On Peace, the Pacific, and West Papua

Transcription of a talk given by Pala Molisa after an introduction by Rodger Burt, at Pataka’s “Peace Talks”, 10 October, 2015.

Artist: Rodger Burt


It’s an honour to be here, and to be part of interventions that are aimed at reframing the way we think about some of the greatest problems we face today. War, or militarisation is one of those, and it’s so great to be within a space that attempts to reframe how we think about war and how we try to deal with war from a peace ethic, as opposed to an ethic that always accepts the sacrifice of some of the most precious and vulnerable people in our societies. When we talk about war here in New Zealand, as we talk about war in all our ‘postcolonial’ (in scare quotes) settler societies – those that we sacrifice, those on the front lines, they’re always our indigenous, native, brown and black people. So it is really nice to be here.

I would just like to share a couple of thoughts about what our indigenous traditions would say about the path to peace. I don’t want to overlook the diversity across all our native traditions, but I think there are a few commonalities that you could almost say are some of the universal truths that bind, across all our traditions.

I think, you can’t have peace if your societies are based on lies. Peace is based on truth. You also can’t have peace if you live in societies that are based on atrocities, and those atrocities are based on what Andrea Dworkin calls ‘a deep silence’. This is a culturally and socially sanctioned silence.

If you think about the situation of Pasifika peoples today – and when I say Pasifika peoples, I want to clarify that I’m talking about all our Pacific peoples outside of Aotearoa, and I am talking about our tangata whenua brothers and sisters in Aotearoa. We are all Pasifika, and when we think about our position today, we are at the bottom of all our social and economic hierarchies – whether you talk about our health indicators, our economic indicators, social inequality has been deepening in Aotearoa for the past 40 years – but we are the ones who get it in the neck. One in ten Pakeha live in poverty in New Zealand; 3 to 4 Maori and Pasifika live in poverty in New Zealand. 1 in 4 kids are in poverty in New Zealand; 3 out of 5 Maori and Pasific kids live in poverty in New Zealand.

The question you have to raise is: why are we this way? There are historical reasons for this, and I think recognising that history is important, but I also want to recognise things that we also help perpetuate as a community. I think part of that is: we accept that sanctioned and imposed silence on our communities. The second thing is: we do not seriously that teaching inside both our indigenous traditions and also in our Christian traditions, that if you want to understand the nature of reality and you want to understand the nature of society, you have to start with what Jesus called ‘the least of these’. You have to start with what the liberation theologians called the ‘crucified peoples of history’, or what Franz Fanon called the ‘wretched of the Earth’; those at the absolute bottom.

When I think about the condition of Pasifika peoples for Aotearoa, that has to be, without doubt, those are our Maori brothers and sisters. They were here when the first ships from Europe arrived, and they are the ones who have been subjected to forms of systematic dispossession, 95% land loss, the displacement of tikanga Maori as a supreme law of Aotearoa – to something that is only practiced and which reigns supreme on marae. That is only a small insight into the colonial realities that we face today in Aotearoa.

Just an example of the colonial silence is the fact that we don’t talk about colonisation anymore, as an ever-present, everyday reality. If you look at our mainstream cultural discourse, we talk about it as something that happened in the past, not something that is happening today, dictating our everyday lives.

I talk about Aotearoa rather than West Papua to begin with, because I think if we want to change things, we have to start with where we are at, today. I begin with Aotearoa because I want to make the link to West Papua in this sense: if you move outside of Aotearoa into the region, probably the place where the definition, the legal and the United Nations definition of genocide and cultural genocide is most apt, it is probably West Papua.

Because the Indonesian government has kept out the press for so many decades, direct evidence of genocide is really hard to come by. But there are some very important studies coming out of Yale, coming out of the U.N. itself that offers very strong evidence showing that this process of genocide is now taking place in West Papua.

Estimates show that 5,000 people thus far have been killed outright for political reasons. Just for flying that Morning Star flag. There is also a state policy by Indonesia at the moment, to try to displace the population: trans-migration policies. Indonesia’s approximately 250 million people, the region of West Papua is only around 4.3 million. Right now, West Papuan and indigenous people, our Melanesian brothers and sisters, they’re now 48% of the population. Indonesians are now 52% because of this policy by the Indonesian government of taking people from the mainland of Indonesia into West Papua. They are systematically breeding out – the same thing happened here in New Zealand to make Maori a minority population – but that’s what’s happening now. There are a few estimations that are coming out: by 2020, that indigenous population of West Papua will come down to 25%, from 48%. That’s in five years. And you can do the projections outward. This is a process of ‘breeding out’ – that’s the blunt term – of breeding out indigenous people.

On top of that, there are also policies of cultural assimilation. They are pushing, they are separating, they are doing the same thing that Australia did under the white Australia policy. They are separating out our babies, from their mums and dads, putting them into foster care. The other thing they’re doing is religious conversion, and also educating, through the schooling system, educating West Papuan kids in the language of Indonesia and suppressing their native dialects.

If you look at people like Moana Jackson, Ani Mikaere, and a lot of our indigenous scholars: colonisation is premised on different planks. It’s not simply premised on killing out, physically; breeding out, physically, the indigenous population, it is also trying to kill the culture. First by separating people from the land, also by killing the language, and also by killing the cultural institutions that give the indigenous people their unique identity. That’s exactly what is happening in West Papua. If you put all those things together, the term ‘cultural genocide’ is not hyperbolic. It’s not an overblown description of what is going on. I think it is a really accurate term that is able to show the truth of what is happening in West Papua.

To close, when I think about the things that we have to do here if we want to do anything about West Papua, the first is we have to think about ways of breaking the socially imposed silence – the silence that is first of all already imposed on discourse about colonisation here in Aotearoa, and also making connections, important connections, between what is happening here, to our indigenous brothers and sisters here and our Pasifika peoples here, and those happening in the wider region. But if we have to do that, one of the most important challenges to face is to rethink and challenge some of the understandings that we have internalised.

A lot of our indigenous scholars talk about the problem of internal colonisation: where you accept self-understandings that keep you in subjection. We do not have time to go through all of these, but a couple of those I think are really important are first of all, this thing that Maori and Pacific are two distinct categories. Because essentially what you’re saying is, Maori and other Pacific people aren’t family. And we know that is not true. We know that is not true. And we all know about family: I don’t like you for certain things, you don’t like me for certain things, but underneath that we are family and we have to re-weave those threads of our collective and shared whakapapa that colonialism has broken, and that has to be an ongoing project.

I’d also suggest one of the things we have to do as part of that project is to reject those categories: Polynesia, Micronesia, Melanesia. Who the hell gave us those categories? Those categories did not come from us. Those categories did not come from our forebears. Before those categories came along, we were people of the Pacific. We need to stop thinking of ourselves as these isolated islands, little, vulnerable islands that have no power, no agency on the stage of world history. We are part of the richest, most culturally diverse area of the earth. We started traversing up and down the South Seas long before anybody else even thought of venturing beyond the horizon that was seen in Europe to be full of deep sea monsters.

So I think one of the things we have to do to address the situation in West Papua is to think about how those people over there – our brothers and sisters, that genocide that is going on there – if we do not address that, it will come on us, and it will come on our kids. There is such a thing as the sins of the fathers being visited on the sons and daughters. I don’t think in terms of karma, I think in terms of: if our generation doesn’t deal with the injustices that are on our doorsteps today, those injustices aren’t going anywhere. They’re just going to keep on coming down, through Papua New Guinea, through Solomon islands, down through Vanuatu, down through New Zealand. And of course, we know it’s already here. So we have to build that solidarity that our forebears had in the past, and we have to do that by breaking up the self-constraining chains and categories that we have that are given to us in school.

You know – you don’t get taught Pacific history in school. Real Pacific history. From Pacific peoples, from the standpoint recognising the needs, voices and aspirations of Pasifika peoples. We get taught a Europeanised history. And part of that project of self-determination and addressing the injustices such as those in West Papua, we have to start reclaiming that history as a part of our freedom struggle today. Kia ora.

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