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Notes on cysticercosis.

May 19, 2011

A much older Papuan health problem illustrates the trajectory of a rumour, and how parallel medical discourses can bypass the political context in which these rumours exist. Cysticercosis is a disease affecting the brain which is transmitted through parasitic tapeworms. It first emerged in Papua among the Ekari in the Paniai Lakes district in 1971, following the introduction of tapeworm carrying pigs from Bali. The subsequent gradual spread of the disease to other parts of Papua, including highlands Jayawijaya District, has meant that the disease has become a serious health issue throughout Papua.

The pigs were given to Papuans by the military, at the suggestion of Suharto as softeners to a population who were at best ambivalent about the Indonesian presence in their territory. The introduction of infected pigs from locations where the parasite is endemic to where the disease was not known was soon a significant cause of ill health and death among the indigenous Ekari. Questions about the possibility of intent to infect were raised as a result of the obvious connection between the disease and the military. Other connections were drawn from its spread among Christians rather than Muslims. This was due both to transmission through pigs and dogs and the eating of pork, and the reduced susceptibility of immigrants due to their different hygiene practices. This claim was intensified by the presence of transmigrants from elsewhere who sought to settle in the Paniai Lakes, providing a visible motive for the claim.

Tom Hyndman described the disease as a method of counterinsurgency in research described in 1983 by Tapol, and repeated the claim in a number of papers. By the late 1980s his research had been given further publicity by Cultural Survival in their journal Cultural Survival Quarterly, and Hyndman was explicit in his claim that the disease was a component of biological warfare.

The reproduction of these claims in West Papua: the Obliteration of a People has meant that they have had much greater currency and wider distribution than they would otherwise have had. The book’s status as one of the few human rights related documents to emerge on the subject of Papua during the 1970s and 1980s has meant that when historical claims are examined, the claims contained within it have been treated as possible evidence. Such a use is found in Brundidge et al., Indonesian Human Rights Abuses in West Papua: Application of the Law of Genocide to the History of Indonesian Control, a document produced by students of the Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic, Yale Law School. This document was prepared by students, but has since found much wider circulation as a compilation of evidence of possible genocide. The Brundidge et al. document makes no comment on the status of the claims, except to replicate them as they are found in Obliteration of a People. It is also found on the website of Yale University’s genocide program, where together with Obliteration of a People, an article by Survival International, and a small number of generalised webpages and books, it is presented as reason for Papua’s inclusion in this program.

Through its republication by Hyndman in academic papers, and repeated mention in West Papua advocacy materials, this rumour has been delocalised and stripped of the context in which it arose. It now forms part of a global circulation of claims about genocide in Papua. There has been an absence of research which would connect or disconnect claims about Indonesia’s use of military power to medical issues such as cysticercosis and HIV/AIDS, in large part caused by Indonesia’s reluctance to allow such research within its territory. As a consequence, these claims will continue to circulate as fact, unchallenged, unverified, and unexplored.

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