‘My conscience says that I am innocent’


On the Balikpapan 7 and what it tells us about matters of conscience


After telling you last month we’d be publishing Voice of Papua once a month, we’re back this month with two editions. And that’s because the last few weeks have been revelatory: if not for Papuans, who have long known the injustices they face in their dealings with security forces and the justice system, then for Indonesians, and the international community.

As #Papuanlivesmatter floated around the social web as a parallel, intertwined movement with #blacklivesmatter, a landmark case about whether seven Papuans’ actions constituted an anti-racism protest, or treason, was being deliberated by an Indonesian court.

The Balikpapan 7, as the seven men were known, were facing up to 17 years in prison, as requested by prosecutors. This week, they all received up to 11 months in prison instead, found guilty under Indonesian law of treason.


In this edition we want to break down why this case was important, and what the charge of treason for what these men actually means. We also want to explore why the reactions to the case reveal how the discussion is changing in Indonesia and beyond.

Buchtar Tabuni, a leading figure in the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, was among those found guilty, though in his defence he argued that he had not even been present when the actions took place. Tabuni’s oration to the court included a line that was almost poetic in his defence:

“Your Excellencies, it’s not that I am objecting to the 11 months sentence, but my conscience says that I am innocent.”

[Tabuni was also jailed for three years from 2008 on treason charges. As his story goes, he had just become involved in Papuan activism that same year, when a relative of his was shot by a stray bullet by Indonesian security forces while Papuans in Wamena, in the central highlands of Papua, held a peaceful rally on UN International Indigenous Day].

Matters of conscience

Papuan academic Elvira Rumkabu offered a broader perspective on these matters of conscience in a recent online discussion (IND) called Racism vs Treason, hosted by Papuan newspaper Jubi. She said that discussions about Papua were only framed as a binary: A free Papua, or that sovereignty of the Indonesian state cannot be disputed. It meant that those wishing to talk about humanitarian issues and racism are forced within this binary, and are stigmatised as separatists. She said:

“For me, this construction [of this binary] is terrible. It has killed people’s aspirations, like humanitarian issues in Papua”

You can also read more of her comments in English, or hear her in English in conversation with Australian anthropologist Jenny Munro on the programme Late Night Live on ABC Radio National (17/06).

Keep Elvira’s words in mind as we return to the verdict:

We briefly described their move from Papua to Kalimantan last edition of the newsletter. What legal aid lawyer Gustaf Kawer, (online discussion) and Tapol UK expanded on was the lack of proper procedure: that they were “arrested without warrants, and some were then tortured, blindfolded and subjected to questioning without a lawyer being present”.

Buchtar Tabuni’s wife, Dessy Awom, told Voice of Papua that the day that the Papua Uprising unfolded, Tabuni was in the garden. A joint-police and military operation arrived to arrest him without a warrant. They searched their house first, and then the garden. “The brigade went rampage, broke the door, scattered all our items inside the cupboard, all the furniture were dismantled. Two of our piglets were killed and drowned in our fish pond”. Dessy was hiding in the garden  when the brigade arrested Tabuni.

The UK-based human rights organisation Tapol also argued that throughout the case, “prosecutors and judges focused on putting the political beliefs of the Seven on trial, rather than the riots which they were alleged to have masterminded.” Amnesty International Indonesia pointed out (IND) that Indonesia has ratified the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which expressly guarantees freedom of opinion and expression.

Reactions to the sentencing

As many observers have pointed out, the judges delivered significantly lower sentences for all men, of less than a year, compared to the up to 17 years the prosecutors were seeking. (One of the seven’s lawyers, Emmanuel Gobay, said they were still considering whether they would appeal). What does the judges’ relatively light sentencing mean? Is it an attempt to walk a fine line between placating the police, and minimising the reputational fall out for charging protesters with treason?  We’d love to hear your thoughts. We also sought out perspectives about the length of sentencing from:

Filep Karma, a Papuan activist who was jailed for more than 10 years in 2004 for waving the Morning Star flag – a symbol of Papuan independence banned in Indonesia, who argued that the decision was less about being fair, and more about media attention of the case:

“It seems that the country is considering the international pressure, and also perhaps they are afraid that Papua will be in turmoil again,” he said. “If the Indonesian government decides to truly be fair and honest and admit that they have committed wrongdoing when arresting these people, they will have to give them compensation.”

Veronica Koman, Indonesian human rights lawyer in exilewho focuses on the West Papua issue, told us that the lower verdict did not reduce the lack of convincing evidence presented by the prosecutor:

“In the verdict, they mentioned evidence such as a belt, decorative lights, Christmas lights, charger handphone and notebook, cable roll, this is absurd. This trial is absurd. Don’t be fooled by the lower verdict.”

Victor Yeimo, the spokesperson of the KNPB (The National Committee for West Papua) gave Febri the first comment on the verdict post-announcement, and said that it was:

“…Not a form of justice but somewhat influenced by the pressure from the solidarity for Papuans, Indonesian and International (community), which succeeded in hitting Jakarta. It is a victory of solidarity against the injustice and crime of the state.

Therefore, we must conclude that forcing the resolution of political conflict cases through criminal law has proven to be unsuccessful and will never succeed. Everyone wants and fights for a democratic and peaceful solution because prison will never stop the struggle.”

Yeimo also argued in an op-ed published in Suara Papua (Ind) before the court’s decision was delivered, that the question of whether Indonesia was racist, or colonialist, would be answered by the result of the trial.  It’s a view that was echoed by protesting university students in Papua, as covered by Suara Papua (Ind).

Where the media is at with Papua

On a national and international level, the way observers and media responded to this case gives a good idea of where we’re at in terms of how Papua is spoken about more generally. You can’t look at media reporting on the case without thinking about how Papua has been historically covered in Indonesian media. Pretty much… not at all, or as fetishising advertisements for the power of the Indonesian military. It’s kind of one of the reasons Voice of Papua exists— to counter that, and make it accessible to non-Indonesian readers as well. Props to Indonesian magazine Tempo for publishing a range of interesting perspectives though, including by journalist activist Tantowi Anwari, who offered an explanation of why the media frames Papuan issues as it does. He argues that traditionally most information about Papua was provided by actors such as the military or police, without considering the perspectives of Papuan victims. At the same time, coverage of Papua was shaped by an industry that might include inexperienced graduate reporters. Their lack of understanding about the issue and failure to adhere to a code of ethics that compels them to represent different views makes the reporting, well… kinda racist. There are exceptions— and even maybe evidence that things are changing. Tempo’s coverage on the intimidation of civil rights groups and its threat to democracy is interesting to delve into. News outlets Detik and Suara.com also covered protests by Papuans in Surabaya (ENG/ IND) and Aceh solidarity actions (ENG/IND). [Jakartanicus also documented the protest on the Balikpapan 7 in Jakarta. Very interesting listening to the orators who said that “If you ask Papuans, they always have a story of their family being killed etc.” and of course people still yelling the slogan, “West Papua? Freedom!” Watch here.]

Indonesian government newswire Antara earlier cited the national police spokesman who refuted the idea that the seven were political prisoners, calling them criminals. None of us are lawyers, and we always thought that regular crime cannot be treated as treason, but hey, what do we know? Regardless, the police’s insistence on their criminality hints at a subtle acknowledgement that this whole time there was a perception, even amongst some Indonesians, that these men indeed were political prisoners. CNN Indonesia wrote about the Civil Society Coalition for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, who argue this to be the case, and call for President Jokowi to give amnesty to all Papua political prisoners (IND/ENG).

What we are watching, reading, listening to…

Papuan news outlet Jubi has been hosting some really interesting dialogues recently — another one to catch is Papuan journalists talking about Papuan issues from a media perspective. It’s in Indonesian too. 

Happy birthday to Carmel Budiardjo! She turned 95 this week and has been on the forefront of human rights activism (i.e.: kicking oppressive ass)  in Indonesia through Tapol UK for over half a century, as this profile describes.

#BlackLivesMatter shines a light on webs of racism in West Papua. Jenny Munro, an anthropologist who has worked on gender, health and sexuality in Indonesia since 2003, shocked us with her writing revealing this: “Turning closer to home, the Australia Awards Scholarships program has been in operation for many years, with hundreds of Indonesian recipients annually. Yet even with a dedicated focus on eastern Indonesia, anecdotally, few Papuan students meet entry requirements. Even if they overcome a deeply racialised education system and complete their undergraduate studies, Papuan students report that they then face extensive questioning by examiners about their links to any of the political “separatist” groups.” Read more here.

(Gia also experienced this when she was being interviewed for a scholarship (which, by the way, was not in Australia— a further indication that Papuans face this problem everywhere). She had to assure an interviewer that she would not abandon her studies to join the Free West Papua campaign. It is kind of messed up that she did not realise how problematic this was until years later, and that only after someone pointed it out. She always thought that there was something about her that invited the question, it did not occur to her until then that all she had to do to inspire that inquiry was be a Papuan.)

How Black Lives Matter reached to Indonesia and inspired solidarity with Papuans? Veronica Koman is an Indonesian human rights lawyer in exile in Australia and Ronny Kareni is an Australian-based West Papuan musician and activist, wrote an op-ed in the Sydney Morning Heralds. A must read.

West Papua and Black Lives Matter. Sophie Chao is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Sydney. Her research explores the intersections of Indigeneity, ecology, and capitalism in West Papua, and she just wrote an essay about the current movement of Papuan Lives Matter, inspired by the death of George Floyd. It’s an interesting essay and offers the context of the history of prejudice over the course of the nineteenth century, when the term ‘Papua’ transformed into a biologised category and came to define a racially distinctive area encompassing island Southeast Asia and the western Pacific, variously named ‘Papuanesia’ or ‘Oceanic Negroland.’ Learn more about the history here.

In line with the essay by Dr. Chao, we can also direct you to an article by historian Sandra Khor Manickam. The article, Africans in Asia: The Discourse of ‘Negritos’ in Early Nineteenth-century Southeast Asia, discusses how in addition to beliefs about Africans, a discursive process turned an enslaved Papuan boy to an archetype of what Papuans were and are. It is the sixth chapter of the book Responding to the West: Essays on Colonial Domination and Asian Agency edited by Hans Hagerdal (coincidentally, one of Gia’s favourite historians). The book is (legally) free. We are being very careful here, we want to avoid any accusations of treason.

See you next month!

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