Dozens of residents were protesting on behalf of a West Papuan separatist political group in a field around Nabire, West Papua, on December 1, 2001. A battalion of Indonesian soldiers stood guard, surrounding the protesters. When the residents pulled out the West Papuan flag, the situation heated up. The soldiers opened fire and killed two people.
"I still remember vividly what happened in Papua," Mikale Kudiai told VICE Indonesia. "I was three years old when I saw my uncle shot dead by the Indonesian military."
Ever since, Mikael has made a conscious decision to hold back his anger towards the government. "Obviously I'm angry, but in order to make peace, there must be reconciliation with the government so we can move on from our dark history," says Mikael.
Today, Mikael is a Sociology student at Yogyakarta State University, but he spent his childhood in Nabire City. Mikael's parents come from the Mee tribe in the highland region of Paniai. They moved to Nabire, West Papua during the 1980s. Like many other Papuan boys, Mikael was close with nature. After school, he would spend his days exploring the woods and mountains near his home.
"Almost every day I played in the woods, looking for fruits and exploring the waterfalls with friends. Instead of studying, I played football," says Mikael. When he entered junior high school, there's a shift in his lifestyle. Now he spent more time outside the house, hanging out with his friends.
"The condition in Nabire were pretty bad. Kids as young as 10 drinking a local alcohol called Bobo. Some even sniffed glue, I tried it, but stopped after high school," Mikael recalled.
When he was little, Mikael and his friends collected cans around the city three times a week. They used the money they made from collecting cans for tuition and food. Back then one kilogram of cans was worth Rp 5,000 (37 cents)."Once when we were collecting cans, the police approached us. They accused us of stealing and beat us up before taking us to the precinct," says Mikael.
He was lucky in some respects, after he graduated high school he was able to continue his studies. Most Papuan kids his age couldn't go through senior high school and had to find jobs in order to support their families.
Those who couldn't fine a job had to find another way to make ends meet. "A few of my friends were paid by the military to spy on the Papua liberation movement. I didn't know how many, but they were very conflicted. They had to do it because the military intimidated them," he said.
Along with being under the thumb of the military, people living in Papua often have far fewer opportunities for an education when compared to other provinces in Indonesia. Schools in Papua are still far below national standards. "There are people who are in their twenties and cannot read and write," he says. Mikael's parents emphasized the importance of education as an asset that will help empower him.
"For traditional tribes, way before modernization, they applied local wisdom as a form of education. They taught people how to farm," Mikael says.
Papuan tribal society was forced to modernize in accordance with the Indonesian government's standards. "My father always says, we cannot resist the flow of information coming in so fast. My parents, even though they're angry and traumatized, still accepted the Indonesian education system, they even put me through college," he says.
Mikael often saw how the government brand of modernization clashed with tribal traditions. "The money from private investors and the government was always an issue within our communal tradition," says Mikael. "Our elders were forced to make progress, to be modern, even though Papuan society has always been closely linked to tribes. It's not that we don't want to make progress, but the pressure is too high and it's happening too fast."
"The government hands out things like computers for people living in the mountains, even though they have no idea how to use them. It's useless. It's better if they provided proper education first," Mikael adds.
Papua has been a beacon for government's agenda and investor's demands since the 1969 referendum that saw West Papua join the rest of Indonesia. After joining the republic, the lack of development in Papua sparked separatist movements.
The government used the military to quell Papuans' anger at the economic disparities that lead them to want to break away from Indonesia. The imprisonment of activists, as well as violations of human rights in Papua, received harsh criticism from the international community.
"The government labeled anyone demanding a referendum as part of the Free Papua Movement. By calling them separatists, the government can justify charging them with treason. The Free Papua Movement didn't happen in a vacuum," he said.
Mikael is a member of the Papuan Student Alliance in Yogyakarta, has kept the fight for Papua's alive. In December last year, Mikael and 29 other students organized a march to support the National Committee for West Papua. Hundreds of cops stormed the protest and arrested him along with other protesters.
Mikael didn't deny that Papuans could be at peace with Indonesia as long as there's an ongoing discussion. "When people say 'make peace with Indonesia,' I need to ask in what context?" asks Mikael. "Is it by 'peacefully' sending military personnel?"
"I remember in Gus Dur era (Indonesia's fourth president), he offered open dialogue. 'What do you want,' he would ask, but he was impeached. Ever since, there have not been any dialogue, not even from Jokowi. He came to Papua just for show," says Mikael.
"It's almost like the Papuans enjoy the destruction," Mikael said sarcastically. "We might be living in the Republic of Indonesia. But I, along with many other Papuans, do not feel like we're a part of the republic."