Sunday, July 19, 2015

When Brown Voices Collide: a Malay-Javanese woman's perspective on West Papua

This article was first 'published' as a personal "Note" on the my personal Facebook account last month. I tried to get feedback from New Zealand based activists and Leftwing/radical bloggers on appropriate platforms for which it can be shared but it seemed to gain little response aside from the empathetic "likes" of my post. I realise also since then, that this article exposed myself as a vulnerable victim-survivor of various social issues and wondered if it would overwhelm readers. So before you do read further please note that my aim at disclosing some of these emotional insights shared are meant to demonstrate the linkages I drew from my subjectivity as a brown, indigenous, often-"othered-as-Asian-migrant" person in Aotearoa New Zealand amidst the various hurdles anyone whose experienced burnout in activism as well as multiple levels of marginalisation by way of gender, race, sexuality, faith, spirituality identity/embodiment, deal with severe mental health issues. I hope my personal accounts will not go to waste, as in doing so, I was primarily aiming to bring fore one brown woman's reality of psychological effects of inter-generational colonisation, to highlight the strands of denial, inabilities/capacities to heal and problematic discourses of having to choose with the "oppressed or oppressor" when attempting to understand other brown people's struggles in the course of decolonisation today. It also hopes to demonstrate how decolonisation is not just a political process but a deeply spiritual exercise as well. -batik, 20th July 2015.

A couple of years ago, I blogged here of how I was in the middle of the UNICEF Headquarters building in New York having a lively discussion with a friend who works there about indigenous self-determination for the people of Singapura, and how it may revive a sense of political consciousness amongst Nusantara (Malay archipelago) natives from Indonesia to Thailand. The spanner in the works was West Papua.

I had not much knowledge nor exposure to what happened then. My life was 24/7 feminist as an NGO worker doing advocacy and lobbying with New Zealand and Australian politicians, pushing for attention on the issues and social service needs of immigrant women victims of trafficking and domestic violence.

Since then, life has slowed down a little. In 2014, I had a mysterious virus flirting within my system and was hospitalised for a week in Melbourne. I got better and was cleared normal. Then a few months later I attempted suicide. When I was clinically diagnosed with depression, I quit my job and decided to take care of myself better. I got some counselling, made time for family, drank tea more than coffee and stayed away from activism for six months.

Staying away from activism was perhaps one of the most difficult things I had to do. In some ways, I feel like I was addicted to it, like I was unhealthily married to it. Once at a conference, I was a panel speaker and when asked what keeps me inspired and motivated to keep going amidst all of the wrongs in the world, I said, injustice. Injustice keeps me going. What a bold thing to say, I thought after that. What a death sentence too, another voice laughed at me inside my head.

So I made a deal with myself. That while I promise to steer away from protests, rallies, political events and trolling on threads online, I will however keep myself aware and write my thoughts out just for myself, not publish it for the world, AND only if and when I feel deeply bothered about the issue so much so that I could not get to sleep.

I slept a little and lot in those six months. But somehow in between the realm of awake and asleep, I was still very much agitated. I saw visions of my grandma from time to time, and then strange dreams of being chased or poled on a spitfire. I guess Muslims call those hellish dreams. My family believed I was going insane, but also had faith that I was battling those long-seeded demons stirring in my head.

My story is not unique. One day I perchanced myself accompanying a guest speaker at a hui addressing a queer and gender diverse youth audience in Auckland. One of the panellists there spoke about their poetry and how they felt a lived reality in their dreams, finding truth and spiritual consciousness through their dream encounters. Much of it, they explained, was to do with their insisting on that world being as tangible and valid as the social scientific rationale, and how much that aided their healing process as an indigenous person today. Of course people thought they were mad. For the first time in a long time I felt deeply touched. I cried quietly in the audience amongst fidgety young people who may or may not truly appreciate the wisdom that existed in the room.

According to psychologists, the demons eating us up, causing us to sleep restless are forms of anxiety, often fuelled by guilt. I would like to agree and have found myself agreeing for the last 20 odd years since I accessed support services for my mental and emotional health concerns. But part of me also believe that there are actual embodiments of unsettled social issues in my consciousness as an indigenous person of colour, that does not get addressed in counselling practices. Yes, I cannot control what happens in the world. Yes, a lot of what happened to me was beyond my control. Yes, I can only change what is within my means. I have to let go of the things that are bad and keep the memories that are good. I can keep living, one day at a time. Everything else, I surrender to Allah.

But I have been feeling uneasy in my body for far too long. This light brown skinned body that was birthed from the womb of a Javanese mother, had Malay blood genealogies scattered and displaced all across Nusantara from Singapura to Madura. My blood drew stories of alim ulamas – religious leaders, as well as tradespeople, poets and storytellers as well as thieves, witches and crooks. The colonized memories linger in my veins of course, through the words of grandparents then later corrected by parents – to the extent that I do not know what is fact and fiction anymore. Oral history can be empowering but also confusing. I guess at some point, I decided to believe whatever I want to, and call it my self-determined knowledge.

In the midst of this romantic excursion of my past, there were also many unsettling stories that revealed some nasty things about these people I call my own. My maternal Javanese grandfather for instance distinguish himself as a Javanese and not a Malay. “Those Malays are always making bad choices,” he would say. My elder uncle would say, “I see so many broken marriages in the Malay community, young Malays just don’t know the sacredness of family life.” There is a sense of self-righteousness that seem to go well with their fairer skin tones, when they speak of the Malay people as a whole. I often find myself conflicted and when I puncture in, “you mean us Malays?”, I can see them dismissing it in their eyes like I’ve missed the point of their monologue. And don’t get me started on my cousins – many are of mixed parentage (Chinese and Malay) and the ones that aren’t are so assimilated in Singaporean Chinese/Japanese/Korean pop culture, that they bear little interest in political affairs, let alone of the indigenous communities in Nusantara countries.

If I can’t talk about the issues that stem from our bodies and genealogies, how do we start to talk about healing as individuals? I know it is often the other way round in western cultures. But for me, having learnt through decolonisation in my political consciousness interrupted/interrupting my personal health and well-being, I realise that my body, my mind and soul can never be fully healed unless I focus my energy into rebuilding relationships amongst the people closest to me. Once I start doing that, I hope to gain support and confidence so that we amongst us that are affected and strengthened in spirit, start extending the same energies with others in our networks. Grassroots they call it? Yeah. This time I’d like to see that happen intimately, quietly and meaningfully in community development, not necessarily in media sensationalised protest stunts.

This is why when someone brings up West Papua, I get stuck. Not because I’m sitting comfortable in my Indonesian ancestral privilege. Not because I’m not aware of the atrocities that are occurring everyday, perpetrated by the Indonesian military. And definitely not because of my complicities as a Muslim, absolving the Indonesian Muslim majority Government’s mission to force convert Melanesian natives into Islam in West Papua. The tragedy of West Papua is trapped in the endless saga of a brutal history of colonialism in the Asia-Pacific. And as much as it would be easier for us to name and shame Indonesia as a colonizer the same way indigenous peoples in Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia and Canada have done upon the white majority, I cannot and will not equate the situation of Indonesians in West Papua.

Yes, what they are doing is wrong. Yes, there is no excuse for imperialist violence, and sectarian killings. And indeed there is nothing Islamic about violating non-believers in a situation of non-attack in non self-defence. But if indigenous rights based and Pasifika activists are seeking to challenge the oppressions faced by West Papuans, there needs to be a wider decolonisation strategy in addressing multi-temporal historical colonisations in the Asia-Pacific.

It is recognising that this is not JUST about capitalist agendas and resource exploitation. It is recognising that there is deeply-rooted anti-Islamic, pro-Church propaganda running in the underbelly of certain Asia-Pacific solidarities (the same problematic way might I add in the anti-Semitic approach taken by some Muslims supporting pro-Palestine solidarities). And that all this killing and exploitation is fuelled by unresolved effects of colonisation, beginning from absence of reparations by former colonial empires, and effective grassroots organising work in Nusantara that firmly mobilises indigenous peoples to get to its own political consciousness without the white-washing of the UN Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and parliament sovereign legislation in their individual (and thus divided) nation-states.

To all that have read this and consider me a genuine ally, I would like to extend my solidarity for the plight of West Papua as a disenfranchised indigenous Malay from Singapura of Indonesian heritage. But if I were to jump in on your bandwagon I know that I am only sabotaging the important efforts of self-determination in West Papua and taking no responsibility for the real cause of this systematic violence called colonisation. As you can see we are all victim-survivors of a bigger political problem. And for me that problem needs to be addressed according to multiple strategies. It has to begin with the work that I have to do with my people first in Singapura, and across communities that self-identify as Nusantara. And while it will be quiet, I can promise you it will not be in silence. I hope you know that we have you in our spirit and prayers as we learn to find ways to survive and heal as formerly colonized peoples. One day at a time.


  1. Nice post. Keep writing and sharing. Really nice to read.
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