Negotiating the insider outsider terrain as a solidarity educator in the West Papua freedom movement


Alex Rayfield In a recent article (Rayfield and Morello 2012) a colleague, Rennie Morello and I wrestled with our outsider/insider identities as we facilitated nonviolent training and education with and for West Papuan activists longing for freedom. We wrote: In some sense we might have once identified ourselves as outsiders to the movement offering support “in solidarity”. But over time the movement has stirred-up trouble for us and our insider-outsider identities. We work in solidarity with Papuan activists in their struggle for self-determination, but we are not Papuan. In this way we are cultural outsiders. More importantly, while we attempt to share the risks and costs of working for peace and justice in West Papua, we will never pay the same price as Papuan activists. In this way, we are political outsiders. Connected to this is our commitment to non-interference – Papuan activists themselves must determine the strategic direction and tactical choices of the movement. In this way we are movement outsiders.

But this is not the whole story. We have a moral and political responsibility to support Papuan aspirations for self-determination. Our own country’s government, companies and citizens help enable the occupation and benefit politically and economically from it. So we have a responsibility to change this situation. In this sense we are movement insiders. Rennie is Sicilian Australian with Cornish and Maori heritage and I (Alex) am a White Australian of English, Scottish and Polish descent. We were born into global privilege and live in the global North. In 2011 we were joined by another ‘outsider’, an activist educator and scholar from the USA. The facilitation team includes several West Papuan educators – Papuans living in the Diaspora, in West Papua or Indonesia and Papuans from Papuan New Guinea. Our desire is to maximise the effectiveness of Papuan activists by nurturing the growth of a self-sustaining and Papuan-led network of movement facilitators. We do this by providing training and education at the request of Papuan activists around themes of civil resistance, strategy, movement building, resilience in the face of repression, campaign communication, and training educators. We are committed to the goal of freedom (broadly defined) for West Papua - a Melanesian nation in waiting occupied by the Indonesian military. There are tensions inherent in providing solidarity to an indigenous-led self-determination struggle as a sometimes/always ‘outsider’ who is other-than-Indigenous. I say ‘sometimes/always’ because although I am sometimes considered an ‘insider’ I can never completely deny my ‘outsider’ status. By activist education I mean “education [that] is conducted by and with activists, is openly interested in the processes of change-making, and utilises education to create justice-oriented social change” (La Rocca and Whelan 2005). Four things have transformed our activist education work into ‘solidarity education’:

  • Our embedded relationships in the movement. In a sense we have become a part of the movement we work with. Like the Papuan activists we work with, we care passionately about decolonisation and self-determination, as the indigenous colleagues we work with.
  • The complex and shifting insider-outsider relationship invokes the solidarity quality to the activist education project we undertake. As facilitators who are not Papuan we will never shed our outside status or the rank and privilege that protects and enables us to do the work we do. At the same time we are committed to sharing the risks and costs of this work in solidarity with our Papuan colleagues.
  • The desire to make sure our education and training work assists Papuan activists to achieve social changes as they define them, and to take action in our own countries to change the way our own countries help maintain the occupation.
  • A focus on building the strategic capacity of the Papuan freedom movement by strengthening the ability of diverse Papuan political and cultural groups to work effectively together, increasing access to salient knowledge and cultivating a commitment to ongoing learning and reflection.

Negotiating the insider/outsider terrain is complicated. As I travel this journey of solidarity education I am assisted by five key principles: self-determination, responsibility, nonviolent action, nonpartisanship and non-interference. These function as navigational aids to negotiate the tricky inside/outsider terrain inside the Papuan freedom movement.

Self-determination: In the specific case of the West Papuan struggle for freedom it is important that ‘outsiders’ like myself continually acknowledge that Papuans themselves are already taking the lead around making change. In the solidarity education work my colleagues and I undertake self-determination exists as an ideal, process, and outcome. It is the taproot to all other rights and one that needs to animate our training and education work. As an ideal, self-determination refers to the realisation of the collective aspirations of indigenous peoples living within defined cultural, linguistic and geographic territories and the ability of those peoples and groups to fully participate in the decisions that affect their lives. That includes directing the solidarity education project. As a process, self-determination refers to the difficult, contested and ongoing practice of securing, maintaining and fulfilling desires for political, economic, social, and cultural rights that impact on people’s and groups’ abilities to determine their own future. Solidarity education assists this by providing the space and skills and knowledge for Papuans to explore how to realise the multiple meanings of self-determination. As an outcome, self-determination refers to the claim to the right of self-government within the boundaries of a given territory. Many West Papuans argue this requires a referendum over West Papua’s political status. However, localised demands for self-determination can also be translated into demands for greater administrative and legislative rule, local indigenous control over land and resources, the ability to define and direct development activity, including the right to say “no to development” (and the right to say “yes”), and the freedom to express distinct cultural and religious identities and forms of governance. In the context of solidarity education support for self-determination as an ideal, process and outcome is about aligning education content and processes with Papuan led visions and strategies in pursuit of real and tangible benefits for Papuans. Sometimes that is difficult when an individual, group or even the movement wishes to pursue a direction, goal, or vision that challenges my own political analysis and ideological leanings. Of course, in the context of longstanding and trusting relationships space can be made for respectful dialogue but at the end of the day Papuans are the ones who need to make their own decisions and define their own future.

Responsibility: In a recent facebook posting to the Australian West Papua Association list Leonie Tanggahama, a West Papuan leader living in the Netherlands, reminded ‘outsiders’ on that list that our role is not to “help” or “offer support”. Ms. Tanggahama wrote: West Papuans are not begging for help. They are giving the international community an opportunity to redeem itself by making things right again in that part of the world where it made a big mistake. Take that opportunity, International Community. It will save you from having to explain to your children and grand-children why you allowed a slow-motion genocide to happen to this Melanesian people, the people of West Papua. Accept this offer, don't think of yourselves as the ones giving help. We are the ones helping you, to cleanse your souls. Ms. Tanggahama is echoing the words of Lila Watson, an Australian Aboriginal elder: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time, but if your liberation is tied up with mine, then we can work together.” As an outsider Australian working with West Papuans I need to ensure that I am also addressing ongoing practices of colonisation in my own country and constantly reflect on and work to change the ways the Australian government and corporations exploit Papuan resources, export violence through training and arming the Indonesian military, and seek to silence Papuan voices for change.

Nonviolent action: We only work with individuals and groups who use or want to use nonviolent means to address grievances and realise their aspirations for peace. At times we also work with members of the armed struggle who want to explore nonviolent tactics and strategy. We encourage rigorous debate amongst participants concerning the means through which the struggle should be waged and the consequences of using different approaches to social change: violent action, nonviolent action, a mixture of violent and nonviolent action, and conventional political processes. We are upfront about our own commitments to a strategic application of nonviolent action. These commitments are informed by detailed knowledge and empirical research into the greater effectiveness of nonviolent action compared with violent action or a mixture of the two.

Nonpartisanship: Although we are partisan to the goals of peace, justice and environmental sustainability, we are nonpartisan in the sense that we don’t align ourselves with any particular Papuan faction within the movement for self-determination. We are guided by the belief, that as non-Papuans, our role is not to support one group over another. Instead we seek to support all groups working nonviolently for a just peace and intentionally create space for groups to forge relationships of trust across political, cultural, geographic, economic and social fractures.

Noninterference: As an ‘outside’ solidarity educator I don’t provide advice on strategies and tactics. Instead I try to make space for activists to develop their own solutions to their problems, as they define them.


This work is messy and tricky. It is also time limited. Our long-term goal is to develop a self-sustaining network of Papuan activist educators. In other words, as an outsider I am looking at how this work might be handed over to Papuan activists. Ultimately as an Australian I need to engage more fully in how to change the way my own country supports the ongoing military, political and economic occupation of West Papua. I desire to do that in partnership with Papuan activists because transnational campaigns and movements are essential to affect change. This requires us to constantly reflect on and renegotiate our relationship with Papuan colleagues and the broader movement inside Papua. The principles of self-determination, nonviolent action, non-interference, non-partisanship and responsibility help guide the work. There are regularly moments of tension and conflict. However, the rewards are rich. If freedom is one of human beings higher aspirations, accompanying someone in the search for freedom and challenging the way colonialism damages us all, is to enter into relationships of deep meaning and feeling. On a good day it is to touch transformation. And that is a real privilege.

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