the problem of a multi-dimensional conflict and a state that is very dedicated to controlling what is said about that conflict. It is worth considering how “non-truth” plays out in local reconciliation attempts and who or what institutions are defended or marginalized in this dynamic.

Tanah Papua has been the site of low-level, endemic conflict since the 1960s. Despite Indonesia’s efforts to eradicate Papuan nationalism, Indigenous aspirations for independence have persisted. The Free Papua Movement (OPM), a network of poorly armed fighters based in remote areas that has staged sporadic attacks on Indonesian forces, has gained much attention from Indonesian authorities. However, the OPM is only one of many groups that criticize Indonesian rule and draw attention to social injustices and human rights abuses. The vast majority of Papuans do not participate in any OPM-related activities and most are not in favour of violence as a means of achieving independence. More recently, organizations such as the West Papua National Committee (Komite Nasional Papua Barat, or KNPB) have put forth a vocal critique of Indonesian abuses, while the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) seeks to bring attention to political conditions in Papua on an international stage.

Politics in Tanah Papua is not reducible to the historical context by which Indonesia came to govern. Rather, Papuans critique the social, economic, environmental, and political conditions that have emerged under Indonesian rule. The Indonesian state, especially the police and military in Papua, has been intolerant of such criticisms. Criticism of Indonesian governance is branded as “treason,” suppressed through violence, murder, and intimidation, and often punished through arbitrary detention and imprisonment. There is denial about the actions of the military and police in Papua at the highest levels of Indonesian governance, and human rights violations have not been addressed. Indeed, truth, denial, secrets, and impunity are at the heart of the political conflict in Papua. Indonesian non-truth is central to Papuan experiences and grievances. Yet scholars have argued that non-truth is exceedingly common in approaches to conflict resolution throughout Indonesia, including in Papua, and even for community actors drawing on local understandings.

Still, for Papua, one question that arises is how non-truth as an approach is valued or enforced in response to incidents of state violence, even as Papuans and their supporters continue to criticize non-truth as a broad political practice of the Indonesian state because it denies history, rights, and current conditions.

In looking at the concept and practice of truth and reconciliation in Papua, we first acknowledge that Papuans and their supporters have been doing work that reflects the principles of truth and reconciliation in spite of ongoing conflict. Their work, as we discuss later, is mainly of local inspiration and derivation, but also reflects international connections and experiences.

Papua’s diversity provokes questions about how international, national, or otherwise high-level processes can engage appropriately with local voices, world views, and cultural values. What, then, are Papuan approaches to reconciliation, and what is the role of truth? Being still in conflict, the Papuan case also gives us an opportunity to ask what has to take place, or what conditions have to be created, in order for reconciliation to occur and so that truth may be spoken.

There are three aspects to highlight about a possible truth and reconciliation approach in Papua. The first aspect is the present landscape and state of Papuan approaches to conflict resolution. The second aspect, extending from that, questions what needs to be resolved and why. One area we highlight is the impact of economic development projects, namely resource extraction and land exploitation, on Papuan identity. Thirdly, given these points, we ask what a truth and reconciliation process in Papua might look like.

In this chapter we make use of secondary sources on the conflict and resolution-related actions, present some views from people we have worked with in Papua, and generally draw on over a decade of experience working with Papuans. Truth and reconciliation is a topic we have come to by way of a keen interest in inequalities in Tanah Papua and a commitment to community-based and Indigenous-led efforts to ameliorate inequalities. Todd Biderman comes from a development and social- and ecological-justice background, largely in Indonesia. Over the last eight years he has been working with Papuan civil-society groups and communities. Jenny Munro is an anthropologist who works on gender, health, and education in Papua, particularly in the central highlands of Papua province. We have also collaborated on developing an Indigenous-led HIV prevention strategy for Tanah Papua.

Click to continue reading – free pdf download of the chapter from University of Calgary Press