Friday, November 30, 2012

A song for the morning star and a people living on belief

WHEN West Papuan Ronny Kareni came to Australia nine years ago, he could speak pidgin English but not English. Now he has a degree in international relations and can quote, in Italian - from an opera by Verdi - a line that he translates as ''My country is beautiful but lost …''

Today at noon, outside the State Library of Victoria, Ronny Kareni will raise the flag of the Morning Star in recognition of its first raising 51 years ago with the agreement of the Netherlands, then the colonial power in West Papua.

Kareni was one year old when, in 1984, his mother smuggled him and his sister across the border from West Papua into Papua New Guinea. His father stayed to be part of the armed struggle against the Indonesian forces securing the province for Indonesia, as they have since 1962.

The family built a shelter on a beach with logs cut from the jungle and a roof thatched with palm leaves. His mother made doughnuts and bread on her open fire and tried to sell them at local markets. There were days with no food. Then Ronny started school and found he was the only child speaking Bahasa Indonesian.

He was 19 when he came to Australia to study at Damascus College in Ballarat under a program organised by the Sisters of Mercy and West Papuan leader-in-exile Jacob Rumbiak. Kareni says he was welcomed into the Damascus College community. Money was raised to cover his fees, his uniform, his books. He found Australians friendly, open-minded and, on the subject of West Papua, disappointingly ignorant. Some people thought West Papua was in Africa when it is Australia's closest neighbour, as far away as Warrnambool from Melbourne.

Kareni, who has had several jobs with bodies such as Multicultural Arts Victoria, now works full-time for the West Papuan cause. I ask him why he does it. ''Because if I don't,'' he says, ''who will?'' Kareni says West Papuans formed 96 per cent of the population of their country when the Indonesians arrived. They now number less than half and the Indonesian authorities exercise, in his words, a ''culture of impunity'' in their dealings with them.

Kareni is a political man with a political message. He argues that, as a result of the Third Papuan People's Congress in Jayapura last year, West Papuans now have an elected leadership to begin round-table negotiations with Indonesia and a third party such as the United States. He doesn't rule out West Papua remaining part of Indonesia but says: ''There must be recognition of our rights as indigenous people to live freely, without repression and intimidation.'' The Indonesian authorities arrested 300 delegates to the Third Papuan People's Conference. The bodies of two others were found shot. Kareni's father had his skull fractured.

Saying armed struggle ''is not effective'', Kareni advocates non-violent activism and believes his people will win their freedom. His belief comes from his faith in the Christian God, from the Bible being the story of a dispossessed people, and from the strength of West Papuan culture. ''Our message is in our songs. Our songs are our message.'' He is part of a West Papuan band called Tabura, named after the shell blown like a horn to bring people together.

But I say, ''You're relying on the rest of the world to act on your behalf. What if they don't?'' 

''Then I would have to question God,'' he replies after a pause. ''I would say, why have you created us and placed us in West Papua and allowed this to happen to us?'' Then he adds, ''If there is one West Papuan left, the cause of West Papuan freedom will continue.''

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