President Obama, What Would Your Mother Say?

President Obama turned his back on Indonesia recently — canceling his visit there for the second time this year. His mother, Ann Soetoro, was a cultural anthropologist who spent much of her adult life helping economically-marginalized people of Indonesia. If she were still alive, she might well be disappointed in her son.

As President Obama turns his attention to the oil spill in the Gulf, the U.S. Congress is reminding him of other important issues in a seemingly remote corner of Indonesia. A resolution introduced by Rep. Patrick Kennedy (H.Res. 1355) calls attention to the human rights problems in West Papua, the half of New Guinea that was invaded by Indonesia in 1962.

In the President’s autobiography, Dreams from My Father, he recalls a conversation with Lolo Soetoro, his step-father who had just returned home after a tour of duty with the Indonesian military in West Papua. Obama asked his step-father: “Have you ever seen a man killed?” Lolo responded affirmatively, recounting the bloody death of “weak” men.

Ann Soetoro never spoke out publicly about Indonesian atrocities in West Papua, but she divorced her husband shortly after he came back from the frontlines of this war.

Papuan intellectuals and political activists, kin of the “weak” men killed by Lolo Soetoro, have read Obama’s autobiography with keen interest. They still embrace the message of hope from the Presidential campaign and the slogan, “Yes We Can.”

At a moment when many Americans are questioning whether Obama will be able to fulfill his campaign promises, when everyone is wondering if he can reign in the hubris of the corporate executives who produced the disaster in the Gulf, it is worth considering these enduring hopes in West Papua.

Perhaps it is time for those of us who were drawn in by the slogan “Yes We Can” to remind the President that grassroots political movements still have power.

Many people, including some anthropologists, do not know the difference between West Papua* and Papua New Guinea. The subject of several classic anthropology books — from Margaret Mead’s Growing Up in New Guinea to Marilyn Strathern’s Gender of the Gift — the independent nation of Papua New Guinea is familiar to almost anyone who has taken an introductory anthropology class. Indonesia is also well known among academics who study culture or politics. Cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz told us tales of Balinese cockfights and Javanese religious systems, and political scientist Benedict Anderson famously wrote about imagined communities and power in Indonesia.

At the edge of national and scholarly boundaries, West Papua, in contrast, falls through the cracks.

Anthropologists and scholars in allied disciplines should join human rights advocates and others in noticing West Papua. Amnesty International is currently working with Representative Kennedy’s office to pass his Resolution which calls attention to many pressing problems:

“Whereas Amnesty International has identified numerous prisoners of conscience in Indonesian prisons, among them Papuans such as Filep Karma and Yusak Pakage, imprisoned for peaceful political protests including the display of the ‘‘morning star’’ flag which has historic, cultural, and political meaning for Papuans…

“Whereas a Human Rights Watch report on June 5, 2009, noted ‘‘torture and abuse of prisoners in jails in Papua is rampant’’;

“and Whereas prominent Indonesian leaders have called for a national dialogue and Papuan leaders have called for an internationally-mediated dialogue to address long-standing grievances in Papua and West Papua.”

If passed, this Resolution would give President Obama some issues of substance to talk about with Indonesian leaders once he does make a return trip to Southeast Asia. Resolutions are non-binding acts that convey the sentiments of Congress.

Amnesty International, and the other human rights groups advocating for this resolution, are up against powerful forces. Transnational companies have been lobbying for stronger military ties with Indonesia. The same company that brought us the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, BP, has a huge natural gas field in West Papua called Tangguh.

Starting this year, BP is scheduled to start shipping super-cooled gas from this site (liquid natural gas or LNG) to North America where it will be piped into the homes of millions in California, Oregon and other westerns states.

BP has been a major donor to the U.S.-Indonesia Society, an organization committed to educating congressional staff and administration officials about the “importance of the United States-Indonesia relationship.” The U.S.-Indonesia Society is also supported by Freeport McMoRan, a company that operates one of the world’s largest gold and copper mines in West Papua.

The American public is starting to reign in the irresponsible behavior of companies like BP that have created domestic disasters. American must also reckon with the foreign entanglements of the companies supplying the U.S. natural resources and should question the politicians who have led the United States into a series of environmental catastrophes and debacles on foreign soil.

Who the official cosponsors of Kennedy’s Resolution on West Papua are is public knowledge.

If your representative hasn’t yet signed on, call the House switchboard: (202) 224-3121. Ask to speak with your representative’s office. Once you get through to the office of your congressman or congresswoman, identify yourself as a “constituent” and ask to speak with the staff person responsible for international affairs or human rights. Once you have that person on the phone (or, more likely, are transferred to their voice mail), identify yourself by name, where you live or the place you work, and say “Please support H.Res. 1355 from Patrick Kennedy’s office about political prisoners in West Papua.” Sometimes the person you end up talking to will want to chat, but often they will be brief.

Or, you can click through to this Amnesty International action center.

The responses that human rights advocates are calling for today is pathetically small compared to the scale of the problem. Making your voice heard is one step toward addressing U.S. entanglements and misadventures in a seemingly remote corner of the world.

S. EBEN KIRKSEY is a cultural anthropologist who earned his Ph.D. at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Freedom in Entangled Worlds, his forthcoming book, published by Duke University Press, explores the social and political dynamics of West Papua’s independence movement from 1998 till 2008.

*In 1961 a council of indigenous New Guinea intellectuals declared that their land, then known as Netherlands New Guinea, would henceforth be known as West Papua. Indonesia. Weeks after this declaration, Indonesia invaded and named their newly acquired territory Irian Jaya. Now this place is officially known as the Indonesian Provinces of West Papua and Papua—though many indigenous people? continue to use the name West Papua to refer to the entire territory.

Suggested readings.

Butt, L. 2005. ‘”Lipstick Girls”‘ and ‘”Fallen Women”‘: AIDS and Conspiratorial Thinking in West Papua, Indonesia’. Cultural Anthropology 20(3):412-442.

Farhadian, Charles E. 2005 Christianity, Islam, and Nationalism in Indonesia. New York: Routledge.

Glazebrook, Diana 2008. Permissive Residents: West Papuan Refugees Living in Papua New Guinea. Canberra: Australian National University.

Golden, Brigham 2003 “Political Millenarianism and the Economy of Conflict: Reflections on Papua by an Activist Anthropologist” Asia Source, 23 June,

Kirksey, S. Eben 2009 “Don’t Use Your Data as a Pillow,” in Alisse Waterston and Maria D. Vesperi (eds.) Anthropology Off the Shelf: Anthropologists on Writing, pp. 146-159, Wiley-Blackwell.

Kirsch, Stuart 2010 “Ethnographic Representation and the Politics of Violence in West Papua” Critique of Anthropology 30(1):3–22.

Rutherford, Danilyn 2005. ‘Nationalism and Millenarianism in West Papua: Institutional Power, Interpretive Practice, and the Pursuit of Christian Truth’, in June Nash (ed.) Social Movements: An Anthropological Reader, pp. 146–67. London: Blackwell.

Stasch, Rupert 2001 “Giving Up Homicide: Korowai Experience of Witches and Police (West Papua)” Oceania 72:33-52.

This article originally appeared on the excellent website AnthropologyWorks.