Span: Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 34-35, 1992-93
Edited by Vijay Mishra

Writing on the border: Irian, Indonesian literature and Gerson Poyk's "Matias Akankari"

David T. Hill

Irian: ... by any other name

In his short story "Matias Akankari" Gerson Poyk uses the term "Irian Barat" (literally "West Irian") for the territory which lies to the west of the central north-south international border dividing the island of Papua. To the east of that border now lies Papua New Guinea. To the west, a land in dispute, a former Dutch colony incorporated into the independent state of Indonesia under controversial circumstances between 1963 and 1969. Initially called Irian Barat in Indonesian its name was later changed to "Irian Jaya" (literally "Glorious Irian") after its incorporation. Within the territory a separatist movement continues to press for independence through secession from Indonesia. They reject the name 'Irian' as an Indonesian artifice 1 and prefer to use "Papua Barat" (West Papua), emphasising common links with Melanesian cultures and heritage to the east, rather than with non-Melanesian Indonesia to the west. Similarly they refer to the people of their territory not as 'orang Irian' (Irianese), but as 'orang Papua' (Papuans) or 'Orang Melanesia' (Melanesians).

Irian as contested periphery

Despite its proximity, few Australians know anything of West Papua/Irian Jaya. In recent years it attracted the attention of the Australian media when, during the early months of 1984, there was a mass exodus of more than 10,000 refugees fleeing across the land border to Papua New Guinea. The arrival of five West Papuan refugees on a remote Australian island in the Torres Straits the next year further emphasised just how close West Papua and its problems were to continental Australia.2

The territory has a complicated post-war history. During the War of Independence (1945-49) against the Dutch colonial power, Indonesia claimed all contiguous territories in the former "Netherlands East Indies". Negotiations were held concerning the inclusion of the Dutch-controlled part of the island of New Guinea, but these bogged down in stalemate. This irredenta was excluded from the initial agreement, which accepted that the status quo be maintained in West Papua pending further negotiations within a year of the Dutch Transfer of Sovereignty to the independent state of Indonesia in 1949. However West Papua remained a source of constant tension between Indonesia and the Netherlands, which established elected local councils and a territory-wide New Guinea Council in a measure of territorial self-government.3

Indonesia made numerous attempts to mobilise world public opinion against continued Dutch colonial control of the territory. In 1954, Indonesia launched the first major infiltration of West Papua. In a feeble show of force, it landed nearly 50 infantry on the south coast. Discussions continued, both inside and outside of the United Nations, until on 19 December 1961, President Sukarno gave orders for substantial military action to 'liberate' West Irian, involving among other strategies, the dropping of parachute troops into the jungles.4 In an atmosphere of increasing Indonesian militancy, on 15 August 1962, the Indonesian and Dutch representatives at the UN in New York signed an agreement placing the territory under Indonesian rule from 1 May 1963. This agreement was conditional upon a plebiscite being held in 1969 to assess whether the Papuan people wished to remain part of Indonesia or secede as a separate state.

The consequent interim Indonesian administration was poorly regarded both by West Papuans and foreign observers. After a visit to the territory in 1968 the Australian journalist Peter Hastings, who took a particular interest in West Papua over several decades, wrote that, since 1963:

the Administration, backed by the Army, was left to its own heavy-handed devices. Shops were looted, consumer goods disappeared and development projects either languished or in many instances were totally abandoned. Imported foods disappeared and urban Papuans used to artificially high wages and full employment under the Dutch were forced to return to subsistence gardening in order to get enough food to eat.5

Anecdotal stories spread about the Indonesian forces stripping the territory of consumer goods left by the Dutch. Such goods were frequently in short supply in Jakarta. For example, one West Papuan political refugee in Australia later claimed that even the advanced medical equipment in a hospital at Jayapura, the capital of West Irian, was dismantled and taken back to Jakarta. Such unconfirmed stories were routinely denied by the Indonesian authorities. But even such pro-Indonesian Papuans as a member of the Indonesian Provisional Parliament, the People's Consultative Assembly (MPRS), decried Indonesian officials who were going to the territory "for business and not to build up the territory".6 Anti-integration resistance groups emerged throughout the territory, most notably the OPM (Organisasi Papua Merdeka, Free Papua Movement), demonstrating publicly and engaging in sporadic acts of insurgency and sabotage.

Despite such resistance, Indonesia gloried in the irredenta's return to the motherland. A massive statue was built atop two huge vertical concrete pillars in a 'Yogyakarta socialist realist' style, symbolising the 'liberation of West Irian' from Dutch colonial rule. It depicts a rugged, wide-eyed, semi-naked (Irianese?) figure, with his muscular arms brandishing skywards the trailing broken chains that had bound him.7 The monument stands in Banteng Square, right in the heart of Jakarta, a stone's throw from Thamrin Road, a six-lane boulevard show-piece, which, at the time of West Irian's incorporation, was virtually the only prestige commercial strip in the dilapidated capital, and site of Hotel Indonesia, then the only multi-storey "international class" hotel.

The 'Act of Free Choice' which took place in 1969, under strict control of the Indonesian government, was a farce, orchestrated to legitimise Indonesian absorption of West Irian. Indonesia rejected the UN proposal for one person, one vote. Of the 800,000 Papuan inhabitants, only 1,025 representatives (chosen by the Indonesian government) had the franchise. To no-one's surprise they opted for continued inclusion within Indonesia.8

Temporary world attention on West Papua quickly shifted. Foreign entry into the new province was restricted and news from there was infrequent. The separatist movement maintained both its guerilla war against the Indonesian Army with sporadic skirmishes, and a diplomatic campaign demanding independence for the West Papuan nation. There continued periodic public demonstrations and attempts to raise the "Morning Star" flag of an independent West Papua. Papuan nationalists pointed to the dominance of ethnic Javanese in all civilian and military agencies within the province, and the limited opportunities for the advancement of local people, assertions corroborated in recent years by an Indonesian former military commander.9 Clearly after nearly three decades of Indonesian control, the territory of West Papua remains restive and resistant to the central government in Jakarta.

Ethnic minorities as internal diaspora

West Papuans, and in many cases their compatriots from the other peripheral regions of Indonesia, face the dilemmas of many disempowered ethnic minorities. If they stay in West Papua opportunities for self-advancement are limited. Local communities are under increasing pressure from outside political and commercial interests, which often undermines their fragile autonomy and the authority of their community leaders. Rights to traditional land and the sustenance it offered are being eroded. Local educational facilities are at best modest. Economic opportunities are likely to be in the hands of non-Papuans, who may regard the locals as 'backward' ("belum maju") or 'stupid' ("bodoh").10 Caught within borders over which they have no control, the West Papuans are being marginalised by waves of transmigrants from other parts of Indonesia.

Facing such challenges, many West Papuans have followed the strategies of other diasporic communities. If they reject Indonesian control, they may choose to seek refuge abroad, in PNG, Holland (both of which have relatively sizeable West Papuan communities), Australia, Vanuatu or elsewhere in the South Pacific, and recently also in Ghana and Sweden. If they seek to accommodate themselves to Indonesia, they may still need to disperse, to move from their homelands on the border to the nation's Centre, to the vortex of multi-ethnic Jakarta with its greater anonymity and the possibilities of government or private sector employment, to other parts of Java with its better universities and schools, to Bali with its burgeoning tourist trade and service industry jobs.

For many the attraction of the capital is irresistible despite the consequent need to tailor ethnic and national identity in accordance with those around them. As one man from West Papua now living in Jakarta put it, his identity

depends on who I am talking to. The discreet (halus) response is that I'm Irianese. The honest one (terusterangnya) that I am Papuan. But if [Jakarta people] call me Papuan, that's an insult because to them Papuan means people who still live in jungles, who haven't learnt to eat rice... When I want to assert my right to exist I am Papuan. When I want to foster links with Indonesians I am Irianese.11

Irian in Modern Indonesian Literature

In 1980 an article in Indonesia's largest daily newspaper pondered on why it was that the canon of modern Indonesian literature provided no place for material written by Irianese. It observed that of the 60 most prominent literary figures included in the most comprehensive anthology to date, not one came from Irian. Nor did there appear to be any interest by Jakarta publishers, writers or literary critics in literary production in that province.12 Little appears to have altered in the twelve years since those observations were made. To my knowledge the only material on Irianese 'literature' consists of collections of 'folktales' published by the government printer.13 While undoubtedly the national language of Indonesian was not widely used prior to incorporation, this is no longer a major hurdle to the production of Indonesian literature in Irian, since language competence improved rapidly after incorporation. As a lingua franca bridging speakers of separate regional languages or dialects Indonesian is now used widely even within the separatist movements. Yet Indonesian literature continues to be largely the preserve of writers from the numerically dominant Javanese and Sundanese ethnic groups, with strong representation also from Sumatrans. To date, no Irianese author has gained national recognition and to my knowledge only one novel has been published dealing with West Papua.14

It is in such a context that the short story by Gerson Poyk takes on a certain pioneering significance. Entitled "Matias Akankari", the name of the Irianese who forms the story's central character, it is a rare example of Indonesian literature about the people of Irian.15 In it Gerson Poyk, an Eastern Indonesian author from the island of Rote in the Lesser Sunda (Nusa Tenggara) island chain linking Java to Papua, highlights the cultural ravine that separates the Irianese from the metropolitan culture of Jakarta. The story may be seen as ridiculing culturally inappropriate government campaigns to "Indonesianise" the Irianese, most notably with Operasi Koteka in 1970 designed to encourage men to dispense with the traditional koteka or penis gourd in exchange for Indonesian (European) dress. As part of this 'operation' primary school children received 6,000 kits containing clothing, writing materials, an Indonesian flag and picture of President Suharto, and Indonesian government TV showed stage-managed displays of West Papuans throwing away their koteka as they accepted government-issue trousers.

Poyk, though no Irianese, is himself a minority writer, one of a bare handful of authors from Eastern Indonesia. It is more than likely that his sympathies for other minority groups have been sharpened by his own experience as an outsider in a Javanese-dominated society. Born on 16 June 1931 at Namodale-Baa, Rote, he was schooled in the neighbouring islands of Flores, Alor, Timor and finally in Surabaya, East Java, before teaching on other outer islands of Indonesia, on Ternate and Sumbawa, till 1958. He has been writing short stories since the 1950s. Most of his adult life has been spent living in Java and Bali, with long frequent travels throughout Indonesia and overseas as a peripatetic journalist, often freelancing. One of his specialities has been reporting from the periphery of the state, about villages and their people far removed from the capital. His skills as a journalist have been recognised with a major national award, the Adinegoro Prize for Best Journalist, for two years in succession in 1985 and 1986. His no-less-significant achievements as a writer of non-fiction were acknowledged with several national plaudits, such as the annual award offered by the literary magazine Sastra [Literature] (in 1961), and the prestigious ASEAN literary prize in 1989.16 Despite such attention it appears only one of his stories has been published in English translation.17

Gerson Poyk is regarded by his colleagues in journalism and literary production as something of an eccentric, a spartan living in frugality and simplicity in an era when all around him strive for the trappings of middle-class comfort as a measure of their success. Indicative of this was the fact that of all the writers I visited during two years research in Jakarta in the early 1980s, he was the only one whose home had an earthen floor. He was often described to me as a wanderer and a lover of life, whose unconventional lifestyle was occasionally reminiscent of modern Indonesia's most revered poet, the bohemian Chairil Anwar, who died in 1949.

While not active in organisational or party politics, Gerson Poyk is concerned with common issues of common people. In the early 1980s he was involved in establishing a small Institute for National Studies (Institut Studi Nasional) to foster research into social and political issues. The institute gathered various former student activists and artists into a critical forum on government policies. More recently, he attempted to establish a non-government college for the training of film workers, in an attempt to stimulate a counter-veiling critical tradition to that of state-sponsored cinematography colleges. His concerns are often those of minority groups - ethnic, social, political, economic - whose voices are rarely heard, either within or without the nation's boundaries.

"Matias Akankari" is generally regarded by Indonesian literary critics as "a satire against metropolitan society, the jet-set society undergoing cultural degradation".18 In much of Gerson Poyk's writing his style is 'naturalistic', often heavily sarcastic, sharpened by pathos. Light of touch, they suggest a deep sympathy for and underlying identification with minority characters. Several stories, such as "Matias Akankari", might be regarded as laying bare social and cultural prejudices, though other readings might suggest his unflattering depictions pander to stereotypes. Matias is depicted as an oddity out of place in his 'national' capital. But is he held up to ridicule, as naively "primitive"? Or is it the capital and the State which has its seat of power there which are ridiculed for their inability to accept difference, for hypocrisy, materialism and elitism? Is the Indonesian state like the woman who seduces Matias; tantalisingly offering much, but demanding payment the Irianese is not able to make? Will Matias (and his compatriots from the fringes of the nation) always be alienated and isolated even while sleeping under the monument celebrating their 'liberation'? Will they be forever homeless like the woman giving birth? It is clearly not his capital, for it offers him nothing. Even when the passengers in the sleek motor cars are black like him, their interests are not his. He has no space, no part to play, except, perhaps, like the strip-tease dancers in the dimly lit club, as demeaned amusement for anonymous masters. In whose eyes are Jakarta elite and Irianese villagers "just the same" in the end?

This might not be an Irianese story. It might not written for Irianese, nor might its perspectives be theirs. But perhaps it does offer the unique possibility of inserting an Irianese presence into Indonesian literature.


1Local critics of Indonesia's incorporation of West Papua suggest, somewhat tongue in cheek, that the name "Irian" may have been coined as a covert Indonesian acronym for "Ikut Republik Indonesia Anti Nederlands" ("Joining the Republic of Indonesia against the Netherlands").

2There have since been several books published on West Papua, some like the coffee-table photographic collection Robert Mitton, The Lost World of Irian Jaya, (OUP, Melbourne, 1983), others more overtly political and critical, such as Robin Osborne Indonesia's Secret War: The Guerilla Struggle in Irian Jaya, (Allen & Unwin, Sydney,1985), and Carmel Budiardjo and Liem Soei Liong,West Papua: The Obliteration of a People, (Tapol, London, 1988) .

3A useful overview of this period is given in Justus M. van der Kroef, Indonesia after Sukarno, (University of British Colombia Press, Vancouver, 1971). See particularly p.126.

4From their inception the Indonesian military strategies were not particularly successful. Australian journalist Pat Burgess was in West Papua in May 1963 with Indonesian parachutist forces under the command of Benny Murdani (later to become Commander of the Indonesian Armed Forces and Minister for Defence). He wrote of Murdani and the parachute invasion: "Sometimes we found his own paras [sic], still in the shrouds of their chutes, swinging from the trees where they had died." (See Robin Osborne (1990) "Sukarno and Murdani in Irian Barat", Inside Indonesia, No.24, October, pp.32-33.) For a discussion of the domestic political and economic context of the decision to initiate military action, see Malcolm Caldwell and Ernst Utrecht, Indonesia: An Alternative History, (Alternative Publishing Co-operative, Sydney, 1979), p.114.

5Hasting's article in the September-October 1968 edition of New Guinea is quoted in van der Kroef 1971:128.

6The statement by F. Karubuy on 10 March 1967 is quoted in van der Kroef 1971:132.

7For a discussion of the significance of this and other monuments in Indonesia, see "Cartoons and Monuments: The Evolution of Political Communication under the New Order" (pp.154-193, particularly pp.174-5), in B.R.O'G. Anderson, Language and Power: Exploring Political Cultures in Indonesia, (Cornell University Press, Ithaca & London, 1990).

8For a highly critical study of Indonesian handling of West Papua's 'Act of Free Choice', see Nonie Sharp, The Rule of the Sword: The Story of West Irian, (Kibble Books, Malmsbury Vic., 1977), particularly p. 22.

9An illuminating account of how the Indonesian military see the territory and its inhabitants is given in a report by Marine Lieutenant-General Kahpi Suriadiredja, commander of the region for two years from March 1983. Published as Tantangan dan Perjuangan di Bumi Cendrawasih [The Challenge and the Struggle in the Land of the Bird of Paradise], (Sinar Agape Press, Jakarta, 1985), translated excerpts appear in Ron Hatley "Confessions of a military commander", Inside Indonesia, No. 8, (October, 1986) pp.15-19.

10For outside views of recent developments in West Papua, see Saila Indri "Letter from Lake Sentani", Inside Indonesia, No.15, (July, 1988), pp.13-16; and S.T. Moir, "More than waving the flag: Images of resistance in West Papua", Inside Indonesia, No.23, (June, 1990)pp.8-10.

11Quoted in Saila Indri 1988:13.

12The article David T. Hill (1980) "Suara Kemerdekaan: Tulisan hitam baru dari Papua Niugini", Kompas,2 November, p.8, was a review of comparable writing across the border, specifically Ulli Beier (ed.),Voices of Independence: New Black Writing from Papua New Guinea, (UQP, St Lucia, 1980) .

13For an example of this kind of publication, available in English, see Suyadi Pratomo (1983) Folk Tales from Irian Jaya, (translated from the Indonesian by David T. Hill), Balai Pustaka, Jakarta. This collection was compiled by a Javanese and initially published in Indonesian by the government publisher, Balai Pustaka, in 1979. West Papuans have been recognised for other forms of artistic production. Local cultural-nationalist groups, such 'Mambesak' fostered by the Australian-trained anthropologist, Arnold Ap (killed in Indonesian custody in 1984) were producing songs and material arts, like sculpture and painting. In the popular music industry The Black Brothers band gained a national following until they sought political refuge abroad in the mid-1980s, initially in PNG, then moving via Holland and Vanuatu to Australia.

14In 1981, the Javanese Catholic priest Y.B. Mangunwijaya published a novel, Romo Rahadi (Pustaka Jaya, Jakarta), in which a Javanese priest goes to Irian Jaya for a period. While a significant part of the story takes place there (including an episode when the Indonesian military have to intervene in a tribal war!), the main characters are not Irianese, in contrast to "Matias Akankari". This novel did not gain as much critical or public attention as Mangunwijaya's several other novels.

15As far as I am aware "Matias Akankari" was the first piece of published Indonesian prose fiction dealing with West Papua or West Papuans when it appeared in 1972 as the title story in a collection by Gerson Poyk.

16A biographical outline Gerson Poyk can be found in Pamusuk Eneste (1990) Leksikon Kesusastraan Indonesia Modern, Djambatan, Jakarta, p.67. For a brief overview of his other work, see Korrie Layun Rampan (1982) Cerita Pendek Indonesia Mutakhir, Nur Cahaya, Yogyakarta, pp.179-196. For his reflections on his past and his writing, see Gerson Poyk (1984) "Dari Momen Kunci ke Momen Kunci" (pp.71-92) in Pamusuk Eneste (ed.), Proses Kreatif: Mengapa dan Bagaimana Saya Mengarang Vol. 2, (Gramedia, Jakarta, 1984).

17The only published translation I am aware of is "The Love Letters of Alexander Rajaguguk", (translated by Mary Louise Wang), Indonesia (Cornell), No.43, (April) 1987 pp.31-42. A valuable study of Gerson Poyk, including translations of several of his short stories, is currently being undertaken by Ramona Mitussis, an Honours student in the School of Humanities at Murdoch University.

18Quotation from Korrie Layun Rampan 1981:181.

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