Rev. Benny Giay, Chairman of Synod of Indonesian Gospel Tabernacle Church in Papua: Do We Have to Change the Color of Our Skin?
Chairman of the Synod of Indonesian Gospel Tabernacle Church (Kingmi) Church in Papua, Rev. Benny Giay regretted the conviction of seven Papuan political prisoners who were tried for treason.
HE said the accused were the victims of smoke screen allegations made up to divert the public attention away from the racism incident at the Papuan student dormitory in Surabaya, East Java, August last year. “If the police had moved faster and arrested those who hurled racial slurs in the first place, these seven young Papuans probably wouldn’t have been charged with treason,” Benny, 65, said during the special interview with Tempo last Thursday, June 18.
On June 17, the Balikpapan District Court’s panel of judges declared the seven men guilty and sent them to 10 to 11 months behind bars. Although the sentences are lighter than the five to 17 years sought by the prosecution, the men were still imprisoned for only participating in peaceful anti-racism protests. “The separatism allegation was deliberately made to divert the attention from the racism issue,” Benny added.
Benny who served as an expert witness in the trial said that the treason charge was the excess of discrimination, one of the four issues that can be traced to the roots of the conflicts in Papua. “The state must first settle these issues. If Papuans are still obstinate after that, then it’s okay to charge them with treason,” said the church elder who for decades have fought for the rights of indigenous Papuans.
From his residence in Sentani, Jayapura, Benny spoke to Tempo’s Mahardika Satria Hadi via telephone on Tuesday and Thursday, June 16 and 18. The theologian who specialized in social anthropology talked about the history of racism in the land of Papua, the stalled dialog with Jakarta, to his disappointment in President Joko Widodo.
What exactly is the root of racism in Papua?
It has already been spelled out by Indonesian Institute of Sciences in its book titled Papua Road Map published in 2009. There are four fundamental issues that caused the conflicts in Papua. One of them is discrimination which has been existent throughout the history of Papua ever since the integration began. A propaganda during the period 1961-1962 even said that the Indonesian government came to Papua to elevate the people of Papua to be equal to other ethnic groups of Indonesia. That already is a condescending statement and it reeks of racism. This discrimination that marginalizes the Papuans comes from the state, you see.
What are other factors besides discrimination?
Second, the Indonesian government’s failure to develop economy, health care and education in Papua. Third, the differing views between Papua and Indonesia regarding the history of Papua’s integration. Papuans think that Indonesia came to occupy the Papua land because we are a different country whereas the Indonesian government believes that Papua is its territory. These opposing views on the political status will never end. As a result, Papuans continue to fight. Fourth, the military oppression continues even to this day and human rights violations are never dealt with.
What should the central government do to end the conflicts in Papua?
Take care of those four problems mentioned above first. Now we have difference of opinions. There’s a clash of two different cultures like what the Indonesian and the Dutch people had in the past. As long as the state cannot resolve these issues, Papuans will continue to create troubles and end up in jail. This is a vicious cycle. Papuans understand that Papua and Aceh are the same, but they also see starkly different attitudes of the central government (towards the two provinces).
What kind of different treatments did the government give to Aceh dan Papua?
Aceh and Papua are the most resource-rich provinces, but most of the earnings are sent back to Jakarta. Both Aceh and Papua had independence movements: GAM (Free Aceh Movement) and OPM (Free Papua Movement), but the two issues were handled differently. Indonesia managed to dialog and negotiate with Aceh. After negotiations, GAM was no longer considered a separatist group so military oppression wasn’t necessary. Papuans now have ULMWP (United Liberation Movement for West Papua). Papuans also want to dialog and negotiate.
What is the problem?
We ask the same question. Do we have to change the color of our skin and hair? Or do we have to change our religion? In Aceh, the GAM flag was allowed to fly. In Papua, if we fly the Morning Star flag, we can be shot or jailed.
Enthusiasm for referendum is still strong there. Do you think the government is not responding to the request for dialog because Papua can separate itself from Indonesia?
Aceh asked for the same thing. GAM used to be quite fierce also, but in the end, it can sit down (with Jakarta). When can we talk like that? I think some sides are prolonging the conflicts in Papua for their own interests.
On December 16, 2011, Pak SBY (former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono) invited me and several church leaders in Papua to Cikeas. Several ministers were present at the meeting which was mediated by the Communion of Churches in Indonesia. Pak SBY said at the time that there were hardliners, an extremist group that didn’t want the government to engage in a dialog with Papua. The group is based in Jakarta, Jakarta-centric.
Rev. Benny Giay (right) with political prisoner Filep Karma at the Abepura Prison, May 2015./Special Photo
What is the name of the hardline group?
You can ask yourself later, (laughs). I think there are some elements in this country that do not want (the government to have dialogs about Papua).
What did you discuss with Yudhoyono that time?
In our holy book, four prophets had described Jesus Christ: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Each from own perspective. In the Papua issue, we need to use the interdisciplinary interpretation method. All this time, the government has used ‘separatism’ as a mono-interpretable word. We need to interpret separatism as a social protest against the policies and the development directions that do not take into account the Papuan people’s benefits. It’s only natural if Papuans have for years envisioned a new nation, a new way of thinking, a new society. Kelly Kwalik, an OPM leader, is labeled a separatist. To us Papuans, he is a nationalist because he is fighting injustice and exploitive developments in Papua. Like Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta who were called separatists and jailed by the Dutch government.
You also met with President Jokowi. What did you convey to him?
Yes, we met at the Palace on December 26, 2014. I reported to him about the shooting of five students in Paniai early December.
How did Jokowi respond?
We Papuans have difficulties understanding him. Sometimes he just kept quiet as we spoke. Perhaps it’s because of cultural differences. We are very expressive and speak our mind, but it’s hard for the Javanese, I guess. We had no idea if he took our message well or rejected it. He was just silent, so we were confused.
Were Jokowi’s multiple visits to Papua a form of special attention to the Papuan people?
Pak Jokowi went to Papua only for photo-ops for investment and infrastructure promotion. The Dutch government did the same. They built the road from Banten and East Java to civilize the people of Java. That’s the language of the ruler. Actually, Indonesia is repeating the practices of the countries that colonized third-world countries.
(After being re-elected as president, Jokowi returned to Papua in 2019. It was the first province he visited after the re-election. “I’ve been here 13 times. Draw your own conclusion what it means,” he said after inaugurating Youtefa Bridge in Jayapura on October 28, 2019.)
Why hasn’t Jokowi’s initiative to hold a dialog in Papua been successful?
He doesn’t run the country by himself. He has to bring with him several parties—perhaps those well-established old players here—to the negotiation table. That’s our analysis. Both Jokowi and us have been rendered powerless. But he is the president, and we are ordinary people. I think we’re indeed stupid, (chuckles). We don’t understand ‘high-level (political) games’.
You supported Jokowi in 2014. What was the reason?
Maybe my expectations were too high. But in the five years, he never even pointed the finger at the parties that created troubles here. After his election, conflicts and violence continue including the shooting of five students in Paniai. That (shooting) was after all a human rights violation.
You no longer supported him the 2019 election?
There were many things. In 2015, he came and released political prisoners. He promised to allow foreign media into Papua, but the next day, the home minister and the intelligence chief repudiated his statement. So, the president really baffled us.
You were invited as an expert witness to an anti-racism trial session held at the Jayapura District Court on January 20. What did you tell the court?
I said starting that day, the court should not use the treason article. The case was the result of the four unfinished root problems. Jokowi’s development activities only put out the smoke, but not the fire—the four problems. President Jokowi must go down the same road that SBY and Jusuf Kalla took to resolve the Aceh problems by inviting embittered folks in Papua.
Whoever are the embittered ones?
I believe the OPM, KNPB (West Papua National Committee), all kinds of factions now joined under the ULMWP. On September 30, 2019, Pak Jokowi made a statement that he was ready to meet with pro-referendum groups.
Apart from the conflicts, why is Papua which already has the special autonomy status still not developed?
For whom were development activities done in Papua? So many new provinces, so much funds, but none addressed the problems intrinsic to the Papuan people. The special autonomy budget spending priorities do not include what the Papuan people really need. It’s like treating the feet of someone who has a headache. Irrelevant.
Corruption in Papua is relatively untouched. What is the solution?
It is a systematized corruption starting from the central up till here. ‘Collective’ corruption began in 2001 when Papuans suddenly got a lot of money (via the special autonomy fund). I said in the past that Papuans who would occupy public offices should learn alternative thinking strategies. They should study at least six to seven months in the countries with special autonomy systems already in place so that the implementation in Papua can be done with a fresh perspective.
How do conflicts among political elites worsen this situation?
Papuans have been led to think in Indonesia’s framework since the 60s. It’s quite difficult to assess corruption in Papua apart from Jakarta. Coupled with the fact that not all Papuans are godly. Papuans here who don’t have mutual trust can ‘play’ in Jakarta. There was a regent who rebelled against the governor. Since the regional autonomy status had not been abolished, he could collude with those at the central to defy the governor who held the autonomous authority in the province.
The government plans to add several new autonomy regions in Papua and West Papua. Can the expansion resolve the issues faced by the Papuan people?
All this expansion is without seeking suggestions from the below. It’s only for the sake of the state’s interests and security. I believe that is racism. The Papuan people’s voices are not heard. We are considered unimportant perhaps because they think we are monkeys.
Since when have you plunged yourself into activism to defend Papuans’ rights?
In the 80s when I was still with the seminary. There was a course on racism. That time, churches around the world rallied together to fight the brutal apartheid system in South Africa. We also took to the streets. That was part of a seminary course on the history of churches, theology and social ethics.
To what extent did the anti-apartheid struggle inspire you?
That time, the Cenderawasih University students were led by Arnold Clemens Ap, a cultural hero of the Papuan people. He and his group were inspired by Steve Biko, a medical student in South Africa who led the Black Consciousness movement. They nurtured ideas that we as black people are also useful (to society). We were countering Indonesia’s system that saw black people as dirty and primitive. So, Arnold Ap’s movement which at the time was quite strong also influenced us the students at the theology school. We also learned from the movements in South Africa.
Some Papuans liken you to Desmond Tutu, a religious leader and activist who challenged the apartheid system...
Don’t believe them because they haven’t elected me (as a leader) yet, (laughs). I think Desmond Tutu is a great leader who fought tooth and nail for his people. I almost had the chance to see him when I went to South Africa in August 2017, but he was very ill and had to be hospitalized. I was invited to South Africa as a church representative at the time because I used to study about that country.
How do you see the role of the churches in Papua in voicing the rights of the indigenous Papuans?
During the period 1964-1965, all religious leaders and foreign missionaries were summoned to Jakarta one by one over each weekend, to be indoctrinated in Bogor during the week. Before they returned, they were asked to sign a document saying they supported the regime. That measure coupled with the presence of heavy military presence terrified the Papuan people and churches. That also influenced the churches into thinking that they must collaborate with the government.
Do the churches still maintain that kind of belief?
I see that the churches also shared the blame as an institution which have the duty to guide the public to have open mind and critical thinking. But these churches were also divided. We’ve been conditioned by the system and the historical developments so people can distinguish between pro-NKRI (Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia) and pro-independent Papua.
• Place and date of birth: Onago, Netherlands New Gunea, January 12, 1955 • Education: Bachelor of Arts in Theology, Cenderawasih University, Jayapura (1977); Master of Arts in Theology, Asia Baptist Graduate Theological Seminary, Philippines (1985); PhD in Social Anthropology, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Netherlands (1995); PhD in Theology, Teruna Bhakti Christian Seminary, Yogyakarta (2016) • Career: Lecturer, Jaffray Theological College, Makassar (1983), Pastor, Gospel Tabernacle Church (Since 1987), Lecturer, Walter Post Theological Seminary, Jayapura (Since 1995), Chairman, Synod of Gospel Tabernacle Church in Papua (2010-2020) • Organization: Founder, Forum for Irian Jaya People’s Reconciliation (1998) • Award: Tanenbaum Peacemakers in Action Award (2003)
How do you identify the church that you lead?
The church I lead has been accused as being the supporter of pro-independence groups.
Who made the accusation?
A secret document mentioned the Kingmi church in Papua as a supporter of the separatist movement. I personally was also called the same by Pak Pangdam (the commander of the military district command) XVII/Cenderawasih (Maj. Gen. Erfi Triassunu) in April, 2011. There were some sides that were unhappy with us so they complained to the commander. What I regretted was the fact that the commander did not verify the information with us. The accusation was later withdrawn after church leaders paid a visit to the Papua Legislative Council.
Did you ever experience any repressive treatment?
I was forbidden to leave the country in 2001 when I was invited to speak at the Papua People’s Congress held in the United States.
How do you envision the future of Papua?
The future of Papua is in the hands of the Papuan people who understand their positions in the relation with Indonesia today and with racism. We do not have a bargaining position in this country. Just end first all the nonsense about Papua’s independence. That can only be achieved if the Papuan people understand their position, like the black people in South Africa did eventually bringing Nelson Mandela to freedom.