The other day I was watching MetroTV, one of the main Indonesian TV stations. They had a campaign advertisement for an upcoming gubernatorial election in Irian Jaya Barat (a.k.a. Irjabar), a new province that was carved out of the Indonesian province of Papua in 2003. If you click on that link, you can read a bit about the history of West Papua, the Indonesian half of the island of New Guinea. Suffice it to say, it is not unreasonable to view Indonesia’s presence on that island as an occupation, much like its former occupation of East Timor.
Irjabar, like many other new provinces in Indonesia, is the product of a phenomenon called pemekaran daerah, or “regional splitting,” that is common since the fall of Soeharto and the adoption of political decentralization. Simply put, if you get yourself a new province, or a new regency (the level below the province), you get steady access to government funds targeted more directly towards you. Well off parts of provinces split off in order not to have to fund poor parts of their former, larger province. I would guess that the demand for the creation of Irjabar came from some local political entrepreneur tired of having to share his budget with the rest of this desparately poor province.
So anyway, the election commercial. It was, quite simply, racist. They first had a wild-looking man wearing nothing but a koteka (link is not safe for work) and some bird feathers, with a face painted white, saying “I’m a native, and I support candidate X.” Then they had a prim Javanese woman, in modern western clothes, saying “I’m an immigrant, and I also support candidate X.” Finally, they had a laborer in work clothes, saying “I’m mixed, and I too support candidate X.” Then, all three of them together said “Let’s all support candidate X.”
I realized after a couple double-takes that all of the actors were Javanese or otherwise Western Indonesians. The “native” was a Javanese guy literally painted black from head to toe, and the “mixed” was a Javanese guy literally painted brown. Quite terrible. My view of anti-Papuan racism was reinforced during a conversation with a security guard an interviewee’s office. The security guard and I were chatting about the different languages he can understand (Indonesian, Javanese, Sundanese, and Minang). I asked half-jokingly about languages in Papua. He shook his head. “No, not them. Too savage.” I pressed him a bit on what he meant. “Those ones with the black skin, they are wild (liar). If you have problem, they don’t talk or argue, just stab.” OK, riiiiight, a simple “no, their languages are seldom spoken here” would have sufficed.