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May 29, 2017 | by  | in Features |
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Watch This space: Territories, Borders, and New Guinea

“The first thing we demand of a wall is that it shall stand up. If it stands up, it is a good wall, and the question of what purpose it serves is separable from that. And yet even the best wall in the world deserves to be pulled down if it surrounds a concentration camp.”

George Orwell


I was born on a divided landmass. Papua New Guinea and West Papua are two halves of the largest island in the South Pacific. For a long time, New Guinea was home to several thousand tribes who, despite their linguistic and cultural differences, were aware that they existed within one area. The large extended family units, the fundamental building blocks of most Pacific societies, were scattered across the island. They would come together when there was a death, a marriage, or, quite commonly, an inter-tribal war. Today still, Melanesian societies tend to be really close-knit. Any and all familial connections are acknowledged. People don’t say “friend” or “cousin” when describing those close to them — it’s always “my father” for male relatives who are older, “my uncle” for an older male family friend, “my mother” for an aunt, and “my aunty” when referring to a female family friend who is around the same age as their parents. This was life in New Guinea. Then we were colonised.

Trade was one of the main drivers of colonialism. For trade to work, the world had to be made to seem smaller, and everything had to be more accessible. Since the 1500s, one of the best ways to achieve this has been to politically — and, eventually, economically — divide the less affluent but resource-rich areas of the planet into territories. The Pacific was snipped into halves and quarters in order to facilitate the expansion of various empires. Trade routes and trading stations were constructed into the empty spaces — or rather, emptied spaces.

The gaps left behind by colonialism are not limited to the division of islands and archipelagos. Dialects, dances, songs, celebrations, oral histories, and numerous other important pieces of indigenous knowledge were removed to allow for the building of the “New World.” Thanks (actually, no thanks) to this, the story of the postcolonial Pacific has been about dismantling the territories and filling in as many of the gaps created as we can. This is true for many Pacific Islanders… except West Papuans. They still haven’t reclaimed their spaces: their villages, provinces, and, for many, their homes.

It is the notion of territory that sets out who lives here, and who should live there. Here and there are manipulations of space. They are the umbrellas under which fall other tools that we use to manage the habitable parts of the natural world. These tools include concepts like us, them, we, you, and my.

“Across the border” isn’t a new phrase to me. I grew up knowing that we are here, and there is a fence over there. I knew there were people behind the fence, and that was all. My ignorance went hand-in-hand with my government’s position with our neighbours. The relations between Papua New Guinea and West Papua are complex. One reason for this is the fact that Indonesia has been, and continues to be, a major trading partner of the independent half of New Guinea, putting its economic weight into numerous development and investment projects that have facilitated economic and infrastructural expansion.

Indonesia is pretty well equipped in terms of its military. The border is heavily guarded, and the West Papuan people are surveilled day and night. I never really heard “let’s be grateful” or “let’s stay safe” when I was growing up, though. Our safety never felt threatened and I never heard anything about the odious conditions that such a thin, almost undefined border freed us from and subjected them to. Some people in Papua New Guinea live right where the bordering fence is and can look across to West Papua — they are quite literally neighbors — and yet I grew up just not knowing. A lot of colonially divided Pacific nations are separated by the Pacific Ocean (e.g. Samoa and American Samoa), so it’s understandable when people don’t know what’s happening on the other islands. But for us, West Papua was right there, and I didn’t know. “I didn’t know” is obviously a useless excuse. It’s like saying “there was a fight on the street directly outside my flat, but I didn’t see it because it was right there in front of me” — it makes no sense!

When I first came to university, people would come up to me and ask me two questions. Firstly, “what’s the actual difference between Papua New Guinea and West Papua?” Then, there’d always be the follow-up question of, “so how’s the situation in your place?” At first, I always felt the need to highlight the difference, and to make it clear that my place was Papua New Guinea. The place they were asking me about was not my place. The problem was, the more I explained, the more questions I was asked. Eventually, those questions made me re-think my answers. After about a year here at VUW, I realised that these questions became my own.

How is the situation in what, without that lame excuse for a border, could easily be just the other half of my place? It’s easy to say, “It’s not my place, not my problem.” But in a world without territories — without the need to create them — would I, would we, still feel this way?

The territories that we can see and touch for ourselves are marked by walls, gates, partitions, and, sometimes, people standing guard. But territories aren’t always physical. People also tend to create mental and social separation, that needs to be filled with information about the oppression and torture that goes on beyond borders. The gap between them and us is one that will take much more concern, conversation, and action to fill. Because it’s not a concrete tangible distance, many people (myself included) on the other side of these borders fail to recognise it as a legitimate problem. “We’re just talking. What will our concern do?” The thing is, our belief in the power of these spaces of separation actually adds power to those who control the physical territory. People made these spaces. While the struggle to close the concrete gaps continues, anyone who is interested in aiding the cause can contribute to closing those in the abstract.

Recent years have seen an increase in border crossings. This is why I’ve come to think that territory and power over space is finite. People deconstruct barriers when they move across them. I’ve always believed that the very act of moving across and over any border is important if we want to decrease its power. I mean, if a wall doesn’t stop people from moving, it’s just a useless slab of concrete, right? That’s why famous partitions like the Iron Curtain were eventually smashed (on live TV, too!).

When people leave their home countries, they have to fit themselves into a new territory. Those who are already live there get to decide how it functions. They also control how much of it foreigners are allowed to take up. Space is usually allocated on either a “first come, first serve” basis, or a “might equals right” basis. West Papuan refugees do not meet the first criterion in Papua New Guinea. On their part of the island, they don’t meet the second one and are denied the first. I’ve always felt like this means that spatial arrangements need to be re-thought, or at least amended, to accommodate these people. In the 2010s Papua New Guinea allocated land to West Papuan refugees, and in April this year, several West Papuans who had been living in Papua New Guinea for more than four decades were finally granted citizenship. The “Free West Papua” Movement is extremely big in Papua New Guinea these days, too.

At the International Small Islands Conference in 2012, Dr Evangelia Papoutsaki (Unitec, New Zealand) and Patrick Matbob (Divine World University, Papua New Guinea) gave a presentation (which you can find online), New Guinea: A divided island. Papua New Guinea’s relationship with West Papua that attempted to answer some of these questions. Something that stood out for me was one of their headings on West Papuan refugees in Papua New Guinea. It read: “My brother, my enemy.” This didn’t make me think of any big political or philosophical ideas. I just thought about the many arguments I’ve had with my brother. I hardly see him, now that I live here (Wellington) and he lives there (Apia). But the distance that I want when he’s annoying me, and the geographical space between us, doesn’t make him not my brother. I can go ten or twenty years, my whole life even, without seeing him, and he’ll still be my brother. And what kind of sister would I be if trouble came his way and I just stood there and went, “geee, that’s sad,” or “he’s too far away to be my problem.”

But these are just my answers to my questions. I don’t want to say that they should be anyone else’s. We all have our own opinions and interpretations of the problems in West Papua.

Space is in flux. The gap between West Papua and the outside world is still big. However, as we’ve seen with the marches and rallies that many VUW students have supported, we are slowly transforming our side of the border. The movement has created a space of its own — a space for expression, debate, questions, and progress — to counter the Indonesian possession of “territory”. It is a “One Ocean” type of space that expands as regional and global efforts go through the trial and error processes that are common to all independence movements.

I remember Associate Professor Dr Teresia Teaiwa saying that the Pacific Ocean is the largest geographical entity in the world. It’s the biggest on earth, and we, Pacific Islanders, Oceania, are all in the same space. Take the names away, and there is literally one body of water connecting every landmass on our planet.

As stewards of the spaces we have, it is our responsibility to work towards better spaces, and to ensure there is room for those who don’t have space. Human ambition made the world small enough for trade ships to sail unimpeded from coast to coast. Is it too far-fetched to think that the same ambition can someday make the world big enough again?

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