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West Papua: Rape The Women To Rape The Land

Image by Ryan Clark.

West Papua is often described as “remote”, a handy word conveying two meanings: a pristine place for an exotic holiday and too far away for most people to give a damn. The Jakarta Post gives as its first reason for visiting this wonderland, “Dive with Friendly Whale Sharks”. Number 8 on the list is gawking at friendly natives, naturally including, for wannabe great explorers, “some that have never been in contact”. It’s exotic but safe, or so Number 9 implies because you can swim among “thousands of stingless jellyfish”. Unfortunately, the Indonesian military isn’t as innocuous as the blobby water creatures. To confirm this, you only need to read the Yale Law School report titled “Indonesian Human Rights Abuses in West Papua: Application of the Law of Genocide to the History of Indonesian Control”. This genocide continues today, largely because the “international community” and its media are as spineless as the jellyfish. The Guardian, for example, sneakily blames the West Papuans for their suffering: a “secessionist campaign has run for decades”.

The fact that remote places are a law unto themselves, or at least unto the musclemen running them, has quite an appeal for people like Elon Musk who like doing their thing without too much scrutiny. And for regimes like Indonesia’s, it’s handy to have a billionaire celebrity with a bizarre project to put a bit of celebrity gloss on its militarized barbarity, or to distract from it. Last December, Indonesian president Joko Widodo offered Musk part of Biak island (population, at least 140,000) to play with his SpaceX project (and bugger the traditional hunting grounds that will be devastated by the process of blasting-off of 12,000 satellites, if he actually gets the launches to work).

But how did Indonesia get West Papua’s land to give it away so insouciantly? In a nutshell, the fraudulent UN-supervised “Act of Free Choice” of 1969 gave Indonesia—its military, to be precise—uncontrolled access to West Papua’s vast natural resources. And since a hefty part of the military’s budget comes from its control of extractive industries, these men are engaged in defiling and ravishing the land and, of course, its people. It’s calculated that at least half a million West Papuans have been murdered but this isn’t as much about “secessionism” (read: right to self-determination) as about land grabbing and keeping the military men rich and in power. On the receiving end, West Papuans rely on their ever-dwindling land for their economic, social, and cultural survival.

One little-known aspect of the genocide in West Papua is that sexualized violence is a big part of the general violence that’s driving people from their land. And this fits into a global (hence not remote) pattern of war rape. A penis is an easily transportable weapon of biological warfare, so in recent decades systematic war rape has been recorded in the Balkans, Bangladesh, Rwanda, Uganda, Myanmar, East Timor, Congo, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Kosovo, Darfur, West Papua, and elsewhere. This is a strategy that undermines the dignity and morale of the victim population by destroying, long-term, the basic fabric of society. It’s also a sadistic instrument of torture when men are forced to watch their wives and daughters being raped, a way of mocking the masculinity of men who can’t protect their wives.

It’s difficult to get information about what’s happening in West Papua as it’s off-limits to independent journalists and researchers. If they do enter the country, officials monitor their every move, and the people fear for their lives if they speak to outsiders. However, painstaking efforts have pieced together a picture that led the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women to conclude in 1999 that the Indonesian security forces used rape “as an instrument of torture and intimidation”. More recently, at least one study has documented “cruelly creative sexualized sadism (against the genitals of men and women, and routinely with audiences forced to watch)”. What is “creative” sexualized sadism? To give an example, one informant “witnessed the penises being cut off a number of men in his village. Another informant saw the vagina cut out of a woman and her husband made to eat it.” This apparently random terror becomes total terror because any woman can be a victim, so the indigenous people flee their land. Then the military claims it, bringing about social and environmental catastrophe in the process.

But the terror isn’t really random. It’s deliberate. The relationship between extractive industries and sexual violence is clear in reports of systematic rape of women in the surrounds of Grasberg, site of the world’s largest gold and second largest copper mine—of the notorious Freeport-McMoRan—which, for thirty years, has been dumping millions of tons of heavy-metal mine waste into the Ajkwa river system, and also destroying lowland and mangrove forests before fouling the Arafura Sea. Army and police forces use rape to torture women when interrogating them on the whereabouts of their husbands who are suspected of being members or supporters of the Free Papua Movement (OPM). One witness describes the horror that lives on in people’s memories, terrorizing whole populations for generations.

A twelve-year-old Amungme girl became the victim of continual sexual violence. [A]… patrol came to this girl’s house where she lived with an older sibling and her parents. When the soldiers saw the victim, they invited her to go to their post. Because she refused, one of them… raped her in front of her parents. Soldiers took turns raping the victim. As a result of the rapes she became pregnant and gave birth to a child. After there was a turnover of troops in the village, this girl again became the target of rape, and this continued for five troop turnovers. In the end this victim had five children.

If the penis becomes weaponized in West Papua so too do women’s bodies. According to Survival International, HIV infection rates in “remote” West Papua are fifteen times higher than the national average, and even higher around the Grasberg mine. “Some Papuans believe the military deliberately brings prostitutes infected with the virus into tribal areas. Soldiers have been known to offer alcohol and sex workers to tribal leaders in order to gain access to their land and its resources.”

The Indonesian regime generally manages to cover up its atrocities, but the way this systematic sexual violence works in West Papua can be deduced from other cases. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, war rape of Muslim and Croatian women was official policy. It was rape under control. “It is also rape unto death, rape as massacre, rape to kill and to make the victims wish they were dead. It is rape as an instrument of forced exile, rape to make you leave your home and never want to go back. It is also rape to be seen and heard by others: rape as spectacle. It is the rape of xenophobia liberated by misogyny and unleashed by official command.” It is also rape with a plan for the future: impregnating Muslim and Croatian girls and women, supposedly to build the Serbian state with “Serb” babies (sons) who would “infiltrate” the mother’s group. The infant plants then became victims as well when they were rejected or stigmatized by the mother’s people. In this crime of wrongful procreation children are used to poison communities by reminding everyone of their awful origins.

Rape on this scale undermines a whole group ethos. Victims, abused because of their identity, feel revulsion for it and don’t want to live with the stigma. In the colonial context, rape becomes genocidal when it attacks a native woman because she’s native. In her study of sexual violence, Andrea Smith writes, “every Native survivor I have ever counseled said to me at one point, ‘I wish I was no longer Indian.’” More pervasively, rape was used to instill a patriarchal system in Indian cultures. “In order to colonize a people whose society was not hierarchical, colonizers must first naturalize hierarchy through instituting patriarchy. Patriarchal gender violence is the process by which colonizers inscribe hierarchy and domination on the bodies of the colonized.” Men attack the “weaker sex” but know at some level that they must destroy women’s power in the community. Writing of Darfur, Sarah Clark Miller observes, “Genocidal rape’s abominable effectiveness corrupts women’s roles as caretakers of relationships, conveyors of cultural practices, and sustainers of meaning, using these normally nurturing roles against the community.”

Piecing together the scraps of available information, one sees that these are the kinds of effects that systematic rape is having in West Papua. One survey found that four out of ten women had been subjected to Indonesian state violence. And, since no kind of violence exists alone, it’s no accident that rape violence occurs in regions with “strategic” extractive industries like mining, oil palm plantations, aloe wood, and fishing. Sexual violence and violence against the Earth are intimately connected.

In the Anthropocene championship, Indonesia has gained, by brutal means, two firsts, world’s biggest goldmine and biggest palm oil producer. Another probable first would be “by the most brutal means”. Undismayed by climate crisis warnings, Indonesia is pushing on with its megaplans, including that of building a 2700-mile trans-Papua highway, a road system that will rip through densely forested and mountain regions, including the Lorenz National Park, a World Heritage Site, looking for more access to minerals, fossil fuels, timber, and land for vast palm oil plantations. This of course means biodiversity loss, forest loss and fragmentation, and green-house gas emissions. One hectare of peatland rainforest can produce 6,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide when it’s converted into a plantation. Indonesian peat fires cause most of the unbreathable haze that has been choking much of Southeast Asia in recent years to the extent that it’s estimated that these fires caused up to 100,000 premature deaths in 2015 alone.

Women are raped in West Papua so military men can stay in power by raping the land, violating it, and ravishing the whole planet. A long time ago, the anthropologist Franz Boas (whose doctorate from Kiel was rescinded by the Nazis and his books burned) insisted that, in the indisputable unity of humanity, there’s no hierarchy of “races” (a notion he abhorred), languages, and cultures but only a multitude of peoples; that no culture has any natural claim to superiority. The word “remote” covers up a lot and it creates a superior “us” and an exploitable “them”. Meanwhile, the west, in its superiority, jabbers on about universal human rights while blithely ignoring the extinction of ways of living that are much more compatible with coexistence on this planet. The World Bank calls big infrastructure a “blunt instrument” of progress. In West Papua, the blunt instrument of rape has come to represent the most perverse kind of progress. And hardly anyone (except the rapists) gives a fuck.

Daniel Raventós is a lecturer in Economics at the University of Barcelona and author inter alia of Basic Income: The Material Conditions of Freedom (Pluto Press, 2007). He is on the editorial board of the international political review Sin Permiso.   Julie Wark is an advisory board member of the international political review Sin Permiso. Her last book is The Human Rights Manifesto (Zero Books, 2013).

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