The Road

The Road

Uprising in West Papua

Book Review
Friends, Allies and Enemies

This review is featured in Australian Foreign Affairs 10: Friends, Allies and Enemies. To read the full issue, log in, subscribe or buy the issue.

From January to July 2020, more than sixty-five West Papuans were detained, put on trial and jailed for up to seventeen years. Their crimes? Protesting against racism and raising a flag. West Papuans’ attempts to salvage their dignity as humans and their self-determination as a people have led to indictments of “treason”, “criminal conspiracy” and “incitement”.

This criminalisation of Papuan human rights activists is only the latest instance in West Papuans’ history of oppression under Indonesian rule – a history that includes their loss of lands and freedoms, their subjugation to physical and psychological abuse, and their unfulfilled demands for self-determination. This volatile history forms the core of John Martinkus’s The Road. With experience reporting from Iraq, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Burma, Timor-Leste and Aceh, Martinkus, a four-time Walkley-nominated investigative reporter, is no stranger to extreme violence and gross injustice. Yet he reveals he has never seen “a people more systematically oppressed and isolated than the West Papuans”.

In West Papua, random killings, sudden arrests and egregious torture are not just authorised by the Indonesian state but routinely celebrated in horrific spectacles of violence – the use of snakes as instruments of interrogation, the burning of bodies with white phosphorous grenades, the sexual abuse of indigenous Papuan women by military forces. These events often lie beyond the purview (and priorities) of the international media, partly because access to West Papua is notoriously restricted for journalists and researchers, both domestic and foreign.

And yet the West Papua conflict is far from just an Indonesian issue. The global community – Australia, the United States, the United Nations and multinational conglomerates, among others – is deeply complicit. This manifests in geopolitical alignments that prioritise national interests over minority rights, exploitative corporate collusion and, most importantly, a glaring silence in the face of the longest-running political conflict of the South Pacific. The story Martinkus tells is one of localised violence and oppression, but it is also a narrative of international betrayal and abandonment.

Named for the Trans-Papua Highway, a controversial project promoted by the Indonesian government to support regional economic development, The Road takes us through a series of events that have shaped West Papuans’ history of suffering under Indonesian rule. These include the region’s illicit occupation in the 1960s, the state-military-corporate troika systematically plundering Papua’s resources, and the violent attacks and displacement suffered by those who oppose development projects imposed on them by the government. The book shows how fear, intimidation and vulnerability haunt the lives of West Papua’s “second-class and expendable citizens”, who are routinely exposed to the arbitrary violence of the state and its omnipresent military and police apparatus.

This “slow-motion genocide”, however, is not all that we encounter along the road. Just as important is the resilience, courage and determination of West Papuans who continue to fight for their country, resources and rights, increasingly in alliance with politically aware young Indonesians. This resilience manifests in the intensifying pro-independence guerrilla movement in the Highlands, the ongoing call from the exiled diaspora for a referendum through the United Nations, the exposure of human rights abuses by lawyers and activists, and the rise of an educated and articulate Papuan generation who share an overwhelming desire to “right a historic wrong”.

Seminal quotes from key figures help us navigate the troubled terrain of West Papua’s political landscape. We hear, for instance, from exiled independence activist Benny Wenda, theologian and anthropologist Benny Giay, Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Political, Security and Law Wiranto, and exiled human-rights lawyer Veronica Koman. The book recounts eventful moments of West Papua’s past and present in all their harrowing poignancy. But its focus on major events in West Papua’s history and political struggle obscures the everyday experiences, desires and conundrums of its people. Between these dramatic moments lies the chronic violence too mundane to make the headlines and the endurance of life lived in the teeth of settler-colonial dispossession.

It is this far less spectacular daily experience that I encountered during my fieldwork between 2013 and 2019 in the West Papuan district of Merauke, where Martinkus begins his book. Here, as elsewhere in the province, vast swathes of land customarily owned by indigenous Papuans are being privatised and cleared at an unprecedented rate to make way for palm oil and logging operations. It is not independence or autonomy that constitute local inhabitants’ primary aspirations, but far more immediate needs: feeding their children, finding clean water, and maintaining social ties amid growing community fragmentation and cultural erosion. Life in this remote place is shaped as much by resistance to predatory state and corporate interests as by a profound ambivalence over what capitalism, modernity and development can offer. Roads and plantations incarnate these predatory interests – but they nonetheless conjure for many Papuan men, women and children the promise of wealth, education and social mobility.

At the same time, the realm of daily life is also where Papuans exercise the kind of resilience that Martinkus examines in the context of political self-determination. In Merauke, Papuans walk the forest with their kin, teaching their children the songs and stories of the landscape, celebrating the plants and animals that animate it and commemorating the ancestral spirits that dwell within it. These mundane activities constitute fundamental acts of survival for West Papuans as they strive to sustain their cultures, values and identities. They merit the same kind of attention as the struggle for political self-determination that The Road privileges.

Martinkus’s epilogue offers a glimpse of the contradictions that characterise everyday life in West Papua today. The transmigrants he describes arriving in Jayapura, the capital of the Indonesian province of Papua, are part of Indonesia’s attempt to turn the region’s indigenous people into a minority. In Merauke district, for instance, Papuans now represent less than 60 per cent of the population. And yet as Martinkus observes, transmigrants are themselves often poor and afraid, and arrive with modest expectations – farming the land or opening a small kiosk. Their futures in West Papua remain deeply precarious. Likewise, the roads – material and imaginative – that West Papuans travel today are defined as much by their protracted struggle for political independence as by the uncertain promises and possibilities of daily life.

Attendance to the everyday does not undermine the importance of tracing and highlighting the ongoing pursuit of political freedom, as Martinkus does. Rather, it foregrounds that, for many West Papuans, it is never easy to choose which road to follow. These choices manifest as much in Papuans’ political stances as in what they eat, what language they opt to speak and what they wear. Through these small acts, Papuans retrace ancestral roads of belonging and being, forged through custom and tradition. At the same time, these roads are sites of tentative experimentation, where Papuans creatively fashion new ways of becoming Papuan, both within and against Indonesian rule.

Sophie Chao

Friends, Allies and Enemies

This is a book review from Australian Foreign Affairs 10: Friends, Allies and Enemies. To read the full issue, log in, subscribe or buy the issue.