I am about one thousand percent done with Tony Abbott and his continuing persistence in… well, in being Tony Abbott. This is one of those times where we laughed at the lowest hanging fruit and grabbed for it without shame. Which is great, because I don’t want to talk about Tony Abbott today, I want to keep talking about asylum seekers.
I am by no means an expert on the history or politics of Papua New Guinea, but since we’re doing comics about the PNG solution I’ll be damned if I’m not going to try my best to become one.
The history of any place is inherently interesting by way of inevitably being in some way fundamentally different from the places you are used to inhabiting. It’s the same type of fascination that draws me into worlds like Middle-Earth or the Star Wars expanded universe that attracts me to things like the economic history of Japan, or the order of US Presidents, or the first-century Middle East. There are certain sets of patterns and forms that are woven into narratives, be they manufactured or historical, and figuring them out so they make sense is like suddenly being given power over immense distances of time and space: you can connect up the dots, and something constantly and unremittingly human is revealed between them. I’ve been reading The Epic of Gilgamesh lately, and that feeling seems to hit me every few stanzas. It’s so ancient. It’s so alien. But it still fits together with that same sensation of fitting.
This history of Papua New Guinea is fascinating, and I’ve barely scratched the surface. But I’ll try and share with you the structure of the thing, as it relates to the current tensions within the PNG solution, as best as I can figure it. Like I said, I’m not an expert; but I do have some notions which I am eagerly looking to refine.
It’s pretty clear that the Papua New Guineans on the street do not, as a general rule, want refugees settled in their country – especially Muslim ones. I wanted to understand why this seems to be the case, other than a blanket ‘racism’ (arguably accurate but not particularly useful as an answer in this circumstance). And I think it comes down to the politics of West Papua, and a not insignificant portion of good ole’ human fear.
You’re going to have to bear with me here, and try and get your head around the idiosyncratic taxonomy of the way that the relevant places are named.
West Papua is one half of the island of New Guinea. The other half of New Guinea is a country called Papua New Guinea. West Papua, which itself consists of a mostly arbitrary split into ‘Papua’ and ‘West Papua’, exists in a state of quantum geography. Which is to say that if you ask an Indonesian who owns West Papua, they will tell you Indonesia, but ask a non-Indonesian West Papuan who owns West Papua, they will tell you ‘not Indonesia’.
This came about through complex reasons that stemmed from Indonesia wanting to stick it to the man – in this scenario, the man was apparently Holland – which ultimately ended in West Papua being given to Indonesia by the UN, with the ultimate goal being to let the West Papuans decide, once the situation had cooled off, whether they wanted to stay part of Indonesia or go off and be their own thing. That was back in the early sixties. And it turns out that Indonesia kind of wanted to keep West Papua, as they haven’t yet deemed the situation cooled off enough to let that choice be voted on yet. And it also turns out the West Papuans aren’t too happy about that.
What else they’re not happy about is Indonesia resettling as many Indonesians as they can there over the intervening fifty years – I should point out that West Papua as well as Papua New Guinea is a predominately Christian country, which will become important for reasons in a moment. And their suspicion is that Indonesia are sending as many Indonesians – who just happen to be Muslims – to West Papua as possible, so that when the time comes to choose between staying with Indonesia or becoming their aforementioned own thing, there’ll be enough resettled Indonesians there to tip the vote in Indonesia’s favour.
Now, switch to the point of view of Papua New Guinea, the country that takes up the other half of the island shared with West Papua. Australia has started sending our refugees – many of who are Muslims, or at least that’s the perception – to go and live there. Is this sounding familiar? It really isn’t, but it sounds like it is, and therein lies the problem.
Indonesia is sending Muslim Indonesians to West Papua, perhaps to tip a vote to remain part of Indonesia, but who can say. Australia is sending Muslim refugees to Papua New Guinea, and there’s fear that one day they might tip a vote to make Papua New Guinea part of Indonesia as well, if such a motion were to be suggested at the right strategic time. I don’t know why refugees would vote for that simply because they’re Muslims – out of much needed solidarity previously lacking in their lives under persecution, I guess? But that’s where the fear comes into it. Fear isn’t rational, and that’s why a lot of racism is borne by it. I guess being an asshole isn’t rational either, and that’s where a lot more racism comes from in general. But of those two sources in this specific instance, I feel like the former may be the more compelling tale.
You may have noticed a lack of bolded external links which usually proliferate these comic annotations. That’s because, for a change, I’m not just reporting news as I see it. This is the synthesis of a wide and scattered array of reading material I’ve devoured on the matter, mixed with a healthy amount of personal conjecture. Most of the connections I’ve drawn might be complete bunkum. But it’s like I said at the start: there is something very satisfying about a narrative that seems to fit once you get it. The difference is that this is a narrative that is still ongoing. We can’t step back and look at all the pieces yet, and arrange them with accuracy. We’re in the thick of it.