Why Papua Wants Freedom: The Third Person in Contemporary Nationalism
My discovery was not significant, but it was curious, for I had discovered that there simply is no repetition, and had verified it by having it repeated in every possible way.
— Søren Kierkegaard, Repetition
The Strange Bedfellows of Nationalism
In this essay, I address a question that has preoccupied recent writers on nationalism: does nationalism repeat itself? Is every assertion of national identity, no matter how intimately singular each may seem, merely the recurrence of a general form? Scholars have criticized Benedict Anderson for conceptualizing nationalism as a “modular” phenomenon, a mode of consciousness born in the eighteenth century and repeated identically, without remainder, across time and space.1 Some have focused on the role of such factors as decolonization and the cold war in shaping, relatively late in the game, what is taken as the national norm. My aim in this essay is somewhat different. I want to rethink the very notion of modularity by way of an investigation that focuses on a subtle aspect of national discourse: its pronouns. Instead of tracking deployments of the first-person plural — the nation as we — I explore the significance of references to the nation made in the third person — the nation as he, she, they, or even it. These references appear in the utterances of would-be citizens — in particular, elite would-be citizens — who adopt the voice of outside commentators to describe their people’s legitimate and legitimating desires. I undertake this inquiry in a setting where the stakes of pronominal usage are particularly high: West Papua, a would-be breakaway region of Indonesia, whose inhabitants have long sought, but rarely enjoyed, a voice in their own fate.
When it comes to nationalism, I shall argue, Kierkegaard’s dictum holds: there simply is no repetition, yet nationalisms verify this discovery by repeating it in every possible way. This is because nationalisms always speak to a plurality of audiences: audiences presupposed and entailed in nationalist texts and practices, audiences that multiply, merge, absorb each other, and fragment. Over the centuries, nationalist discourse has mobilized an array of expressive genres and registers, old and new, linked to historically specific institutions, viewpoints, and landscapes of power. Shifts between genres and registers leave their mark wherever the nation appears in the third person to an extranational we that looks back from beyond the nation’s pale. When one heeds the proliferation of audiences, subjectivities, genres, and registers signaled by the play of pronouns, nationalism stops looking like an abstract ideal endlessly expressing itself across an infinity of cases; instead, it becomes the focus of a different kind of repetition, one “forcibly assigned a place in space and time.”2 Variably conceived and addressed, transcendently extranational interlocutors have played a constitutive role in nationalist documents everywhere. There simply would be no nationalism without strange bedfellows of a historically particular sort.
In the case I consider, that of West Papuan nationalism, these strange bedfellows play a particularly dominant role. Outsiders have tended to view the West Papuans as far too primitive to act as the mature, rights-bearing subjects of popular sovereignty that liberal thinkers placed at the heart of the modern nation form. As a result, West Papuan nationalists have gone to especially great lengths to conjure up extranational agents to endorse their claims. Consider the following scene from my fieldwork on the movement that seeks independence for an administrative region of Indonesia that was once, like Indonesia, a Dutch colony.3 The date was October 12, 2002, and I was seated in a conference room at a sports complex south of the Dutch city of Utrecht. It was an odd moment to be hearing a Javanese accent. In the chairs around me were nearly a hundred Papuan men and women, members of an Indonesian minority who generally have little good to say about the Javanese majority that dominates Indonesian political and cultural life. PaVo, the Papuan People’s Organization, was holding a meeting to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the New York Agreement, the U.S.-brokered deal of October 1962 that led to the transfer of the western half of New Guinea from the Netherlands to the United Nations, and then to Indonesia in early 1963. Some in the audience belonged to the Papuan elite that the Dutch had groomed for self-rule in the 1950s, when the Netherlands retained the territory as a freestanding colony after the rest of the Netherlands Indies gained independence. Many had gone into exile during the years leading up to the so-called Act of Free Choice, an event held in 1969 that was carefully orchestrated to result in a unanimous confirmation of the territory’s integration into the Indonesian Republic. Others on hand included Dutch veterans, the children of Dutch missionaries, and scholars with an interest in West Papua, as the Dutch had dubbed the nation-to-be, before Indonesia renamed the territory West Irian, and then Irian Jaya, only recently settling on Papua in the spirit of “reform.”
There was no shortage of languages and dialects at the meeting. The organizers provided a running Dutch translation of speeches delivered in the Papuan dialect of Indonesian by guests, including Agus Alua, secretary of the Papuan Presidium Council, the executive branch of the latest edition of the movement for West Papuan independence. This latest movement arose in the late 1990s following the fall of Indonesia’s authoritarian New Order regime, led by President Suharto, a Javanese general who ousted Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, in 1965.4 But despite this linguistic cacophony, Why Papua Wants Freedom Mengapa Papua Ingin Merdeka), the video shown at the start of the meeting, still came as a bit of a surprise. The lights dimmed and an opening credit appeared on the television: “The Papuan Presidium Council Presents.” After a long title sequence featuring racialized images of “Stone Age” Papuans, a narrator began to speak. “Papua,” he intoned gravely, “often known as the land of birds of paradise, spirits, and orchids.” I was sitting with a fellow anthropologist, and she whispered to me, “That narrator is Javanese.” At the time I disagreed. But later, when I interviewed Willy Mandowen, the Presidium moderator who assisted in the video’s production, I learned that my friend had been right. Not only was the narrator Javanese, but so was the entire production crew. All were acquaintances of Yorrys Raweyai, friend of Suharto and leader of a notorious gang–cum–“youth organization,” a man with a Papuan mother and Sino-Indonesian father who, somewhat implausibly, had reinvented himself as a loyal supporter of Papuan nationalism.5 The Presidium had chosen the Javanese production team on purpose, to make the video seem more “neutral.” The narrator had never even been to Papua. His was an extranational voice referring to Papua in the third person. According to my consultant, this was not a weakness; it was a strength.
Unexpected alliances and affinities have pervaded the recent resurgence of West Papuan nationalism. The movement has unfolded in a rugged and impoverished region inhabited by 2.3 million people, roughly 35 percent of whom are settlers from outside western New Guinea.6 Papua is a predominantly Christian corner of the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation-state. Home to the largest gold and copper mine in the world, operated by New Orleans – based Freeport McMoran, Papua faces a host of social problems, from urban unemployment to high rates of infant-maternal mortality to an emerging AIDS epidemic.7 Human rights abuses have recurred throughout the period of Indonesian rule, with the most extreme violence occurring in the context of counterinsurgency campaigns against the Free Papua Organization, or OPM, a scattered yet tenacious guerrilla army founded in 1965.8 Many Papuans have suffered under Indonesian rule; at the same time, Indonesian institutions and social networks have shaped the fortunes of members of the Papuan elite. At the time of the Second Papuan National Congress, the mass gathering that gave birth to the Presidium in 2000, the movement’s two most prominent figures were Theys Eluay, a Sentani chief based in the provincial capital, Jayapura, who was one of the thousand-odd representatives bribed and threatened to vote for integration in 1969, and Tom Beanal, an Amungme leader from the main tribe displaced by the Freeport mine, who was a long time critic but is now a commissioner of Freeport Indonesia, a subsidiary of Freeport McMoran. Equally striking as these institutional and personal ties is the movement’s apparent compulsion to repeat Indonesian nationalist documents and discourses. Presidium resolutions generally begin with long lists of supporting documents, including not only U.N. resolutions, but also the Indonesian constitution. 9Well before the Papuans began their struggle for independence, merdeka (freedom) was an Indonesian revolutionary call to arms.10
Papua has provided fertile ground for conspiracy stories, not all of which are without basis. Presidium members themselves have wondered in retrospect whether the public events of 2000, which proceeded more or less unimpeded by the military and enjoyed some shadowy financial support, might well have been part of a scheme to discredit Indonesia’s first democratically elected president, a long-time critic of the New Order, and detract attention from former president Suharto’s crimes.11 Still, it would be a mistake to presume that Papuan nationalism’s strange bedfellows can be so easily explained away. The unexpected alliances and affinities of Papuan nationalism not only signal something significant about the nature of politics in post-Suharto Indonesia; they also bring to light the limits of our approaches to every nation’s extranational roots.
West Papuan nationalism’s strange bedfellows have left calling cards in the form of the movement’s remarkable use of pronouns. For the past eight years, building on my previous fieldwork in Papua, I have examined this use of pronouns in political documents, e-mail discussion groups, books, videos, and the press, as well as in conversations within and outside the region.12 My findings have contrasted with those of scholars who have examined nationalist usage in better-known sites. Recent scholarship has located the conditions for the eighteenth-century emergence of an American nationalist we in the rise of what Jürgen Habermas famously called the “bourgeois public sphere.”13 In light of this research, what is perhaps most striking about the texts of Papuan nationalism is the relative paucity of the first-person plural.14 Although there are places where the phrase we the Papuan nation appears in documents and reports, and this kind of we is certainly a feature of rumor and other kinds of informal talk, the movement’s leaders more commonly write of their nation in the third person: in this regard, Why Papua Wants Freedom is an exemplary text.15
Taking this decidedly third-person production as my focus, I set this feature of Papuan nationalism in the context of the territory’s peculiar history and current plight. Following the devastating tsunami of 2004, foreign news crews invaded Aceh, another would-be breakaway region of Indonesia; in the aftermath, the Indonesian government halted military operations in the province and negotiated a peaceful settlement with the Free Aceh Movement. During the same period, the Indonesian government prevented foreign journalists, researchers, and aid workers from entering Papua while the security forces jailed demonstrators, hounded human rights workers, and retaliated against rural communities suspected of aiding the OPM.16 The Indonesian authorities, like their Papuan critics, have reasons to respect the power of those who call the Papuans “they.” In a setting where the extranational looms large as both a promise and a threat, one’s choice of pronouns, I argue, is more than merely a matter of grammar; it bears on matters of life and death. But first, I consider how the third-person nationalism so evident in West Papua directs us to the inherent historicity of all nationalisms — and, indeed, all social forms.
The Politics of Pronouns
The multiple repetitions and citations of extranational voices that pervade the vignette I just recounted stem less from the “derivative” character of West Papuan discourse than from the iterability intrinsic to all nationalisms.17 What is repeated always retains the memory of another scene, an origin that is only discernible as such after the fact. As authors from Jacques Derrida to Mikhail Bakhtin to an array of contemporary linguistic anthropologists have stressed, whenever we speak or engage in social practices, we both respond to and repeat others’ utterances and actions. Learning to do something is always learning to do it again, under the pressure of another’s gaze. Repetition is a function of the irreducible relation to the Other. Although this “haunting” is an indestructible feature of social life, it becomes particularly apparent in certain contexts.18 In a world where diplomatic acknowledgment is the sine qua non of legitimate statehood, nationalists are particularly dogged by the specter of iterability. A nation comes into existence only when its members can imagine themselves becoming recognizable to outsiders. In the rituals, writings, and practices associated with nationalism, the undertow of alterity is particularly strong and problematic, while the stakes of recognition are particularly high. Rendered so explicitly in the case of West Papua, the tensions at the heart of contemporary nationalist movements are not simply the outcome of globalization. These tensions are “repeated in advance” even in the seemingly most exemplary of nationalist texts.19
We can detect these tensions in these exemplary texts’ deployment of pronouns. Émile Benveniste described pronouns as linguistic resources that allow individuals to use language meaningfully by anchoring general categories in the here and now of a particular instance of speech. In other words, pronouns are “shifters,” to use Roman Jakobson’s famous term.20 Metapragmatic, in the sense that their meaning refers back to aspects of their own use — I being “the individual who utters the present instance of discourse containing the linguistic instance I ” — their deployment endows a certain “reality” to language, to the degree that, after the fashion of performatives as described by John Austin, those who utter them seem to be doing what they say.21 When one says “I pledge allegiance” or “I declare,” as nationalists are wont to do, one accomplishes the very act one depicts. As in the case of performatives, there is, of course, a catch, because as elements of language, pronouns are themselves negatively defined by opposition within a structure.
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All images are from Mengapa Papua Ingin Merdeka (Why Papua Wants Freedom, 2002), VCD, Presidium Dewan Papua Production. Reproduced with the permission of Yorrys Raweyai.
- See Partha Chatterjee, Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse? (London: Zed Books, 1986); John D. Kelly and Martha Kaplan, Represented Communities: Fiji and World Decolonization (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001); Prasenjit Duara, Sovereignty and Authenticity: Manchukuo and the East Asian Modern (Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003).
- Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 12, cited in Samuel Weber, “Religion, Repetition, Media,” in Religion and Media, ed. Hent de Vries and Samuel Weber (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2001), 44.
- This region’s name has changed frequently throughout its checkered political history, from Netherlands New Guinea to West Irian, then Irian Jaya, and, finally, simply Papua. It consisted of a single Indonesian province until 2003, when, amid much controversy, the central government divided it in two: Papua and West Irian Jaya, itself recently renamed, quite confusingly, West Papua. In this essay, which concerns events before the division, I refer to Papua as a single province.
- Other speakers included Yusan Yeblo, from Papuan Women’s Solidarity Group, and Jerry Imbiri, the student representative on the Papuan Presidium Council.
- On Yorrys Raweyai, see Loren Ryter, “Pemuda Pancasila: The Last Loyalist Free Men of Suharto’s Order?” Indonesia 66 (1998): 45 – 74; see also Octovianus Mote and Danilyn Rutherford, “From Irian Jaya to Papua: The Limits of Primordialism in Indonesia’s Troubled East,” Indonesia 72 (2001): 115 – 40.
- See Rodd McGibbon, Plural Society in Peril: Migration, Economic Change, and the Papua Conflict, Policy Studies no. 13 (Washington, D.C.: East-West Center Washington, 2004), 20, 25.
- See Denise Leith, The Politics of Power: Freeport in Suharto’s Indonesia (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2003); Leslie Butt, “ ‘Lipstick Girls’ and ‘Fallen Women’: AIDS and Conspiratorial Thinking in Papua, Indonesia,” Cultural Anthropology 20 (3): 412 – 41.
- See Robin Osborne, Indonesia’s Secret War: The Guerilla Struggle in Irian Jaya (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1985); Richard Chauvel and Ikrar Nusa Bhakti, The Papua Conflict: Jakarta’s Perceptions and Policies, Policy Studies no. 5 (Washington, D.C.: East-West Center Washington, 2004); Richard Chauvel, Constructing Papuan Nationalism: History, Ethnicity, and Adaptation, Policy Studies no. 14 (Washington, D.C.: East-West Center Washington, 2005).
- See, e.g., Agus Alua, MUBES Papua 2000, 23 – 26 Februari: “Jalan Sejarah, Jalan Kebenaran” (The Papuan Grand Consultation February 23, 2000: “The Way of History, the Way of Truth”), Seri Pendidikan Politik Papua no. 3 (Jayapura: Sekretariat Presidium Dewan Papua/Biro Penelitian STFT Fajar Timur, 2002), 47.
- See James T. Siegel, Fetish, Recognition, Revolution (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997), 214; see also George M. Kahin, Southeast Asia: A Testament (London: Routledge Curzon, 2003).
- Anonymous interview, Chicago, February 2 – 3, 2003. See also Matthew N. Davies, Indonesian Security Responses to Resurgent Papuan Separatism, Strategic Defence Studies Centre Working Paper no. 361 (Melbourne: Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University, 2001).
- To test my suspicions, I tabulated the various types of we that appeared in the Indonesianlanguage e-mail postings that I received from the Papua Internal Forum between May 13 and July 28, 2003. These postings included not only articles but also comments by the Papuan activists who made up the bulk of the participants. Only 89 out of 1,100 uses of the Indonesian first-person plural pronoun referred to a West Papuan as opposed to a more generalized collective subject.
- See Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into the Categories of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1991), xviii; see also Michael Warner, The Letters of the Republic: Publication and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990).
- This paucity may stem in part from the fact that speakers and writers of Indonesian and related languages tend to avoid self-reference. See Alton Becker, Beyond Translation: Essays toward a Modern Philology (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995); see also C. W. Watson, Of Self and Nation: Autobiography and the Representation of Modern Indonesia (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2000), 106 – 29. Nevertheless, a national we features prominently in the Indonesian Republic’s founding texts and in the speeches of Indonesian presidents. See Colin Wild and Peter Carey, eds., Born in Fire: The Indonesian Struggle for Independence (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1988); Sukarno, Toward Freedom and the Dignity of Man: A Collection of Five Speeches by President Sukarno of the Republic of Indonesia (Jakarta: Department of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Indonesia, 1961); Roger K. Paget, ed., Indonesia Accuses! Soekarno’s Defense Oration in the Political Trial of 1930 (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1975); and Soeharto, Presidential Message at the Year’s End (Jakarta: Department of Information, Republic of Indonesia, 1969).
- See Benny Giay, Menuju Papua Baru: Beberapa pokok pikiran sekitar Emansipasi Orang Papua (Toward a New Papua: Some Thoughts about Papuan Emancipation) (Jayapura: Deiyai/ Elsham Papua, 2000); Yorrys T. Raweyai, Mengapa Papua Ingin Merdeka (Why Papua Wants Freedom) (Jayapura: Presidium Dewan Papua, 2002); Agus A. Alua, Papua Barat dari Pankuan ke Pankuan: Suatu Ikhtisar Kronologis (West Papua from Administration to Administration: A Brief Chronology), Seri Pendidikan Politik Papua no. 1 (Jayapura: Sekretariat Presidium Dewan Papua/ Biro Penelitian STFT Fajar Timur, 2000); Alua, Dialog Nasional Papua dan Indonesia, 26 Februari 1999: “Kembalikan Kedaulatan Rakyat Papua Barat, Pulang dan Renungkan Dulu” (The Papuan and Indonesian National Dialogue of February 26, 1999: “Return the Sovereignty of the Papuan People, Go Home and Reflect First”), Seri Pendidikan Politik Papua no. 2 (Jayapura: Sekretariat Presidium Dewan Papua/Biro Penelitian STFT Fajar Timur, 2001); Alua, MUBES Papua; Alua, Kongres Papua 2000, 29 Mei – 04 Juni: “Mari Kita Meluruskan Sejarah Papua Barat” (The Papuan Congress May 29 to June 4, 2000: “Let’s Rectify West Papua’s History”), Seri Pendidikan Politik Papua no. 4 (Jayapura: Sekretariat Presidium Dewan Papua/Biro Penelitian STFT Fajar Timur, 2002); E. J. Bonay, “Sejarah Kebangkitan Nasionalisme Papua” (“A History of the Rise of Papuan Nationalism”), unpublished manuscript (Leiden: KITLV Historical Documents, n.d.).
- See “Out of Sight: Endemic Abuse and Impunity in Papua’s Central Highlands,” Human Rights Watch 19, no. 10(C), July 2007.
- See Chatterjee, Nationalist Thought; see also Jacques Derrida, Limited Inc. (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1988).
- Some key examples include rituals whose efficacy depends on their participants’ ability to present their words and gestures as relatively “textlike” strips of “tradition” and modern novels inflected by a cacophony of class-based voices, whose “accents” resound not simply in direct quotations but throughout the author’s prose. See Richard Bauman and Charles L. Briggs, “Poetics and Performance as Critical Perspectives on Language and Social Life,” Annual Review of Anthropology 19 (1990): 59 – 88; Mikhail M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981).
- “To repeat is to behave in a certain manner, but in relation to something unique and singular which has no equal or equivalent. And perhaps this repetition at the level of external conduct echoes, for its own part, a more secret vibration which animates it, a more profound, internal repetition within the singular. . . . [I]t is not Federation Day which commemorates or represents the fall of the Bastille, but the fall of the Bastille which celebrates and repeats in advance all the Federation Days; or Monet’s first water lily which repeats all the others.” Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 1; see also Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling/Repetition, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983); Weber, “Religion, Repetition, Media.” 20. Roman Jakobson, “Shifters, Verbal Categories, and the Russian Verb,” Selected Writings (The Hague: Mouton, 1971), 130 – 47. The function of pronouns is similar to that of other deictic categories, including demonstratives (e.g., this and that), locatives (e.g., here and there), and verb tenses. See Michael Silverstein, “Metapragmatic Discourse and Metapragmatic Function,” in Reflexive Language: Reported Speech and Metapragmatics, ed. John Lucy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
- Émile Benveniste, Problems in General Linguistics (Coral Gables, Fla.: University of Miami Press, 1971), 218. See also John Austin, How to Do Things with Words (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962).
- Benveniste, Problems, 201.