West Papuans: neither lads nor cannibals, but humans

Paul Kingsnorth
28 April 2004

Benny Wenda and his wife
Benny Wenda and his wife

There are many things you might expect to see in the plate-glass lobby of 189 Shaftesbury Avenue, central London, on a normal day. Cycle couriers, security guards, delivery-men, kitten-heeled media types carrying takeaway cappuccinos back to their desks. For the headquarters of Emap Consumer Media, one of the world’s biggest magazine companies, all this would be de rigueur.

Less expected, and considerably less welcome, would be the presence of a tribesman from the highlands of New Guinea, wearing a bird-of-paradise feather headdress, a shell necklace, a breastplate and feather armbands. Particularly if he was refusing to leave the building until he had been given a personal audience with – and an apology from – the editor of one of Emap’s newest titles.

Recently, however, this is just what the company got. Benny Wenda, an exiled tribal leader from West Papua, the western half of the island of New Guinea, wanted a word with Paul Merrill, editor of Zoo – one of Britain’s two new “lads’” magazines whose content mixes sexual grotesquerie, celebrity titillation, toilet humour, morbid alcoholism and cultural stereotyping in a way which makes its predecessor Loaded look like the editorial pages of the London Review of Books.

Benny Wenda was angry, and he wasn’t going away until he’d been heard.

Paul Kingsnorth’s book One No, Many Yeses (Simon & Schuster, 2003) – a campaigning journey inside the global resistance movement – is now published in paperback

A week earlier, Zoo, which sells itself on its idiocy (“You want girls? … You want footie? … You want a laugh? … We’ll be the only thing blokes are talking about down the pub!”) had published an article entitled “Win a cannibal sex holiday!” It offered a competition to readers whose prize was a “flesh-eating orgy fortnight” in New Guinea, with a few “random orgies” with the natives thrown in, if they were lucky.

The winner would accompany “seasoned jungle hand Reg Barker” (a paediatric nurse from Devon) on holiday to West Papua. Barker was quoted saying various wacky things about the locals. “They do eat people occasionally”, he explained – but only if you “really pissed them off”. They “slept on the skulls of their enemies” and often indulge in a ceremony in which “everyone has sex with everyone else – anything goes.”

None of it is true. There are no sex ceremonies, no cannibalism, no sleeping on skulls in West Papua. Reg Barker, the “seasoned hand”, didn’t even appear to know what tribes lived where, and at one point managed to confuse West Papua with Papua New Guinea, an entirely separate country across the border to its east.

If it is not true, neither is it funny. For Zoo’s “cannibals” are the victims of one of the most brutal, and under-reported, colonial occupations in the contemporary world. West Papua has been occupied by Indonesia for over forty years, after the departure of the earlier Dutch colonial regime. In that time, at least 100,000 Papuans have “disappeared”, been killed or tortured by the Indonesian military, whose current force commanders in the region inflicted the same devastating treatment on East Timor until that country managed to secure its independence in 2002.

The Indonesians have closed off West Papua to outsiders and are continuing to inflict what some claim is a genocide on the Papuan people. At the same time, some of the world’s largest oil, timber and mining interests are despoiling the environment on a vast scale, and taking the ensuing profits out of the country.

Dancing on graves

Benny Wenda in prison
Benny Wenda in prison

Benny Wenda leads a peaceful movement campaigning for the independence of West Papua. He has experienced at first hand the fate of those who try to challenge Indonesian rule. Arrested by the military last year, he was locked up and tortured for months before he managed to escape and flee to Britain with his wife and daughter, where he is now seeking asylum. He still bears the scars – literally – of the brutal occupation of his country.

Unsurprisingly, then, Benny didn’t laugh at Zoo’s zany piece. Instead, with a group of supporters, myself included, he decided to do something about it. Early one morning we marched into the Emap building and demanded a meeting with Paul Merrill. Initially we were refused entry, but a promise to stand outside on the pavement all day distributing press releases about Emap’s casual racism soon changed minds, and we all found ourselves seated around a long table in the Zoo editorial offices, as an uncomfortable Merrill, watched over by Emap management, tried to make amends without actually committing himself to anything.

For information about the Free West Papua Campaign, visit www.freewestpapua.org; see also in openDemocracy, John Rumbiak’s “Dutch past, Indonesian present…independent future?” (May 2003)

Benny took out some photos he had brought with him of Papuan victims of Indonesian military. One of them showed a dead resistance leader held up like a hunt trophy, surrounded by grinning soldiers.

“Do you think this is funny?” he demanded.

“No, of course not,” said the visibly uncomfortable editor. “But you have to understand, we’re not a political magazine. We don’t do this sort of stuff.”

“But everything you’ve written is untrue,” one of us said. “No cannibals, no sex orgies. It’s all made up. Are you going to apologise for it?”

“Well, look,” said Merrill, “we just wrote down what this Reg Barker guy told us. And like I said, we can’t be expected to run a piece on the political situation in Papua New Guinea.”

Who is Paul Kingsnorth? You’ll regret not finding out. Click here to his own website. Also read his articles in openDemocracy, including “Making a new world – from the US to West Papua” (June 2003)

“We’re talking about West Papua,” we said.

“Right,” he said, uncomfortably.

“You don’t even know the difference, do you?” we asked. “You haven’t been listening to a word Benny’s been saying.”

“Look,” he said, “we don’t do politics. We’re an irreverent magazine.”

“If we got you a map,” we said, “could you even find this country on it?”

For ten minutes Paul Merrill ducked and dived, refusing to accept that accusing an entire culture of eating human flesh and indulging in random orgies was in any way demeaning, offensive or, heaven forbid, racist. Eventually, the patience of one of our number snapped.

“Listen, mate,” he said. “I’ve been to West Papua. This isn’t a joke, you know. You’re dancing on graves.”

“No I’m not!” spluttered the squirming editor.

“Yes you are. You’re dancing on graves.”

Behind the mask of prejudice

What happens next is up to Zoo. They refused to cancel their wacky cannibal holiday competition, but the managing director of Emap did send Benny Wenda an apologetic letter, saying that Zoo would publish a “follow-up piece” which would “put the record straight”. We’re still waiting. In the meantime, a group of senior barristers in London, who have formed a group called “International Lawyers for West Papua”, have written to the Press Complaints Commission demanding an investigation into Zoo’s article.

Other versions of this story were published in West Papua News and the New Statesman

Perhaps this all seems like a bit of a po-faced over-reaction. After all, it’s just a lads’ mag: what can we expect? But the point is a wider one. Zoo just typifies, in its crude way, what the media in general, and probably society too, thinks about the people of Papua, when it thinks about them at all. Cannibalism, grass skirts, big headdresses, cooking pots, bones through noses, and all the old Victorian adventurer clichés serve as a mask behind which a real and terrifying degradation is going on. Any opportunity to tear that mask off, however small, is worth seizing.

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