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Theys Eluay and The Ambitions of West Papua Leaders


A Brief History of Theys Eluay

Dubbed as a leader who can unite tribes, interest groups, and communities, Theys Eluay was born with the name Dortheys Hiyo Eluwai in Fale Sentani, 2 November 1938. Theys, much like other figures in Papua, always had a strong impression, left a strong side note in the history and also delivered a strong message for the people of Papua, for how they struggled, how they protested against injustice, and that was feared at the time because there were more and more people getting involved. Also, Theys was (and possibly still) indeed a strong enough figure who gave that enthusiasm to the people of Papua.

Since the death of Dortheys Hiyo Eluay, West Papua is missing a figure of a non-partisan leader. Nonetheless, near the end of his life, Theys had shown that while Papua can unite, none of all separatist leaders were free from the chain of their own personal ambitions, and it is time for the people of Papua to carry their voice by themselves.

In the social structure of the Sentani tribe, Theys was known as ondofoawi or leader. In the communal traditions of Papuans, this position was advantageous and seen as very charismatic for the Sentani tribe, so that the words from Theys were always a command for the people.

The Theys’ campaign in politics began when he was elected as a member of the People’s Consultative Assembly in 1961. This council was formed to fight for the return of the Bumi Cendrawasih to Indonesia. As a tribe leader, he gained enormous support in his entrance to the world of politics.

Theys’ mainstream political career began when he joined the Indonesian Christian Party in 1971 and gained a seat in the parliament. However, this was the point where his personal ambition as a politician started to rise.

In 1977, Theys parted ways with the Christian Party to join Suharto’s majority holder: Golongan Karya (Golkar). Golongan Karya never lost the top share of the votes during Suharto’s 32 years of power. Theys then became a member of the Irian Jaya Regional House of Representatives as a representative from Golkar faction and firmly held the position for the next three periods since 1978, during Suharto regime.

He was a figure who unites all existing elements, Theys emerged as a truly expected leader, he emerges amid silence, where Papuans did not have a leading figure and the long-awaited persona came at the right time.

Theys did contribute in the fight for the establishment of the pillars of democracy, justice, and peace in the Land of Papua to the great houses of Indonesia remain standing firmly, to continue to pursue higher aspirations to become the largest democracy respected and respected by other nations throughout the world without being interrupted by blurred portraits of past history .

Something to be noted of, Theys was not a part of the separatists, nor was he into the Free Papua Organization (OPM), but Theys was one of the best sons of the people who have struggled to sacrifice their lives and bodies (or become candles that have been burned down) to illuminate their people during the Dutch colonial ruling. Theys used to be purely fighting for fair, honest, democratic and dignified dialogue between the people of Papua and the Indonesian government without using violence.

We have to admit that Theys was a charismatic figure, much needed in a region of diverse subcultures and languages. Theys was indeed critical enough to fight for the basic rights of indigenous Papuans to enjoy justice and freedom just like Indonesian citizens in other parts of the archipelago. What Theys often emphasized was peaceful struggle and in the corridor of manners and love.

A changed turns of events for him, Theys did not get re-elected in 1992, ending his era as a parliament member. Later on, he continued speaking on behalf of Papuans in the Papuan Congress, and then in Papuan Presidium.

Rise of Separatism as a Populist Movement

West Papua itself is home for 312 different tribes, including some remote, and the ones who live in places extremely difficult to reach from the center of the capital. Although they come from the same island, West Papuan society has various kinds of tribes that makes them unique. However, this uniqueness also comes along with the prone situation to conflict. The tribal war in West Papua province has been rooted and very common found in the area. One single, village-level conflict can be the source of way bigger clashes in the future. This condition makes the situation in West Papua province found often unstable and easily provoked by irresponsible people with ill intention to the community, for their personal benefits.

After the end of his service as a parliament member, Theys began doing something that would be very familiar in today’s politics: Polarization. He took the risk by creating a partition between Papuans and Indonesia, delivering much harsher criticism towards Indonesian government, often inclined towards notions of Papuan independence from Indonesia.

And he was right. Theys’s name became increasingly popular when he crowned himself the great leader of the Papuan people (Theys mentioned that 250 communities were united below him) by the signatures from Indigenous Consultative Council which was holding reconciliation in 1998. In the end, the forum also agreed to intensify the struggle for independence for the Land of Papua. Theys then became the leader of Papuan Presidium, an umbrella organization created during the administration of Abdurrahman Wahid, a reformist in charge following the fall of Suharto’s era.

Abdurrahman Wahid, more popularly known as Gus Dur, gave permission for the Papuans under Theys’ leadership to held the second congress of West Papuans, resulting in the conception of Papuan Presidium, consisted of 22 leaders and 240 non-permanent observers from various communities. Following the creation of Papuan Presidium, Papua under the leadership of Theys and Gus Dur thrived as an instrumental part of the republic, and the world.

Theys’ Death and The Decline of West Papuan Movements

The separatist movement went on a decline when the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) went on a different direction with its home organization, Negara Republik Federal Papua Barat (NRFPB). ULMWP was a wing organization of NRFPB, and it was meant to voice the aspiration of Papuans in international forum. Unfortunately, ULMWP took over the wheel and went rogue by itself at the Melanesian Spearhead Group, a forum for Pacific island nations. ULMWP also never made it to the United Nations General Assembly so far. The leader of ULMWP, Benny Wenda, fled to Oxford, UK, and since then has never been to West Papua for about 16 years.

Between Common Goals and Personal Ambitions: Can The Papuan Subaltern Speak?

In the current situation of Papuan struggles, it is not easy to distinguish between a struggle of common goals and a struggle for someone’s personal ambitions. The international society understands that not every movement leader is innocent. In fact, many are committing ‘epistemic violence‘-that is projecting a fabricated knowledge on to the less informed part of his or her own communities.

The momentum created by Theys’ death was an opportunity taken by different groups to start building foundations of their own organizations. Naturally, every part of the West Papuan society grew into communities with each its own aspiration. As the Papuan economy becomes bigger and the area becomes more developed, Papua needs access to more diverse human resources and technology. Being a part of Indonesian archipelago, Papua and West Papua should have the advantage of having the strongest national economic and social capital in Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, there are leaders who sacrifice things they should not, in order to fulfill their personal ambitions.

According to Spivak (1971), there are three signs of unhealthy relations between a leader to the people:

1. It provides an opportunity to make attempt from outside to reform subalterns and, to put it shortly, paves way for colonialism and indoctrination.
2. It provides a simplistic, somewhat academic assumption of cultural unity among heterogeneous people, in this case between different tribes in Papua.
3. The subalterns become dependent on certain intellectual individuals (with the likes of Benny Wenda) to speak for their condition rather than allowing them to speak for themselves.

These three indicators nowadays can easily be seen in certain political groups all over the world including Indonesia, and especially Papua.

We cannot deny that leadership is certainly needed in any part of this world, especially places like Papua and West Papua. Nonetheless, Theys Eluay would have wanted the people in Papua to be highly critical of every advocacy and policies made not only by the Indonesian or Papuan regional government, but also their community and tribe leaders.

Among the leaders of the Papuan liberation struggle, Benny Wenda’s name holds an honorable position. Born in the Baliem Valley on August 17 1974, he was the Chair of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) Executive Committee. The ULMWP organization itself is seen as an institution of different political interests today. There are names such as Octo Mote, Jacob Rumbiak, Rex, and others who all fight different ways and in different directions.

We have seen so many feuds between civilians and communities, all because differences in political interests and affiliations. Even in the case of Theys Eluay, it is highly possible that his death was inflicted by enemies from within the movement.

The Government’s Tribute to Theys Eluay

Since his death in 2001, many Indonesian leaders have paid their tributes for Theys Eluay. Abdurrahman Wahid, (better known as Gus Dur due to his influence in muslim community) the president himself back then, visited his grave while West Papuans respectfully welcomed him. Another notable visit was from more recent time, when Minister Luhut Panjaitan of the current administration paid a visit in 2016.

In the event of National Heroes’ Day commemoration, Indonesia wants to remember the legacy of Theys Eluay, as well as other figures of native Papuans who spoke loudly for the establishment of democracy in the eastern part of Indonesia, those who represented the aspiration and fought for the needs of Papuans, and those who gave invaluable help for the Indonesian government in developing the Papuan provinces, down to the smallest districts.

Since our loss of Theys Eluay 17 years ago, we have built roads. We have fought Malaria, Rubella, and other deadly diseases. We have fought fake news and provocations. We have built international-level hospital. We have sent young Papuans and Indonesians all over the world. We have won medals. We took over big corporation and mining company. We have freed people who were imprisoned for the wrong reasons.

The Joko Widodo administration is sprinting on infrastructure development in Papua and West Papua. At present, Trans Papua in West Papua Province has been built entirely, which is 1,071 km long. In 2015-2018, 153.62 km of the road was built.The government’s target is to complete all of the remaining uncovered Trans Papua, which is 1,066 km long, by the end of 2019.

Not only that, we have reduced the contraction of Malaria in Bintuni, Papua, by 98%. We have built the Jayapura and Bintuni International Hospital, both possessing state-of-the-art healthcare facilities. We also acquired 51% of Freeport shares, among other achievements done in Papua. We are going a long way with Papua, but the road is paved with hopes and dreams.

Together, we value the non-violent values held by Theys Eluay. We value his fight, and we all want the prosperous and peaceful future of Papua. Theys have done much in connecting different peoples in Papua, as he did connect different peoples of Indonesia. In his spirit, and the honor of every Papuan, Indonesia shall continue committing itself to fulfill the mandate from Papuans. Let us not stain Theys’ name with petty practices of politics, and may Papua shines in the eyes of the world.

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