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Cover November 16, 1998

The Slings and Arrows - Of the Oppressed

The Second Article in the Iteachnet Series,
Teaching in the Hot Spots.

By Bruce E. Pohlmann, Ph.D.

When most of us that have taught overseas originally decided to embark on an international career, our mental images were generally of bustling foreign capitals, exotic foods, enriching and enjoyable travel, and maybe even some extra financial rewards. In addition to posts in Paris, Rome and Hong Kong, however, there are also posts in Beirut, Lahore and Jakarta. Few of us set out, I believe, to work in the "trenches." Teaching overseas can be a "risky business" (as Dan Davis put it in his fine article a few weeks ago). Almost ten years ago, I received a telegram from International Schools Services inquiring if I would be interested in teaching in a "lovely little school in a remote area of Indonesia." Little then did I guess what life would be like over the next nine years.

When I arrived in the highlands of Irian Jaya, I was completely in awe of the magnificent surroundings of my new home. It was definitely not Paris - it was better! The little mining town squeezed in a picturesque valley was located 6,000 feet in the clouds. Surrounding the town were hundreds of gorgeous waterfalls and what seemed like a never-ending mist. The feeling was one of entering the primordial forest. For someone who had spent most of his life studying the complexities of foreign cultures, I felt that there were special things in store for me while I worked in Irian Jaya.

Of course, Tembagapura was a company town - a mining town at that. I accepted my new position well aware of the conflicts between some of my beliefs and the work in which P.T. Freeport Indonesia was engaged. After a period of consideration, I decided that the opportunity to live and work in Irian Jaya was sufficient cause for me to accept the assignment.

Within a few weeks of settling in, I was out in the mountain jungle hiking every weekend - sometimes I would go out by myself and hook up with a Dani tribesman who would act as my guide; usually, however, I would go out with another teacher and a few Dani who had become our friends. These Saturday walks were a time of learning about the flora and fauna of the area, as well as learning about the culture of the local tribes. A number of small villages lay below Tembagapura. Amungme, Moni, Damal, and Dani tribes people populated the villages. The Dani were the most obvious outsiders, coming in looking for work with Freeport. The situation between the Dani and the other tribes, especially the Amungme, was often quite tense. The tribes were united in one aspect, however - they all had a general dislike for P.T. Freeport.

Long before I arrived in 1989, there had been struggles (sometimes violent) between the local residents and the Company. During my first six years in Tembagapura, however, there were only minor incidents between the Irianese (now often referred to in the Indonesian press as West Irians) and the Company. During the month of March 1996, the situation suddenly became decidedly more tense. While the genesis of the attack on Tembagapura remained fairly shrouded in mystery like many things in Indonesia, it seemed that under the inspiration of a new organizer, the tribes united and planned an attack on the Company to dramatically demonstrate their unhappiness with the situation as it existed.

One Sunday afternoon in March, the quiet of the town was pierced by the war cries of hundreds of Irianese tribesmen and women. Armed with rocks and bows and arrows, windows were shattered and Company cars were trashed. A large part of the expatriate population was in the Community Center watching a Girl Scout production. The large plate glass windows of the two-story structure, located in the Shopping Center, were demolished as scores of rocks were launched from cheering and chanting Irianese. The terrified population inside huddled behind tables and doors until the Irianese were satisfied with their work there and left on a run through town demolishing other windows, cars and buildings. The attack was clearly on property and not people. There were only several minor accidental injuries from a situation that could easily have turned highly tragic had the Irianese not been so controlled.

The school took a major beating. Almost all of the windows were shattered and the metal walls of the school were pierced with sharp rocks, many of which remained imbedded in the walls for days. A few teachers had been at the school whiling away their Sunday afternoon at work. They, the school janitors, and some townsfolk, who happened to be passing by as the attack began, hid in an inside room to be safe from flying glass and rocks. They were stuck there for over an hour until the Irianese decided to cease their demonstation. After the initial attack, a small group of teachers slowly, and cautiously, made their way to school to begin securing the building since none of us knew what was happening or how serious the situation would become. We were eventually able to store away computers and expensive electronic equipment in classrooms that were inaccessible without keys and had no outside windows. Everyone returned home to wait to see what the night would bring.

The mine was closed the next day, school cancelled, and residents restricted to their quarters. A smaller group of Irians entered the town and did some minor damage. Mostly their presence was a show of force and a victory celebration. Running through town dressed in traditional war dress and whooping chants, they eventually occupied the Sports Field where they danced and celebrated. It was an impressive sight. When they were finished, they ran back through town and down the valley to Waa, the major village in the area. By this time there were a fairly significant number of Indonesian troops arriving in the area.

Town residents spent the majority of the week locked in their homes with most business halted. The mine and mill were closed for most of the week, as was the Shopping Center (a main target of attack since Irianese were not allowed to shop there), the schools, and most everything else in town. The Irianese demanded, and eventually received, the presence of the CEO of P.T. Freeport. They made it clear that they would negotiate only with "Jim Bob." Negotiations between the Company, the Indonesian government and the Irianese were carried on over a week period. The Company asked for a thirty-day period to discuss the demands of the Irianese: new schools, a hospital, job training, an end to discrimination, new roads, English language training, a percentage of Freeport's profits, the firing of employees that were seen as being particularly discriminatory to the Irianese. The thirty-day period was granted. Eventually the Irianese received some concessions: a health center, new schools, job training, and a percentage of the Company profits were the main gains that the Irianese made. The Company was to be allowed to carry on their business without further demonstrations or violence. The Indonesian military, never known for their restraint in situations like this, were amazingly controlled.

During the thirty-day waiting period, the Indonesian military presence continued to build. It began to become clear at this point that the military was in Tembagapura to stay. The school was impacted by the presence of the military as heavily armed soldiers often shared the Sport Hall with school children who were taking their Physical Education classes. Parents were tense about so many young, heavily armed, and obviously inexperienced soldiers wandering around town. Some of our older female students complained of sexually oriented remarks directed at them from the military as they walked to and from school. Many teachers who had long been sympathetic to the oppression of the Irianese were uncomfortable with the turning of Tembagapura into an armed camp.

A few parents decided that it was time to move their children back to their home country, more pressed the Company for free leave time and took their children to Australia to relax and recover from the long, tense week. At school, the principal, two assistant principals and the counselor went from class to class, encouraging children to talk about their feelings and fears. The Company offered psychological counseling for those that felt they needed it. My youngest daughter, who had grown up with Irianese "uncles" in the Indonesian way, was now terrified at the sound of an Irianese whoop. I attempted to enter Waa several times with a few Irianese friends and felt a sense of hostility and tension that I had never experienced before.

It was clear that things in Tembagapura between expatriates, Indonesians and Irianese would never again be the same. People who had been oppressed and discriminated against for years had spoken forcefully about the need for change. The Company had been instituting slow changes over the previous few years, but it was clearly a case of too little and too slow for the Irianese. After several years, there has been significant progress made in advancements for the Irianese, and yet it is still a case of too little, too slow. Once the process of reform has begun, there is usually a strong desire to speed the process along on the part of those residing at the bottom layers of society. On the other hand, the power elite, no matter what their level of commitment to reform, tends to move cautiously and slowly in altering social, economic and political relationships. We can see the results of this same set of forces being played out on a national scale in Indonesia today.

For many of us working in overseas' posts, living and working through experiences such as these are part of the price that we pay for the many benefits of expatriate life. What occurred in Tembagapura was a frightening experience for the teachers, students and parents. Most of us that went through the experience will never forget it although we may repress its most unpleasant aspects. However, it powerfully demonstrated the logical conclusion (one that we have seen played out around the world) of a history of oppression and discrimination. This is not to say, however, that the situation in Irian is resolved; it is part of a process of social development that is underway throughout Indonesia. In a future article, I will discuss ways that we, as teachers, can positively use such experiences in our classroom.

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