Independence leader Benny Wenda discusses the struggle against “secret genocide” in West Papua.
At the easternmost point of the Indonesian archipelago, just north of the Arafura Sea, lies the province of Papua. An area of astonishing cultural and biological diversity, it is home to hundreds of tribes, languages, and endemic species, and contains the largest continuous stretch of rainforest outside the Amazon. Yet for decades, this resplendent land has also been the site of a bloody struggle for self-determination.
In 1949, the Netherlands surrendered its control of the Dutch East Indies, recognizing the Republic of Indonesia’s sovereignty over the entire territory, with the exception of Netherlands New Guinea (West Papua). This area remained temporarily under Dutch control, its future left up to international negotiations. These discussions ended with the New York Agreement of 1962, which handed over the territory to Indonesia.
The agreement stipulated Indonesia’s responsibility “to give the people of the territory, the opportunity to exercise freedom of choice,” calling on the government to allow all adults to participate in a plebiscite to determine “whether they wish[ed] to remain with Indonesia.”
But no such referendum was ever held.
Instead, in 1969, Indonesian officials handpicked 1,025 men and women to participate in the “Act of Free Choice.” They were corrupted, goaded, and threatened to ensure they voted the right way. The result was unanimous — all of the chosen representatives voted against Papuan independence. The United Nations criticized the proceedings, but eventually sanctioned their outcome.
Responding to what they saw as an occupation of their own territory, a Papuan resistance movement emerged. It endures today, expressed through a heterogeneous array of umbrella organizations, coalitions, tribes, churches, and local groups. Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM), perhaps the most well-known organization, has played a key role since its founding in 1965. For decades, OPM’s military wing (TPN-PB) waged a low-level guerrilla war against the Indonesian authorities. (It has has since renounced the use of violence, except in cases of self-defense.)
Groups such as KNPB (West Papua National Committee) or Forum Demokras focus their attention on nonviolent popular mobilization, and there is also an active student movement, spearheaded by the Papuan Students Alliance (AMP). Other groups such as the Papua Peace Network work to facilitate dialogue both with the central government, and between separatist organizations. Cultural and tribal organizations like Demmak or the Papuan People’s Assembly, which address indigenous rights and representation, are also significant actors.
Intent on quelling any disobedience from the local population, the Indonesian state has fiercely clamped down on these groups. Daily life in the region is marked by pervasive violence, intimidation, and stifled dissent. Human rights abuses are rife. Extra-judicial killings and arbitrary detentions are commonplace. Dozens of political prisoners languish in jail, victims of what Human Rights Watch has referred to as a “long history of suppression of peaceful activism in Papua.”
Since the eruption of resistance, according to Amnesty International, over one hundred thousand West Papuans have been killed. Just last year, two scholars from Sydney University characterized the conflict as a “slow-motion genocide” committed by an Indonesian state intent on “destroy[ing] that part of the West Papuan “group” who are pro-independence: a very substantial part of the West Papuan population.”
Despite its abundant wealth in natural resources and the hefty profits reaped by multi-national corporations operating in the province, Indonesia has kept West Papua impoverished. Nearly 31 percent of its population lives below the poverty line (compared to 12 percent in Indonesia), and access to health care and educational services is scarce.
Thirteen thousand kilometers away, in the academic quaintness of Oxford, exiled independence leader Benny Wenda works to alert the world of the injustices his people suffer. Born in the 1970s, Benny grew up in a remote village in Papua’s central highlands, far removed from any semblance of conflict. As he explains, “at the time, I didn’t know anything — my first reaction was that there was nobody out there, just our house, my family, and that’s all.”
This life was shattered one morning, as the Indonesian army appeared in the village, initiating a brutal military presence during which many members of Benny’s family were killed, injured, and raped. In response to these grisly atrocities, villagers in the area rose up against the army, which retaliated with further aggression and aerial raids. Benny and his family then fled to the bush, where they hid for five years, before eventually settling in the city of Jayapura.
Daniel Macmillen Voskoboynik recently spoke to the two-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee about his life, the contours of Papuan apartheid, and the future of the self-determination struggle.
From an early age, you witnessed a bombing campaign and the ruthless treatment of your family at the hands of the Indonesian military. How did you come to understand what was happening to your homeland?
I didn’t understand very much at all until high school. And then one time, I went to class, which was mostly Indonesian. I went into the class, and the teacher told me, “Benny, there aren’t any free tables left. Grab a chair and sit next to that girl.” So I took my books and sat down next to the girl, smiling at her to be friendly. She looked at me and spat straight into my face. I wiped the spit away. At that time I thought that maybe I hadn’t washed my body and smelled bad.
The next morning, I bought some soap and washed myself three times to make sure I was clean. I went back into the class, sat next to the same girl, and she suddenly stood up and spat in my face again, for the second time. I wiped my face and everybody in the class was laughing at me. I felt so angry, and thought: “I am human, a human being like you, but I cannot change my color. You can call me a primitive or a cannibal, but this is me.”
And then, I suddenly began to open my eyes. I began to think: “Why do they do this?” I looked more and thought, “Why was I in the bush for five years? Why did those people abuse my mother? Why did they rape my auntie?” Then I began to understand. They hate me. They hate us. This has never happened to another generation. Enough is enough. I finished my high school and went to university. I studied politics.
Is that because you wanted to gain a better understanding of the situation?
Exactly! When I was in my first year, I just tried to learn from everything that surrounded me. In my second year, I went to the university library and tried to find books about West Papua. You see, everything we studied at school was Javanese, about the fight with the Dutch, the expansion of the empire. But what about West Papua?
I wanted to know: why was Papua the way it was? How did we become part of Indonesia? These questions carried with me throughout my learning at university, although they didn’t know what was happening inside my brain. [laughs] I tried looking for this information in every library, but there was nothing — every book was about Indonesia.
I ended up frequently arguing with the lecturers. One of them was a Papuan. I questioned him, but he was always embarrassed and didn’t answer properly. One time, he confronted me privately and said, “Benny, you’re putting your life and my life in danger.” I replied, “I’m just trying to find out.” He replied, “You know, those kinds of questions that you ask, they’ll raise suspicions. Many of those around us aren’t students. Some are from the intelligence services.”
I had to be extra careful. Eventually, I received my university certificate, which indicated that I would contribute my knowledge to Indonesia. My first reaction was to think: what was the benefit of contributing my knowledge to Indonesia? How would that benefit my people? I promised my wife that I would use this knowledge for my people, I would use it to fight back.
You read a lot at university about other social and independence movements throughout history. What did they teach you?
At the time, I met some foreigners, and I remember them asking me if I knew Gandhi, Mandela, or Martin Luther King. A Papuan friend also taught us about these figures. Knowing their stories and examining our situation, you could see that fighting with bows and arrows against guns would be unsuccessful — so I decided to fight in a peaceful way, as only in this way people would hear our cry for justice.
Peaceful tactics are our biggest weapon against an Indonesian army with millions of soldiers and bullets. We only have words to show our struggle. We only have words to educate ourselves. A big problem is that people just don’t know their history. Indonesia covered up everything, and continues to do so. This is why I call what Indonesia committed a “secret genocide.”
At what point did you start getting involved in activism?
I began leading protests and trying to mobilize people at university, and was arrested a few times. Those were pro-democracy/anti-Suharto protests and demonstrations after the assassination of Papuan leaders.
When I finished university, a number of Papuan elders from clans and tribes across the country gathered. Since I had been a leader in the student movement, they decided they wanted me to be a new leader. I was young, and told them that I didn’t have enough knowledge to lead all the clans, but the elders put their trust in me. I welcomed their trust with an open heart and tried my best to lead the fight for independence.
And so we started. In 2000, we held a massive gathering calling for independence: the “Papuan Spring.” It was an exciting time. People were very optimistic. They thought independence was coming. People even came walking to the gathering from the Highlands. They walked for an entire month to come to Jayapura (capital of West Papua) because they couldn’t afford to pay for a ticket!
And after the Papuan Spring, there was a wave of repression and arrests?
Afterwards we held a congress, where we decided that independence was what we wanted. We then started campaigning more heavily, trying to engage peacefully with other Papuans, and trying to negotiate with the authorities to allow for self-determination. Indonesia didn’t like my leadership, and the fact I was firm on independence as the only alternative for our people.
So no special autonomy or any other options?
No, no. They realized I was a danger, because I was educated and was trying to organize people. So they began using violent allegations to try put me in prison. Their main accusation was that I had attacked a police station and incited violence. So I was taken to court, given a rigged trial.
I kept on asking the judge: what proof do you have? Who are your witnesses? What was my involvement? What is my crime? There was no crime, but they knew my freedom would mean that I’d continue to fight for independence. They put me in prison, but I eventually was able to escape.
Could you talk a little bit about the escape? You overheard that they were trying to kill you?
Yes, I overheard this three times. The first time the news came out that I was going to be killed, there was a big riot inside the prison. I decided to escape after I heard the third warning from the prison governor, when I was certain they would slaughter me. I didn’t want to escape because I knew I was innocent, but the authorities didn’t care about human rights or international law, and were willing to kill me.
This was different from other struggles; Mandela or San Suu Kyi were arrested, but not killed. West Papua is quite unique. Whoever becomes a leader is put in prison and usually killed. So I broke the ventilator, and escaped through to Papua New Guinea.
From there you travelled to the United Kingdom, where you were granted asylum, and you set up the Free West Papua Campaign. You also began developing the legal case for West Papuan independence. Could you describe the key features of this case?
As soon as I arrived in the UK, I decided my mission would be to help my people from abroad. I set up Papua Merdeka (Free West Papua Campaign) in 2004, in order to educate the world about the suffering of West Papuans. Since then I have been around the world raising awareness on a grassroots level among ordinary people, NGOs, environmental groups.
What’s always on my mind is what the root problem is. If I focus only on human rights violations, Indonesia will say that it’s a work in progress, that it’s only a recent democracy.
I think the real root problem goes back to the 1960s, to the denial of West Papua’s right to self-determination. Before then, every colonial country was on the UN’s Non-Self Governing Territory List. We want to put West Papua on that list, to give the country the chance to choose a path towards independence. We have been victims under international law. The Act of Free Choice that the UN accepted was not a proper referendum.
So we’ve been trying to gain support. We set up a group, International Parliamentarians for West Papua, which tries to get political representatives from around the world to support our cause. Many international lawyers have spoken out and said our case is very strong, yet nobody talks about it. That’s why it’s very important for more lawyers to look at the legal arguments and reclaim our country’s entitlement under international law to self-determination.
You’ve called West Papua “little South Africa,” comparing its reality to apartheid. Could you illustrate what Papuan apartheid looks like?
First, let’s be clear. What Indonesia is trying to do to West Papua is wipe out the indigenous population. Secondly, it is trying to marginalize the remaining population, primarily through economic means. There are many forms of marginalization and discrimination.
The occupation is part of people’s lives. You cannot see any West Papuans fully fulfilled or happy. Physically they can smile, but mentally, they are intimidated. They are traumatized, scared. They know they are constantly being surveilled by cameras. They are surrounded by Indonesian military police and security forces.
You cannot speak honestly. Every West Papuan who works for the local government feels restricted. Major figures in the independence movement have been killed. These killings are mostly perpetrated by the Indonesia military, particularly its anti-terrorist units — let’s not forget these are units trained by Australia and the United States.
West Papua has undergone something similar to what the people of Timor l’Este went through under Indonesia, to what South Africa went through.
Indonesia has tried to cover this up by pretending to develop infrastructure. But you cannot cover the cries or the bones of the dead. The mothers whose sons were killed still cry. That sentiment is a wound that will never heal. It’s a cancer. We will only be able to heal, to rebuild our country, to rebuild our economy, to rebuild our houses, to reforest our land, to recover our mountains, to smile, when we gain our independence.
The forests have also been tortured. They have been looted and polluted. Big companies like Rio Tinto or Freeport McMoran have destroyed our sacred mountains through mining. Our land is our mother. Indonesia has not only committed mass human rights violations, but they have violated our forests, our rivers, our mountains, our mothers. We cannot live without nature, without clean air, without water. Everything is connected. But Indonesia has tried to separate these things, to divide forests from mountains from human beings.
How have indigenous rights been affected?
Indigenous groups in West Papua have no rights at all. I’m not an expert on other Indonesian areas, but the government has imposed colonialism in West Papua. All land is owned by Indonesia. There are no customary land rights, as Indonesia doesn’t recognize traditional ownership. It doesn’t recognize the sacred value of forests or mountains. And it’s impossible for people to try and defend their own rights, because the authorities begin to suspect you’re a rebel, a freedom fighter. The police, the intelligence services, the military, the judges, all work together to suppress any attempt by people to attain fair justice or redress violations.
Another legacy of the occupation you have also talked about is the issue of transmigration, of Indonesians from the mainland being resettled into Papua.
Yes, transmigration started happening right after 1969. From 1970 to 1990, it was a policy actually supported by the World Bank. Every week, six big ships brought people from other islands to West Papua, mostly from Java and Kalimantan.
The goal is simple. Because we are campaigning for self-determination, if we convince the authorities to have a referendum, indigenous Papuans will be a minority in their own country. Right now, the population is roughly half indigenous, half settled. But under international law, the people with a right to vote should be those that were there prior to Indonesia’s occupation.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has just finished his ten-year tenure as Indonesian president. In a recent speech, he claimed that among other achievements, he “stabilized the situation in West Papua.” What do you think of this statement and his broader record?
He claims they’ve “stabilized” the independence movement. Maybe that’s the case with other areas like Aceh, but that’s a big lie in Papua’s case. I thought he’d be a moderate. He’s a well-educated leader, educated in the United States. He must surely understand democracy. But he’s been worse than the others. Worse because he gave the West Papuan people three crucial promises.
First, he visited West Papua with a promise to engage in dialogue with religious leaders and Papuan activists. He promised to start having discussions about Papua’s future. He promised he’d bring justice to those who suffered human rights abuses over the last thirty years. All empty promises.
But yes, Yudhoyono’s regime has been responsible for far more human rights violations than Wahid’s or Sukarnoputri’s. Under Yudhoyono, [the eminent Papuan activist] Mako Tabuni was assassinated — and that’s just one assassination. So many violations have happened.
What about the new Indonesian leadership? Joko Widodo has recently been elected as president, and some commentators have suggested he may usher in a new era for Papua. He’s promised to focus more on developing the region, has said he’ll construct a presidential palace there—
He can build whatever he wants, but that money is Papuan. In 1969, Indonesia promised the world they would develop this land and bring prosperity. That’s never happened. All these promises are being given because of embarrassment. I think Widodo will have better PR, better public relations, but nothing more.
In terms of the international community, do conditions look propitious for your campaign?
Internationally the campaign has gained momentum. Supporters are emerging in Scandinavia, Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, Australia, Japan, everywhere. We never expected this! People are coming to understand what’s happening, and there are signs of rising international solidarity. Only this kind of people power will change the situation. So I’m confident that internationally we will continue gaining momentum.
Twenty years ago, no one thought East Timor could be free. And now they are. That’s why I’m really confident we’ll be free. On the other hand, the situation is getting worse, because Indonesia continues to suppress my people.
Despite the burgeoning attention and solidarity, compared to other conflicts and occupations around the world, West Papua remains starkly under-covered. Why is it rarely talked about?
For fifty years, Indonesia has been able to bar journalists and human-rights organizations like Amnesty International and International Peace Brigades. Just recently, two French journalists were arrested and are facing five years in prison. It’s an enormous problem because people cannot hear our cry for freedom.
You’ve consistently stated that you will see a free Papua within your lifetime — do you still stand by that?
I strongly believe that every movement has a chance of success. The British Empire, the Russian Empire, all eventually fell. No empire can last forever. The power of people eventually changes things, brings these structures down. I think that new generations will bring things forward, and I hope that in my lifetime, I will see change in West Papua.
Every individual can do their part in this struggle — every little thing is valuable. Even just saying a few words, mentioning this to your friends, getting a conversation started about West Papua, is a positive step.
But I really believe that something must happen before it’s too late, because I don’t want to see my people die. I don’t want them to have the same fate as the Native Americans or the Australian Aborigines. I don’t want history to repeat itself in West Papua. But in order to stop history, people need to step in. So I call upon all people, now is it the time to help save my people. And I want to go home — as a free man.
Jacobin by Daniel Macmillen Voskoboynik