- Freedom in Entangled Worlds: West Papua and the Architecture of Global Power by Eben Kirksey, and: Laughing at Leviathan: Sovereignty and Audience in West Papua, by Danilyn Rutherford
Two recent works are casting a much-needed light on the history and contemporary experience of West Papua in an age of ever deeper and more complex global entanglements and local struggles. Freedom in Entangled Worlds: West Papua and the Architecture of Global Power, by Eben Kirk-sey, chronicles a number of striking and significant moments in the recent history of West Papua: the surge of indigenous political protests and fresh rounds of violence after the fall of Suharto, the emergence of Theys Eluay as an independence leader and his subsequent murder by Indonesian Special Forces, and the much-publicized attack that killed two Americans and an Indonesian employed by an international school near West Papua’s controversial Freeport mine, to name a few. Kirksey’s position in this account is itself remarkable. His first research trip to West Papua in July 1998 coincided with mass demonstrations of indigenous men and women protesting Indonesian rule in the provincial capital, Jayapura. He boarded a passenger ship to leave the city and ended up stranded on Biak island off the north coast, just in time to witness a landmark protest and the massacre of protestors by Indonesian military and police on 6 July 1998.
Papuan resistance and the movement for merdeka (freedom or independence) is the focus of the book, centered by Kirksey’s insistent question, “What are the possibilities of finding limited rights and justice while trapped within unwanted entanglements?” (1). His interests include the forms of hope West Papuans embraced in times of complete hopelessness (19), as well as thoughtful examinations of the strategies they have embarked on to keep merdeka alive even as Indonesian authorities have tried to destroy the movement with raw force (18). One of his key findings is that, as a result of violence or people’s sense of disappointment in leaders, the struggle for merdeka frequently goes underground and emergent visionaries refigure hopes and desires (54).
Based on multiple visits to West Papua over the course of his undergraduate and doctoral research projects, which took place from approximately 1998 to 2008, this book “traces ideas about freedom as they moved through time, among West Papuan cultural groups” (xii). Kirksey himself calls it “an unconventional anthropological study, a multisited ethnography, about people and political formations in motion” (xiii). The book’s most central argument—that social movements “wed collaboration with imagination to [End Page 418] open up surprising opportunities in the field of historical possibility” (xiii)—is well supported and mostly convincing. The book provides various kinds of evidence of how political strategies that combine collaboration with structures of power, and expansive dreams of transformation, work to secure partial successes for West Papuans in spite of ongoing exploitation and violence.
Freedom in Entangled Worlds starts with a list of eight key characters whose experiences and perspectives informed the book including West Papuan journalists, human rights researchers, and well-known activists. In this way we are alerted to the prominence of West Papuan activists and political figures in Kirksey’s account of merdeka dreams. Yet some of the most compelling accounts in the book come from West Papuan informants who are neither well-known activists nor members of the political elite. The gripping introduction to the book describes the story of Ester Nawipa, a young woman from the Mee tribe of the central highlands who was forced into two years of sexual slavery by Indonesian soldiers. As she related her story to Kirksey in 2002, several years after...