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West Papua: The Torture Mode Of Governance

Above photo: Indonesian “military operation” in Yahukimo district, West Papua, February 2024. Benny Wenda.

Budi Hernawan said it ten years ago: “torture in Papua … has become a mode of governance.” It hasn’t stopped. It’s got worse. It’s got worse precisely because it’s a mode of governance accepted and blessed by the international “community” whose neoliberal politics of extraction means extermination of anything and anyone getting in its way.

It’s got worse just now because Israel’s genocide, ecocide, starvation, and torture in Palestine isn’t only distracting attention from these practices in smaller and more remote places but also showing that it’s okay, it’s part of our system, you can do it with impunity because it’s all part of a bigger plan, and even the US presidential elections might have something to do with decisions being made to let Israel get on with its murderous work. It’s okay because 91-times-indicted US presidential candidate Trump is given his electoral stump and media loudspeakers to warn, Hitler-style, that his enemies are “vermin”, that immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country,” and promising the largest ever deportation operation in U.S. history. Not that Europe is much better. Of course it’s not. It’s part of the same system. Just wearing different masks. One result is that, since 2014, some 29,000 people from empire-damaged parts of the world have died trying to migrate to Europe, and rejected by Europe. Many “could have been prevented by prompt and effective assistance to migrants in distress”. And it’s okay to have former Suharto son-in-law, mass murderer, war criminal Prabowo Subianto, former head of US-trained Kopassus “Special Forces” (special at torturing and kidnapping) as the new president of Indonesia. He’s our ally against China.

But what about torture itself? What about the human beings who are routinely called “moneys”, “dogs”, “pigs”, “rats” and “stone-age idiots” and thus harmed and mutilated by their fellow human beings? What about the place where it happens? Who allows it to happen? West Papua was handed to Indonesia (and international corporations) by the United Nations in a trumped-up referendum in 1969, but the brutality actually began in 1963 after Indonesia was given control of West Papua in the (Cold War) New York Agreement concocted by the United States, Holland, and Indonesia. What happened next? To start with, more than 500,000 people have been murdered. Institutionalised torture was part of that.

The latest example to come out of West Papua is from a highlands place called Yahukimo (named for the Yali, Hubla, Kimyal, and Momuna tribes in the area) with a population of about 362,000 (but more than half the population of Melanesian West Papua consists of Indonesian transmigrants—another slow but effective mechanism of genocide). Look at the videos, if you can stomach them. Look anyway, even if it makes you want to throw up, because this affects everyone who has something called humanity.

Here we see young Indonesians having fun as they joke about taking turns to thrash, stab, slash, and kick the “animal flesh” of a West Papuan man they have made to stand in a drum of freezing water. Seeing the suffering of the shivering, wounded man is unbearable. Seeing young men amused about what they’re doing to him is also unbearable. What world raised them to do this with their young lives? This is nothing new in Yahukimo. Last month two teenage boys were arrested and tortured by grinning Indonesian soldiers, who took trophy photos of their victims. Another five teenage boys were murdered by Indonesian soldiers in September 2023. Two women were raped and murdered last October. Some 40% of woman torture victims are raped. Illegal gold mining is killing people with mercury, precious metals, and in the name of security for the miners. Dozens of people have died in a recent famine in Yahukimo. That didn’t make world headlines either. Famine also happened in 20062009, also unheadlined. It’s normal there. But who knows or cares about Yahukimo?

Unlike torture perpetrated in the infamous black sites, it isn’t secret in West Papua. Well, it isn’t and is, depending on the audience. On the one hand, it’s a show for Indonesian and Papuan audiences within West Papua and, on the other hand, in the international domain, it’s under wraps because Indonesia effectively seals the borders, and the international powers-that-be are happy with it for their own geopolitical reasons. It’s an international secret because Indonesia is “our” ally against China, not to mention easy legally untrammelled plunder of its natural resources.

Budi Hernawan describes ten aspects of torture in West Papua.

1) Most victims are village people, subsistence farmers, either accused of supporting the independence movement or “collateral” victims. The collateral crime doesn’t matter because, since West Papuans are described as animals and primitive, they’re innately members or sympathisers of “armed criminal groups” and, in their occupied land non-citizens, and therefore a threat by their very existence. So, they can all only be disciplined by the harshest of measures. Extreme Indonesian nationalist views dating back to Sukarno’s “Sabang to Merauke” (an Indonesia encompassing all the former Dutch East Indies) slogan, is an expression of sovereignty and a licence to kill the “animals” that get in the way of Indonesian settler colonial projects. Torture proves their subhuman nature.

2) Rape is often part and parcel of torturing women who are being interrogated about the whereabouts of their menfolk. In one case, witnesses tell of a woman whose vagina was gouged out after which her husband was made to eat it. And rape doesn’t end with the act: “Women who suffered torture, sexual violence we find from the 70s or 80s whose children were shot, tortured and so on are still alive; but living in discrimination because there is a stigma attached to them”. Other tortured women, left with the agony of damaged bodies are impaired in their ability to communicate what happened to them. They can’t express it to their community and, not heard, they’re forced into an excruciating exile because “language, the bridge between the survivor and the world, has been destroyed”.

3) The torturers are mostly members of the Indonesian army and police (the “security” apparatus that sows terror and insecurity everywhere it is established). Therefore, torture is state policy, a “mode of governance” that was established more than sixty years ago. Torture is a “crime of obedience”, upholding the integrity of the state and its “security”. Through its manifest presence within West Papua, as part of a network of power, it’s an underlying aspect of all political and social life, even in health and education systems and development policy. The deeply embedded state doctrine is NKRI harga mati (Indonesian territorial integrity is non-negotiable). The message is that the end (state security) justifies the means (any means).

4) Torture is cheap. It doesn’t require expensive instruments and depends on the perverse imagination and cruelty of the perpetrators. “Security” service members are poorly equipped and underpaid, and the armed forces are notorious for funding their operations through business, extractive business, which automatically entails human rights violations. The techniques of torture might be cheap but they are, as Budi Hernawan notes, part of “a sophisticated architecture of domination.”

5) Unproven, wild, often crazy accusations referring to the catch-all “armed criminal groups”, any sign of support (like refusing to denounce friends and relatives) for West Papuan independence, or attacks against Indonesia personnel, their installations or illegal gold miners are sufficient basis for torture to be used and with impunity. Rule of law doesn’t apply.

6) Especially since the Suharto military coup of 1965, torture has been a common resort when dealing with secessionist movements in general and in West Papua in particular. It involves the highest levels of political and military authority.

7) As the International criminal Court for Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) determined, “such a long-term and unpunished practice of state-sponsored torture can only be possible if there is a plan or policy”.

8) Hernawan estimates that more than 80% of torture cases were performed publicly, deliberately making a show of the victim’s wounded and mutilated body, so its purpose is not only inflicting pain but communicating it as a show of force, of the type of sovereignty that’s operating. It happens on roadsides, yards of people’s homes, marketplaces, next to police or military compounds, and other open areas so that everybody, including children, can see what’s happening and hear the screams. People are often forced to watch. In Aceh and East Timor, dead tortured bodies were left on display but in West Papua they’re kept alive to illustrate the sovereignty story and infect communities with terror. Making videos of torture is a particular feature of its practice in West Papua. While it’s effective propaganda, the videos, like the ones shown here, don’t have borders than can be blocked and they’re now in the international arena so, to some extent, they’re backfiring. With its primitive practices of sovereignty, Indonesia has inadvertently lobbed the ball into the court of western powers that can no longer plead ignorance of what is happening.

9) Using public space as a torture arena is also a way of advertising impunity, at least within West Papua. So far, impunity prevails in the international system too, even though these videos are now entering ubiquitous digital spaces.

10) Most of the torture in West Papua has been reported by local church organs and NGOs, but now more reports are coming from outside West Papua, in large part thanks to the communication skills of the Oxford based ULMWP.

Papuan resistance to Indonesian sovereignty is intolerable because it challenges the sanctity of the whole inviolate state of Indonesia, no matter how it was actually cobbled together. Since it’s a product of Cold War engineering and continues to be of geopolitical importance in the global balance of power, Indonesian rulers have little fear of being held accountable for their atrocities in West Papua. Hence, the international system, which “democratically” claims to speak for all of us, is also hurting, maiming, and leaving scars on West Papuan bodies. We’re all being made complicit by the message that the pleasures of western daily lives are somehow based on this.

More than a hundred countries have called for a UN monitoring visit of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to West Papua. Needless to say, Indonesia is blocking such a visit, not that the UN, party to the genocide-and-torture show in West Papua from the very beginning, will be keen to get involved in a project that questions its own honour and decency. Indeed, Indonesia was able to boast that it was “re-elected as a member of the UN Human Rights Council on October 10, 2023 … with a significant vote gain and the support of the majority of UN member states. … Indonesia has once again earned international trust!” This “trust” says a lot about the UN and also that torture isn’t just something that happens in places like Yahukimo but is officially embraced by the highest human rights body of the international system. Such “trust” tells us that if we want to live in a world without torture, everything must change.

Once again, the most castigated people are the most steadfast and daring. So, in times when the merest glance at the daily news shrieks catastrophe in ocean currents, vanishing species, fires, floods, starvation, Europe on a “war footing”, violence, and the whole planet in danger, the West Papuan leaders have presented a coherent solution, their Green State Vision, a “Green Philosophy… inclusive in thinking and action, involving participation of all communities of beings: spirits, plants, animals and humans, rather than individualism.” This Green State Vision would, perforce, mean an end to neoliberalism.

Yes, we have to change everything. Change the foul neoliberal system. And here is a blueprint. But it can only be implemented if the whole evil, torturing system is overthrown. As new forms of fascism are gaining ground, this is really the task we’re faced with. An early step in facing it is recognising that torture in Yahukimo isn’t an isolated thing. In this global system, people of conscience have a responsibility to try and stop it, there and everywhere else. We’re all living in a Zone of Interest.

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