Papua and Mental Health: Pressures from protests and instability

Yosina, a 70 year old recently widowed grandmother-of-two sits by the window of her home. It is dirty, filled with cobwebs and dust. Her children have not visited in months. She wonders if they even remember her at all. Breathing a heavy sigh, Yosina picks up her cup of kopi and attempts to stand, leaning on the edges of her damaged walls. She stumbles, surprised by her own weight. “Not only am I a burden to myself, but to my family. Perhaps it is best that they have forgotten I exist,” she tells herself sadly. In the kitchen, she picks up a dirty rag and wipes the perspiration developing on her forehead. The 30 degree days are no match for her tired body. Her bones are slowly giving up on her, just as she believes her family has too. Outside, she hears the sudden eruption of shouting and yelling. “Kami bukan monyet,” they yell. She has no energy inside her to join in. The daily question imposes itself into her mind: will I see independence before I die?

Though fiction, Yosina’s story is a sad one. It depicts the heart wrenching reality of what it is like to be a forgotten citizen of Papua.

Mental illness is an increasing issue within Papua. But what causes this mental distress in the first place, and why is it not getting the attention it so obviously requires?

To put it simply, violence.

Violence fills the streets of Papua, and riots are abundant. In preparing for this article, I decided to search up the current news within this region of Indonesia. To my surprise, almost every article signalled a protest or riot that had turned violent. This situation has remained relatively the same for the past 50 years, following the inclusion of Papua as Indonesian territory in 1969 (Singh, 2019).

The past month of August has been particularly dangerous for Papuan citizens and Indonesian military. Among the many riots that took place, one stood out for me in particular. Riots against university students’ racial abuse turned devastatingly tumultuous, when vehicles were burnt and buildings damaged. Papuan students in Surabaya had been victim to racial slurs and abuse, rendered defenseless against security guards and organisations that degraded them as “monkeys” needing to be “kicked out” and “slaughtered” ("Riots flare in Manokwari after 'racist' attack on Papuan students in Surabaya", 2019). The Indonesian government responded by ceasing internet supply within Papua, increasingly limiting their freedom and prompting further protests.

Why is violence so extreme in this particular region? The key reason behind such turmoil is Papua’s unfair exclusion from crucial historical legislative decisions, including the 1962 New York Agreement and the 1969 referendum which highlighted its inclusion within Indonesian territory. Yet another reason is the economic injustice in Papua. Despite being rich in resources, its people are poor. Resources are taken by foreign companies, who also deforest sacred Papuan lands against their will. The evident racism and discrimination that Papuans must face is highlighted as they urge, “we are not monkeys” (DW News, 2019).

“All aspects of the livelihood of Papuans are controlled by Indonesians, they have taken over the region’s economy, as well as all sectors of social and cultural life.”
- Pro-Independence spokesperson, Victor Yeimo

In 2001, Indonesia introduced legislation ‘On Special Autonomy for the Papua Province’:

“ My brothers and sisters in Papua and West Papua, I know you feel offended… Therefore countrymen, to forgive each other is the best.”
- Joko Widodo, Indonesian President

Evidently, this was a failed attempt at increasing autonomy. The riots still continued.

The Indigenous peoples of Papua are under immense mental distress. The displacement and injustice they experience, combined with other factors such as poverty, violence and abuse, render them vulnerable to mental illness and in need of urgent psychological support.

Within Indonesia, health care standards are lowest in Papua (Rees, van de Pas, Silove & Kareth, 2008), with psychiatrists and psychiatric nurses being of extremely low availability. Despite general hospital staff endeavouring to assist any person who presents in mental distress, they are hastily discharged, and left in the care of family members. The lucky few find love and understanding support among relatives. Others are left disowned and homeless, unable to care for themselves.

It cannot be denied that changes and improvements are being made. Slowly but surely, mental health is being seen as a priority rather than an inconvenience. In terms of legislation, since the 1990s, Indonesia has also provided Papua with more freedom. Otonomi khusus has been established, allowing for locals to organise and voice their needs, especially economic requirements. Unfortunately, the organisation failed. For most, Papua’s independence seems impossible. However with increasing freedom and autonomy, it might just as well be transformed into a safer and more vibrant community.

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