A story of mass starvation tells us much about media coverage and local government in Papua
In early April of 2013 it was reported that at least 95 indigenous Papuans had died of starvation in Kwoor sub-district, Tambrauw District, Papua Barat (West Papua). Another 553 were said to be seriously ill and at risk of imminent death. The deaths had begun in December of 2012 and most of the victims were concentrated in Tambrauw’s remote villages of Baddei (alt: Bakdei), Jokbi Joker (alt: Jokjoker) and Kasyefo.
Tambrauw lies on the northern coast of the Kepala Burung or Bird’s Head peninsula. This starvation report was particularly ironic in that Tambrauw is located next to some of the richest fisheries in the world. Although much of Tambrauw’s population is concentrated on, and makes their living from, the sea, the starvation-affected villages are all inland, with the closest a six-hour walk from Kampung Kwoor, and the furthest a three-day walk. This story resonated: it was indicative of the Indonesian government’s callousness toward the indigenous citizens of its easternmost and most under-developed periphery. And for many it was more evidence to support allegations that genocide is occurring in Tanah Papua.
The story grew more worrisome with news that two Papuan activists, Yohanis Mambrasar and his father, Hans, were arrested in the Tambrauw capital, Sausapor, for compiling a dossier of local deaths, apparently due to lack of medical care. The Asian Human Rights Commission reported that the two were interrogated for hours about separatist activities in the area and an urgent appeal was issued by AHRC on their behalf. Implicit in the news of this arrest were two things: that the starvation must be much more widespread than initially reported, and that the authorities were attempting a cover-up.
After a few weeks of attention to this starvation in select media outlets and independence listservs, the story faded from the news - yet another example of structural violence perpetuated against Papuans by the state, while brave activists trying to uncover such crimes disappear into police custody.
This incident is even more important because the alleged starvation didn’t actually happen....................................................