By Theo van den Broek
THE mass of funerary wreaths on the way up to the High school for Theology and Philosophy (STFT) where Fr Neles Tebay has been laid to rest is impressive. All layers of the society are represented, the government (local as well as national), the religious institutions, the NGOs, the security forces and great variety of persons and just ordinary people. No doubt left that the man who died at the age of 55 after fighting a devastating bone cancer has touched the heart and mind of a lot of people.
Here at the STFT he is back at the place where he has been lecturing from 2007 to 2019. To prepare for that he studied in the Philippines (Ateneo Jesuit) 1995-1998 and in Rome (Pontificia Universitas Urbaniana) 2000-2006. While he was at the STFT during 1998-1999, before leaving for Rome, Father Neles shared the experience of the relative short ‘spring-time’ in Papua after President Suharto was forced to step down and all of a sudden ample room was given to free expression of opinion and aspirations in Papua. Also churches responded to that change with giving more explicit attention to human rights issues and local aspirations and speaking up clearly via its Secretariat for Justice and Peace (SKP) in the Catholic Church and the Institute for Study of Human Rights (Elsham), very much connected with the Protestant Church.
Father Neles joined in with these developments as they challenged his own interest of looking for a way to overcome the often paralyzing socio-political problems in Papua. At his ordination as a catholic priest in 1992 in his home-community in Waghete, where he was born in 1964, the elders of the indigenous community handed him a ‘name with a mission’, Kebadabi, which means: ‘pioneer’, ‘someone who opens up the way’. Within that mission, the recent attention to human rights and related issues in Papua was very appealing to him.
Although he left for Rome in 2000, he nursed a close relationship with SKP and followed developments in Papua. Including landmark events such as the second Papua Congress that proclaimed so loudly the deep aspiration of the Papuan People to become independent. Including also the inspiring effort made during a SKP-organized workshop ‘Building a Culture of Peace moving towards Papua Land of Peace’ in 2002 that involved representatives of almost all the sections of the Papua-society to give more meaning to what “peace” in Papua should stand for concretely. The workshop delivered a rather comprehensive understanding of “Peace” touching very concrete aspects such as: harmony-unity, truth and justice, feeling secure, welfare, participation of all, solidarity and tolerance, recognition and self-esteem, information and communication. At the same time a motto got popularized, “Papua Tanah Damai” (Papua Land of Peace) under which the various sides could join in and meet each other. Fr Neles followed closely these developments and made them an active part of his own agenda.
As interest in Papua was also growing in the European community, Fr Neles became one of the main resource-persons invited to share his insights in the complex situation of Papua in various international conferences and workshops. Over a couple of years he – often in cooperation with SKP and Elsham in Papua – was able to create an impressive network of contacts and international understanding and sympathy for the situation in Papua. And, not surprising, the doctoral dissertation concluding his missiology study in Rome carries the title: “The reconciling Mission of the Church in West Papua in the light of Reconciliation and Repentance”.
Back in Papua (2007) he continued his journey as ‘a man with a mission’. In January 2010 the “Papua Peace Network” (JDP) was set up by a number of activists and Father Neles was named the coordinator for Papua, while Bapak Muridan S. Widjojo, research staff of LIPI (Indonesian Institute for Study and Research) was asked to coordinate the lobbying at the central government level in Jakarta. Developing its agenda JDP provided the motto “Papua Land of Peace” and its ‘comprehensive peace concept’ with a more operational structure and strategy. At the same time they used the results of a study by LIPI, “Papua Road Map: Negotiating the Past, Improving the Present and Securing the Future” (2008) as an analytical base. JDP’s aim can be summarized in just one word: dialogue! In just very simple words: ‘if we just stick to our respective “absolute conditions”, for Indonesia the indisputable political status of the Republic and for the Papuans the demand for independency, we only will stay in a paralyzing deadlock, no way out and finally everything will get lost. We have to open up, we have to look for the truth together and to recognize each other to find a dignified way. Sitting down together and dialoguing truly and honestly will be the sole way towards a solution that meets our human standard of dignity and mutual respect’.
Under the inspiring leadership of Father Neles, JDP organized consultation-meetings all over Papua, gathering Papuan communities, and at a later stage also reaching out to migrant communities, to discuss openly the situation in Papua and ‘what to do?’ The message was spread in Papua and many people started talking enthusiastically about the dialogue as a solution, while also intensive and very demanding lobbying took place in the centre of the national government in Jakarta, where Bapak Muridan accompanied Father Neles to win the heart and minds in the circle of policy-makers, including a listening ear of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
Also a wider public was reached by Fr Neles via his writings in the various local and national papers. His way of writing was appealing because it put complex matters in simple language while respectfully addressing anyone who might have a different opinion. He put ‘another Papua’ on the national map, different from what most of readers used to encounter in the national mass-media. Part of his extraordinary personality was Father Neles’ capacity to communicate with just anybody, from the President to his beloved people in the village.
The results of the consultation all over Papua were put together during a “Peace Conference” in Papua in August 2011. This conference got ample support by the central goverment in Jakarta and was therefore promising as an important step in the right direction. The conference delivered an overview of indicators for peace in Papua, identified per sector of attention (economy, health, education, socio-cultural, security and politics). A handy and comprehensive Roadmap for Peace in Papua, ready to be used!
At the end of the Peace Conference and looking to the road ahead, initial remarks were made on how to select the participants for the very much hope-for dialogue. This part proved very sensitive and made some observers from Jakarta rather nervous, asking themselves: are we talking about a dialogue, or are we involved in a process of independency? This uncertainty translated into a lesser involvement of the central government in the further process, its participation decreased significantly leaving Father Neles and the whole JDP-team in a rather difficult position. But they never lost the conviction that they were moving in the right direction: bringing the various stakeholders together to find a solution together, no matter how sensitive the issues to be discussed might be.
A special event in Papua, the Third Papua Congress in October 2011, indirectly pressed again to look for dialogue. The Congress declared its independency as a Papuan Nation and doing so the participants were confronted with a very brutal reaction by the security forces. Some were killed and scores of people were beaten up and taken to the police station. The leaders were put in jail. This brutal action by the security forces triggered a heavy reaction nationwide, including very much nationally respected people who started questioning Indonesia’s policy in Papua, and started calling for a dignified approach to solve problems in Papua. Renewed interest in the dialogue surfaced clearly. Father Neles together with JDP’s efforts had evidently made their mark. Nine consecutive explorative meetings were hold gathering representatives from Papua with representatives from the central government during 2012-2014. Main aim: to get familiar with each other, creating mutual trust and insight in respective policies. Although an official summary of the results has been formulated, the impact of these meetings has been rather limited, partly because there was too much change in persons/representatives of the central government, and therefore no continuity reached or secured.
In the meantime Father Neles’ relentless commitment and struggle for a peaceful solution in Papua, which was already monitored quite intensive by partners in Europe, also gained attention in Asia. In 2013 Father Neles received South Korea’s prestigious Tji Hak-soon Justice and Peace Award. This international recognition probably challenged the Indonesian authorities to give more substantial room to the dialogue with the Papuan people.
At the same time some other developments challenged the popularity of the dialogue pushed for by Father Neles. The developments around internationalization of the ‘Papua-problem’ that materilalized in and after 2013 and which resulted in a strong support by Pacific island states, in uniting the political struggle via a representative body named United Liberation Movement West Papua (ULMWP) and in opening up a discussion on Papua on international forums such as the UN and European Union. These developments didn’t go unnoticed by the indigenous Papuan community and slowly expectations raised high. These expectations were less connected with a dialogue, but more with backing up the agenda of the National Commission West Papua (KNPB) and the related international movement, a call for a new referendum on Papua’s political status. Within this context the presence of human rights violations, including being jailed, beaten up and even killed – the fate of quite some KNPB members – became a kind of ‘sacrifice needed’ and ‘taken for granted’ as the price to be paid.
Calling for peace and dialogue in this new context slowly became a very difficult and complex mission. And once in a while Father Neles was labeled as ‘being in the other camp’ or even mistrusted. Nevertheless Father Neles -and this characterizes him very much- never got discouraged and continued his call against the use of violence and his fight for the dialogue as the only dignified way towards a peaceful solution. It included also a meeting with the President in August 2017, where once again he had a chance to explain the need of a dialogue-process.
The President looked for some constructive steps towards a solution of the Papua-problem, and set up a national commission for dialogue chaired by Father Neles by the end of 2017. The commission was meant to start a ‘sectoral dialogue’, a dialogue on the concrete problems in some specific sectors, i.e. health, education, good governance, and economy. However, certain sectors were explicitly excluded from the mandate of the commission: no discussion on the political and security sector. Although very disappointed about this exclusion, after consulting with the JDP-team Father Neles accepted the nomination by the President as chair of the commission. Some of his friends were not pleased with his decision and told him so. Father Neles respected the difference of opinion and argued that ‘once again there was a small opening, an opportunity and that opportunity should be used in the process for the full and true dialogue he always has in mind. Indeed, not ideal, but a strategy that hopefully leads to more room for opening up the problems in the sectors not yet included in the current offer’.
Father Neles has struggled relentlessly to find a dignified solution to the problems. This is what people have seen and made him a pioneer who was pointing in the right direction. He has met with support and resistance in the process and has appreciated both, not forcing his opinion, but sharing. A spokesman for the National Commission West Papua (KNPB) voiced it in his own way: “Kebadabi (the pioneer) passed away. He left us the peaceful road to end the problems in Papua without killing the struggle of the Papua People”.
His consistent struggle, his never decreasing trust and optimism, his disarming warm laugh and high competence have made him the man who is accepted and loved by so many people, the man who was hoped for to become the first Papuan bishop in Papua, and the man who will be missed dearly. The Papuan People are extremely proud of him, as expressed during funeral speech by his old teacher, Phillipus Degei: “we, a very traditional indigenous Papua community, often looked down at, we, we delivered this great person to Papua, Indonesia and the world”.
Listening to all the people present during the ceremonies around his passing away and funeral, one extraordinary conclusion stands out indisputable: people recognize in Father Neles’ life and struggle their own ‘dream and aspiration’: being recognized and living in peace, peace, peace! That aspiration/dream is embodied in Father Neles and makes him the man to be followed, now and tomorrow! (*)
Author is a social political observer. Living in Jayapura.