Professor Paul James at the Washington Solution Conference


Democracy and Human Rights in Asia and the Pacific: The Washington Solution

Convenors: Lester Kurtz, George Mason University
Herman Wainggai, West Papua National Authority



Paul James posited the question: what kind of democracy would West Papua head towards as it considers the issue of self-determination?

He outlined the differing layers in many societies in modern times – traditional, tribal, modern and post-modern, then gave some examples of how these layers sometimes competed and made it difficult for recent nation states as they transitioned to functioning democracies.

He cited PNG in which those elected in a modern sense still have to negotiate at various other levels. Because the political system is weak individuals rise and fall rapidly and ‘good democracy’ is perverted in the nexus of the old systems and descends to ‘big man’ politics.

Timor Leste in seeking to recover from the horror of its past has not been able to return to where they were. It has not succeeded in making the chiefs the local level government representatives because it also depended on the forms of modern power – majority numbers and representational forms.

Fiji has run into trouble because it tried to have two layers – a dual House of Reps as well as a House of Chiefs which had already begun to assume modern powers. Both houses needed to hold separate type of power instead of becoming contestational.

Wes Papua needs to self–determine and therefore needs to decide what kind of rule of governance it wants. Will it, like many of these places, take the form of old tribal groups becoming political parties? An option would be to have a “Tribal House” having power over cultural expression and land, within a tribal council, which would connect downwards to the local landowners and upwards to the representative House of the nation state. Some places have had a local (counter) dialogue level – not straightforward participation. This requires the recognition of authority and eldership in the community.


PJ Hello everybody.
LK This is Professor Paul James from Melbourne. He’s talking about what’s happening in West Papua.

PJ Thank you very much for the invitation; it’s fantastic. Louise asked me to talk about democracy in West Papua. And part of the reason was is that the situation there is so bad, the human rights abuses are so terrible, that what we wanted to talk about was what could be done and where self-determination could go in terms of democracy. And talk about an alternative future for West Papua. One that partakes of the kinds of issues that have been dealt with in other Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste, a number of other Pacific Islands and Melanesian states, to try and think about where they’ve gone wrong, or where they’ve developed the kind of democracy that West Papua might head towards. And so I thought I would start talking to that. Does that fit with your sense of what you’d like to hear?

LK Yes.

PJ The situation in West Papua is that it is a semi autonomous region within an Indonesian archipelago. Indonesia treats West Papua as the length and extension of their great empire, rather than as a part of the nation-state of Indonesia. And that’s part of the complication of the way in which Indonesia was set up in the first place.

I’m not actually arguing for independence or otherwise. I’m arguing for self-determination, where people have the right to choose how they want to govern themselves. And if they chose a nation-state as the form they’d be then stepping into the independence question. But that’s not what I want to head towards. I want to talk about the ways in which they could have an alternative form of democracy, which doesn’t go down the pathways of those other examples that I’ve given. And I would also add in Vanuatu and Solomon Islands into that process to make a point of comparison.

And Papua New Guinea is a fantastically difficult example. Papua New Guinea, which is the other half of that great island, is a place where they have formal procedural democracy, and yet that democracy is very thin. And the thinness of that democracy is trying to cope with a culture and society which is a complex layering of different social formations, different ontological formations if you like. And let me go into that detail …..

Now anyone feel free to stop me at any point in this discussion, because some of what I am talking about comes out of social theory, a mixture of sociology, anthropology, and history. And so if I’m not making sense to you, let me know, because it’s not necessarily common sense that I’m talking about.

The usual distinction in anthropology is between modern and pre-modern societies. And for me that distinction doesn’t work at all. It sets up a great divide between people who live as tribal people and yet often have a bottom layer at the same time. So what I need to do is distinguish between different layers, and what I am calling ontological layers—layers of being, layers of who you are as a person, layers of how you relate to others as people. And the distinction I’m going to make is between tribal, traditional, modern, and post-modern layers of being.

And what you find in a place like West Papua is a complication, because everything that occurs in West Papua occurs around the tensions between those layers. So when a mining company comes in as a modern mining company to mine gold in that place, the ideas—about return-on-investment, the ways in which the corporation operates, the ways in which all sorts of issues about global capitalism operates—are modern; modern through and through. And yet the way in which Indonesia negotiates those contracts have got a traditional element to them at the same time. That is, there is a cosmology which sets up Indonesia as more than just a modern nation-state. They draw upon the idea of being a Muslim nation, or a nation with a deep history which connects people together. And that means that you need to be able to divide those terms.

The term tribal in this sense doesn’t mean that a tribe is just completely tribal. Tribal relates to….and I’ll define modern and traditional and tribal by the same method. You have to understand that in a place like West Papua is that the ways in which time is understood crosses those ontological divides. So for a tribal person, time works analogically, according to nature. It works across the seasonal sense of changes from dry season to west season. Time is different genealogically. So you have mythological time, you have genealogical time, and you have analogical time related to nature. And when a modern contractual relationship comes over the top of that, it starts to set time in a completely different way. It says time will be contracted, for a five-year period you will give up your land and gold will come out of that mountain. So time is treated as what’s called calendrical time, contractual time. Time which is empty, where things are put into it, and it is organised legally and it’s organised across a series of parameters which says how that time should be organised.

Space is the same thing. We can see issues of tribal space, traditional space, and modern space coming into contention with other.

Now if this sounds as if it is going in a strange anthropological, sociological direction, I will get back to the politics of this in a moment. Because it will have political consequences, it has major political consequences.

But let me do space. The spatiality of a tribal person is located around their bodies, the genealogy of their connections through time to that place, the myths and stories they tell about those places, the stories they collate. And what happens with tribal time and space—and in West Papua you can see this very clearly—it is overlaid by cosmological time and space. Cosmological in this case is particularly carried by the church. The particular denominations of the Christian Churches are dominate in West Papua. And the Muslim cosmology is dominate in the other parts of Indonesia, except for certain parts which are also Christian. And there is also Animisim and Buddhism and other forms that come in as tribal and traditional layers in those other places.

When those layers come into contention with each other, tribal times and spaces are places which are particular to people. They live them through their bodies, they live them through their sense of their genealogical past and how that past will be passed onto future generations. Whereas cosmological time and space frames it by God, Jesus, or Allah, and says that time and space is framed by your being as connected to this greater entity that is bigger than yourself. And that kind of process means that Indonesians—the non West Papuan Indonesians—have a different cosmology and a different sense of modern time. Now that means that every negotiation that occurs in West Papua is going to occur across those boundaries, which are going to cause contradictions and tensions and problems. That then leads to the politics.

Now let me describe other places around the world. I’ll use places that are very close at hand. Papua New Guinea and East Timor. Maybe they are the two best examples to help you with this situation.

In Papua New Guinea, their nearest neighbour, where lots of people trying to escape the Indonesian regime have gone as migrants and refugees. They have a modern political system. The modern political system says that they will have democracy at the top level. It will be a constitutional situation, so they have a constitution unlike say Britain. But unlike the United States, they don’t have division of powers between the presidency and the judiciary and the different layers of the house representatives and senate. The division of powers is between the judiciary and the government within a bureaucracy which sets up a single representative house. And the representative house is located as a modern democracy, which draws on a series of provincial places, and democratic voting occurs—you’ll recognise it, it’s very straight forward—such that a democratic representative of that particular area goes in to become the representative in the government.

The party system in Papua New Guinea is very weak, and so there is constant negotiation between each of the people as they become politicians and enter into it. And very rarely does a politician last more than one term, because in the way that I have described before—and it is very similar in West Papua, although the modern layer there is much weaker—the modern layer is in tension with the traditional layer—which is the Christian Church layer carried by the institutions of the Church—and the tribal layer which is carried by the ways in which people live in those localities. To become a politician you have to negotiate all those layers, and what usually happens is that you start to develop local forms of corruption. Usually half-a-million kina (about $us250,000) goes to every politician to run their candidacy. Once they become a politician they’ve got half-a-million kina, and they use that effectively to buy partnerships, votes, and they become what’s called in PNG ‘big men’. They are hardly any women politicians, all of them are big men. And they draw upon the older tribal sense of connection to place, which was organised around a big men notion of reciprocity where you gave things away to accrue power. (There are actually two forms of tribal association within Papua New Guinea, but I won’t go into that). And the big man mythologies then get lifted into a modern framework, and the big men become corrupt politicians, drawing upon the older tribal understanding of who they are as persons. And they have to negotiate that in quite complicated ways, but they do that through money or beer or pigs. Giving away beer is a common method for buying votes in PNG. It’s low-level corruption, but it means that the older forms, even though they are strong and vibrant are being corrupted by the modern form, even though the modern form is a good form of democracy. So you can see what I’m saying,:that good democracy can actually be perverted in the intersection of these three ways of understanding social life—the temporarility, the spatiality question, the nature of your body as you are a person in that space.

Now how are we going to cope with that? Well various ways have been tried around the Asia-Pacific region. And one way in Timor was to try and think about local-level government. In Papua New Guinea, the same thing, they set up local level government. In Timor-Leste they tried to take the chiefly system and give them small salaries to become the representatives at the local level. And the reason it didn’t work was because the ways in which modern democracy framed the process was to really make the whole thing centre on modern power.

So we now have to distinguish between different forms of power. Tribal power, cosmologically-traditional power, and modern-democratic power. Modern democratic power works by majority numbers, and by representational forms, and you can have thick or thin versions of that. Australia and the US have variously moderately thin versions of democracy—if I can say that without causing too much consternation, because the form of democracy is really a democracy which relies on an opinion poll style approach of who is a popular leader. And it tends not to go down deep into the sense of how you organise the locality, except by vote systems. A police officer or a magistrate might be voted into office. That doesn’t make a deep democracy; that makes it deep proceduralism. It makes it fairly thin in its form because the only part of it that holds it together is thin proceduralism.

What I am trying to argue for … If you talk about thick democracy, would be to argue for the forms of democracy crossing those various levels. Modern democracy, traditional democracy, tribal democracy. Now you know what democracy is; it just means rule by the people. Therefore, procedures, methods, techniques for managing that process can be done in a multitude of ways. And modern democracy has chosen a particular form, representative democracy as the mechanism by which it makes it work.

Now a place like Fiji tried to have two layers. It tried to have modern democracy that had a house of representatives, and a house or a Council of Chiefs which was tribal. But the issue that occurred there was complicated, because those chiefs had already become tribal-traditional-modern chiefs, where their power was attempting to be exerted by modern means. And that means if you separate off those different forms ….If I were to say, let’s have, for example, three houses of parliament …a modern house of parliament which is a house of parliament that is representative—and West Papua would need to go in that direction, because there are various things which are not and cannot be organised by customary chiefs or by tribal associations. That includes things like defence, foreign affairs, trade; all those things that are about the thing called the nation-state. Because you cannot really have a nation of tribes organised simply by bringing those tribes together.

So you do need an over-bracing modern democratic system. But what has happened in a place like Fiji, is that they tried to set i[ a duel system, and the duel system has already turned into a contestation over modern power. Therefore if you had two houses of parliament—one which is tribal-traditional and one which is modern—you would have to actually separate the type of power that those particular institutions hold. And therefore, you’d have to get down to some very careful negotiation over what power is, and what the kinds of power are to negotiate would be.

And that would mean something like—and this is just a first go at it and it might take much more discussion, and the West Papuan people, if we are to go back to the original part of our conversation ….. they need to self-determine. They need to work out, if they are going towards self-determination or independence of a particular configuration within the Indonesian archipelago, they need to decide now, and think about now, what kind of rule of governance they want. So that the crisis that occurred in East Timor doesn’t occur in West Papua as independence came.

To go back to East Timor again as an example. They fought a twenty-five year war in East Timor against the Indonesians. Horrific war. Tens of thousands of people died in that war. There was famine, there was crisis, there were people being tortured, there were issues about all sorts of things. And they thought that once they got independence, life would be good. They thought that if they had a modern democracy where they could rule themselves, then life would be fantastic. What happened in Timor in the transformation to a new democracy, was that the transformation brought all of the problems—associated with what I’ve been describing as those tribal-traditional-modern layers of both power and politics—into contention.

In the old Timor, tribal differences between people were quite apparent. Mythologies were across the island. The differences between people meant there were many different languages. And kingdoms had been developing across the course of the fifteenth to nineteenth century, which gave you a traditional layer of understanding of cosmological frameworks. And one of those traditional layers of understanding inside Timor was the difference between the east and the west. Loro Monu and Loro Sae. This is a story which then became a traditional cosmology, but lifted and abstracted out. And this meant that people in the east, the Loro Sae, started to distinguish themselves from people in the west, the Loro Monu. This is a mythological and then cosmological claim. It is not a modern power claim. And this particular thing was the connection between people. Under the cosmological understanding of power, it was what connected people. Because the people in the east were connected to the people in the west as the sun rises and the sun sets. As the sun moved across the sky the people are now finding a cosmological framework within which they could sit and hold each other in relationship to each other. As that process became modernised it turned into a categorical difference between the people rather than a thing which connected them.

I could spend a lot more time on these kinds of transformations. You can do it for Rwanda, and the crises and massacres that occurred in Rwanda, and the ways in which modern democracy overlaid a cosmological and tribal system, and then gave rise to a distinction between Hutu and Tutsi, which was not a tribal distinction of a categorical kind. It was a tribal distinction within a clan structure of an older kind which didn’t separate those people absolutely, it connected them together. Talk to me later if you want to go into that example because I can go into it in much more detail.

In East Timor after independence, the Loru Monu/Loro Sae, the east and west, became the distinction which became bound up in power. Those who were part of the west felt disenfranchised. The Loro Sae part of the east said ‘We were the best fighters during that twenty-five year period; we were the best guerillas, therefore we deserve modern power. Fretilin was most clearly associated with the east. They deserved modern power. They wanted to have the outcome of modern power when they set up their power relationships. So in doing so, in setting up that modern power, and claiming modern outcomes, commodities and money, there was a split in the military in East Timor, and there was an ethnic cleansing process which started in places like Dili. And the LoroSae started to ethnically cleanse the Loro Monu from certain suburbs in Dili, and vice versa, and you got a complete separation of those peoples. What previously held people together became the basis of their separation because the modern changes meant you categorized power against that.

Now my fear in a place like West Papua is that it too has been through not a hot war but a slow war. It is a conflict which is so basic and fundamental as to mean that people are now seeking out to find sovereignty and power. They think modern sovereignty will solve their problems. And they are partly right and they are partly wrong. There are people who will become like many of the African states became after they got democratic rule. The majorities and rrdinary thin democracy prevails. And under those circumstances, what comes up from below, from a tribal-mythological and then traditional-cosmological rule, is that certain tribes then become the basis of certain parties. And you get like what we see in places like Papua New Guinea, or the old Rhodesia as it turned into Zimbabwe, or the old South Africa, and all sorts of issues that are associated with almost all the Africa states, about certain tribes become the basis of modern democracy.

I might stop at that point because I’ve raised a lot of issues and I’ve skimmed over them quite fast to try and get the whole picture in. But there will be terms of concepts or concerns that you have. What I am in effect saying, to summarize, is that West Papua has been under conditions of slow war for a couple of generations now. That slow war means that people want modern power. And unless they think about what kind of democracy they want, they will simply replicate ….despite being good people, despite being sophisticated and know what they are doing ….they will replicate what happened in Africa and in other places in Southeast Asia, and will start to get big men politics and the kinds of corruption that can happen with a democracy that hasn’t thought about its own underlying social formation. Now to do that will require thinking about different houses of a modern democracy which refers different kinds of power to different houses.

If I were to think about what a tribal house might have power over, it would be over be two things, cultural expression and land. That might sound like it’s a minimal thing to have control over. But to put control over land within a tribal council, which would have to defer its power down to local people over that land, but then bring it back up for discussion about the nature of connections between people, would be an incredibly complicated thing to do. And it would have consequences for how you would have contractual relations with gold mining companies and all the other kinds of companies that are rapaciously mining West Papua at the moment.

So I’ll stop there for the moment. Send me in the direction you want me to go rather than have me talk and talk.

LK That was wonderful. That’s the kind of discussion that we really need. The kind of thing that will take the next five days or five years to work through.

PJ There is a post-modern layer of course, and we can see it in all sorts of representational forms. I doubt there is much post-modernism in West Papua, although there re probably are some relativists who are starting to think about the nature of culture as simply an aesthetic layer of being. If I were to use the example of Papua New Guinea which is the easier one for me to do in relation to post-modernism. The nature of temporality in post-modernism is to link time in a relative way which says that where you stand gives you your sense of time. It’s the Einsteinian notion of time although he has a modern lay that sits beneath the ways he was trying to do his science. .A post-modern sense of politics takes it as a game. It turns the whole thing into a where you are playing the game without consequence. There are senses of that in the advertising attempts to give the impression that….. Take Michael Somare in Papua New Guinea. Michael Somare is the father of the nation. To make a claim that you are the father of the nation is to make a claim which is both a modern and a traditional claim at the same time. It’s claiming a modern abstract community of strangers and it’s claiming a traditional idea of genealogical blood ties which connects an abstract community of strangers. So this father of the nation is asked the question ‘Are you really the father of the nation?’. And he laughs and says ‘My pro-creation is not strong enough to be the father of the nation, my sperm have died years ago. Now when he says that he is playing a post-modern game of reflexivity. A traditional father does not play that game. A modern father might start to with irony that has consequence, but he’s not playing a political irony game there.

But if you take politics in the US or Australia you can see it so much more clearly. The postmodern layer of politics where you are able to just separate yourself from that modern sense of being, and lift yourself into an idea of your self as a modab connected to others separately where you are part of the nation yet you float outside, which makes you a different kind of person. I think for a lot of us who live in this world, we are predominately modern, those of us who live in the United States or Australia. Even people who are tribal in Australia have a strong layer across what they do in the modern, but they can play postmodern games as well as the rest of us.