Eyes Shut : West Papuans in Exile - A Photographic Project
By Rohan Radheya / scoop.co.nz
Jan 28, 2015

Dutch Surinamese photographer Rohan Radheya has spent two years photographing West Papuans in exile...

by Rohan Radheya - Eyes Shut : West Papuan Exciles ©  Rohan
Radheya 2015His first piece called Mirroring West Papua (see image left) was published in The Jakarta Globe. Radheya has travelled through West Papua as one of very few foreign journalists to visit the territory. He has met with prominent independence leaders including leaders of the TPN-OPM, the armed wing of the OPM in West Papua that fights for independence.

In the following Q&A Radheya talks about his new project, called Eyes Shut and the current situation in West Papua under Indonesia's new president Joko Widodo... Images on this page are from the Eyes Shut photograph series.

Photo by Rohan
Radheya - Eyes Shut : West Papuan Exciles ©  Rohan Radheya
Eyes Shut : Behind the Scenes 
Click for big version

Question : Your work about West Papuans in exile often have a unusual, and artistic approach for instance your piece called Mirroring West Papua. Tell us about the nature of these projects and how you invent them....

I have never invented these projects on my own...
Everything I do is copied and inspired from other photographers..
Most photographers try to create their own styles...
I have been trying to develop my own style for nearly a decade now...
In the end I always failed, because I was always inspired by the work of others before I set out to cover a certain project.

I ended up keeping their visuals in my mind and in this way copying them...
I finally came to realize that every story needs its own approach and is definitely not limited to a photographer’s own style or perspective.

A story is so much bigger then a photographers ego....
I am trying to copy the work of other photographers, and match their styles with the right stories...

West Papua is one of the most forgotten places in the world.

With the crisis elsewhere in the world in Iraq, Syria, Gaza and Ukraine, Western powers have their handful...
They cannot afford another conflict and the press restriction in West Papua is a convenient thing ..
The idea with the creative approach towards the West Papua story is to rise above all the general headlines, and still manage to send the word out.

Photo by Rohan
Radheya - Eyes Shut : West Papuan Exciles ©  Rohan Radheya
Click for big version

Question : Tell us about your new project called Eyes Shut...

With a new Indonesian president just coming into office the signs are that the situation in West Papua is becoming worse by the day....
The Indonesian Government announced that it is shifting its main military base from the neighboring Indonesian port Island of Makassar into West Papua itself.

Furthermore activists report that, major crackdowns, detentions, and killings on the streets of West Papua have intensified..
My good friend Simon Sapioper who is a prominent West Papuan politician told me the other day that:

"While the world focuses elsewhere, and turns its back to West Papua, 
West Papuans all over the world, feel abundant and left alone once again
We close our eyes and pray for the best...What can we do?"

The way he said this, touched me in a manner that I can never forget....
The West Papua issue is one of the longest ongoing conflicts in the world ...
Its a fact, that the world has shut its eyes for West Papua.

West Papua is one of the world's richest countries in natural resources...
Its home to the biggest copper and gold mine in the world: The Grasberg Mine.

The US owned Freeport-McMoRan corporation operates The Grasberg mine and is making profits in the millions every day...
Western powers have huge investments in West Papua’s natural resources and support the Indonesian army with its oppression of the Free West Papua campaign.

I think that the situation in West Papua reveals, the true face of Western diplomacy...
It shows that we have learned nothing from our colonizing past and that we continue to close our eyes for our own history...
Thus the concept: Eyes Shut - from both sides.

Photo by Rohan
Radheya - Eyes Shut : West Papuan Exciles ©  Rohan Radheya
Click for big version

Question : What motivates and inspires you to photograph West Papuans in exile?

West Papua was a former Dutch colony...
So is Suriname, where I come from.

The Dutch eventually did it right with Suriname and other colonies such as Indonesia and South Africa...
But the manner how they dealt with West Papua is a thing of shame...
Many West Papuans are living here in the Netherlands...
Some are my neighbors...
Indonesia earns it reputation as the largest economy in South East Asia partly through West Papua’s resources...
I think West Papuans have big potential...
I think that they have been a victim of a brutal and unrighteous occupation....
If they would be given fair chances, they would be major players in Asia & The Pacific today.

Photo by Rohan
Radheya - Eyes Shut : West Papuan Exciles ©  Rohan Radheya
Click for big version

Question : How would you describe your relations with The West Papuan people that you photograph...

I see them as my friends...
They have always embraced me as their own and never made me feel like a outsider.

I always try my upmost best to make them look good and strong.

West Papuans are incredible hospitable, sweet, humble, and generous people.
Question : 
Does that affect your judgement as a journalist?

Yes maybe it does, but I think I can afford that because I am not a real reporter...
I am just a simple photographer and I just take pictures.

Photo by Rohan
Radheya - Eyes Shut : West Papuan Exciles ©  Rohan Radheya
Click for big version

Question : You have travelled trough West Papua as one of the very few foreign journalists...
Are the guerillas losing the war against the Indonesian army?

That's a complicated question...
Yes and no...
Indonesia has one of largest armies in the region.

They are equipped and trained by The US & Australian government.

The TNI [The Indonesian Army] has been fighting the military wing of the OPM for almost 50 years now...
The OPM of Goliat Tabuni is severely outnumbered, and their equipment consists of simple homemade guns & traditional bows and arrows, and guns they manage to snatch away from Indonesian soldiers...
They are using poisoned arrows and spears and then confiscate weapons of the soldiers.

Despite this they have been successful in fighting an almost 50 years long insurgency...
They are experts in guerilla-warfare especially in the jungles and the highlands.

They know the territory better then anyone...
The territory where they are fighting the OPM is almost three times the size of The Netherlands...
Most Indonesian soldiers who are stationed in West Papua are very afraid of the highlands where the OPM is based.

The Indonesian press portrays an complete different picture where the OPM are rebels with machetes fighting an modern army in the 21st century.

Most soldiers stationed in Puncak Jaya come from hot climates such as Jakarta and Java...
Temperatures in the highlands can drop as low as below zero...
The geography brings many other complications including altitude sickness, hallucination, stress, adrenaline and some of the world's strangest diseases.

Mutilation of Indonesian police men and Indonesian soldiers, including cutting of ears, and noses and maiming have occurred in West Papua. Most Indonesian censored media do not want to let you know about this.

Its degrading in eyes of national audience...
The Indonesian army is an army of national pride...
I’ve worked in Burma, where the Burmese army has a similar fear with the ethnic rebel factions.

I think its natural...
If you are going into a stranger's territory, it's always more scarier than if you are fighting at home, no matter how well you are equipped...
I think that fear is the cause for the TNI’s brutal repression of West Papuans...
I think that both sides want to exceed each other in that cruelness...
Especially the rebels, because it's a personal thing for them...
The TNI responds twice that hard, and so the cycle is continuous.

Most of the rebels are poor farmers who are displaced by the natural resource exploitation in the highlands...
Some of them don't even have proper footwear...
The Grasberg mine dumps thousands of toxic liters of waste in the nearby rivers, which has caused a disaster for nearby forests, rivers and hill-tribes who are dependent by the environment...
The displacement is a major reason why many join the OPM and start fighting against The Indonesian army.

Photo by Rohan
Radheya - Eyes Shut : West Papuan Exciles ©  Rohan Radheya
Click for big version

Question : The numerous internal factions within the Free West Papua movements, have led to division, and quarreling among The West Papuans leaders....
What is the cause of this, according to you....

I think to understand this problem you need to understand the history of West Papua’s referendum and the birth of PEMKA...
Old timers like Jacob Prai, and especially Oom Nicolaas Jouwe play a crucial role in this...

Nicolaas Jouwe who was part of the first governing & representing body of the OPM wanted to make a compromising deal with the Indonesian Government.

When his comrades came to know about this, they demanded his resignation.

Jouwe was offended by this, and started to speak against the governing body.

He managed to take Jacob Prai, with him and the two eventually started PEMKA....
The first governing body never stopped struggling for independence, while PEMKA later became divided and divided...
The first governing body consisted of prominent leaders such as Seth Rumkorem and were systematically put on hit lists of Indonesian death squads.

Rumors were that Jouwe had exposed their whole organization...
The leaders eventually had to flee.

This became a reason the organization fell into shadow of PEMKA, with no one left to govern it inside West Papua...
The leaders eventually carried on their campaigns from The Netherlands and Sweden, while PEMKA, managed to still operate inside West Papua and win moral support of the people...
This was a reason many West Papuans turned towards PEMKA....
Jouwe eventually went to the other side.

Later he became an advisor to the Indonesian government and denounced a struggle for an Independent West Papua...

The divide remains between these the two branches, but through different representatives...
While almost all of the splinters groups claim leadership in the Papuan struggle almost all of them ground this on a moral basis rather than a grounded one.

Photo by Rohan
Radheya - Eyes Shut : West Papuan Exciles ©  Rohan Radheya
Click for big version

Question : There are hundreds of tribes in West Papua...
Is a tribal war likely to break out if West Papua would gain independence in the future for instance how it went in PNG?

I think that is an ultimate justification for an occupation that is totally baseless, illegal and totally ungrounded.

Photo by Rohan
Radheya - Eyes Shut : West Papuan Exciles ©  Rohan Radheya
Click for big version

Question : Have Western powers failed the people of West Papua?

Yes of course...

The occupation in Papua is a deliberate and systematic repression which is eventually orchestrated from the West...
The notorious Indonesian death squad Densus 88 (a.k.a Detachment 88), which is operating in West Papua, was founded, funded and trained by the US & Australian Governments.

Much of this is happening in the name of fighting Islamic fundamentalists in Indonesia...
Their operations in West Papua consist of assassinating, kidnapping and jailing West Papuan activists and put an end to the rebellion and the TNPBP of Goliat Tabuni.

Densus 88 was designed right after the Bali Bombings to fight Jemaah Islamiyah...
It was years active in West Papua before the head commissioner of the Papua region eventually came out in the open and announced Densus 88 was carrying out secret operations and trained police forces in West Papua.

This was years, after they were officially active...
Either the Indonesian government downplayed their Western counterparts, and used their money for something entirely different, or the Western powers knew about this all along.

Photo by Rohan
Radheya - Eyes Shut : West Papuan Exciles ©  Rohan Radheya
Click for big version

Question : What is the right step for reconciliation in West Papua?

I think West Papuans are seriously divided and need to unite...
On the other hand I don't think its their fault.

Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have repeatedly used the word genocide in their reports on West Papua.

I think that this genocide takes place on two fronts...
One is the actual genocide and the other is the colonization of West Papua.

The Indonesian Government has created systematic campaigns to brainwash the minds of West Papuans.

The situation in West Papua is very similar to the situation in Tibet...
Its based on divide and rule tactics...
The government creates job opportunities to bring migrant workers from rural Indonesia into West Papua...
80% of the people in West Papua's capital Jayapura are currently Indonesian migrant workers, outnumbering the 20% native Papuans who were once the majority...
Many activists and political prisoners warned about this...
including Filep Karma - West Papua's most prominent political prisoner - who once said, if we don't step up against this, we will be wiped out...
Activist leader Victor Yeimo of the KNBP told me that most of the core leaders of the OPM were almost always assassinated in the month of December and always just a few days before Christian holidays...
Prominent leaders such as Mako Tabuni, and Kelly Kwalik among dozens of others...
The colonization of West Papua is more than just a war against factions...
Its against identity, religion, belief and most importantly heritage...
Most West Papuans don't know about the real history of West Papua...
Furthermore most Indonesians don't know about the oppression that takes place in the far East of their Federation.

This is because Indonesian schools, teach an complete different history about West Papua.

I think West Papuans, need to unite under a single umbrella if they ever want to see a independent West Papua.

Photo by Rohan
Radheya - Eyes Shut : West Papuan Exciles ©  Rohan Radheya
Click for big version

Question : Which is?

I am not a West Papuan and so it is none of my business.

I think that is for the Papuans to decide.

Outsiders who want to help and contribute, need to understand that setting up their own organization and giving their opinion can be taken very sensitively...
This can lead to further division between West Papuans which will disadvantage reconciliation.

Photo by Rohan
Radheya - Eyes Shut : West Papuan Exciles ©  Rohan Radheya
Click for big version

Question : What are your plans for the future?

I will keep dedicating myself for West Papuans and their struggle.

Unconditionally and through artistic and creative ends.

Many Thanks

Photo by Rohan
Radheya - Eyes Shut : West Papuan Exciles ©  Rohan Radheya
Click for big version

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Eyes Shut : West Papuans in Exile - A Photographic Project