By Bernd Debusmann Jr., a guest contributor and freelance journalist based out of London.
In the jungle-clad highlands of West Papua, more than 50 years of conflict between a native independence movement and the Indonesian government has killed thousands and repressed the local population with acts of shocking brutality.
Unlike for Ukraine today, or in Palestine for that matter, the world has never paid much attention to this ongoing episode of a much larger, stronger country invading and annexing another. The struggle in West Papua, the death toll and political jailings barely register on the international political scene. One man is seeking to change that.
“Indonesia arrested me and put me in prison, just simply for peacefully demonstrating and raising the Morning Star flag (West Papua’s national flag),” said Benny Wenda, 39, who has been fighting a decade-long campaign trying to draw attention to Indonesia’s occupation of West Papua and the violations of human rights there.
West Papua, a former Dutch colony, declared independence on December 1st, 1961, but the nascent country was invaded and occupied by Indonesia the following year.
In 1969, a small number of Papuan community leaders were forced under duress to vote in favor of Indonesian governance in a UN-mandated “Act of Free Choice”, despite the fact that West Papuans – ethnic Melanesians – have no historical or cultural ties to Indonesia.
In the eyes of many West Papuans, Western governments sacrificed the country to appease the Indonesians rather than risk losing the South East Asian powerhouse to communism.
A member of the Lani indigenous group, Wenda was born in the mist-covered mountains of West Papua in 1975. His life has been defined by the independence struggle. As a child, he says, he was forced to watch as Indonesian soldiers raped his aunt and broke his two-year old cousin’s back. Both would die of their injuries weeks later. Wenda himself was wounded in an Indonesian bombing raid, leaving him with a lifelong limp.
Between 1977 and 1983, Wenda and his family lived as fugitives in the jungle, struggling against the environment as much as the Indonesians before finally surrendering themselves to authorities.
As an adult, Wenda became involved in the West Papuan independence movement, and was subsequently charged with inciting an attack on a police station and burning down two book shops in the town of Abepura in December 2000.
“I went to the court, and there was no evidence. No witnesses,” he added. That didn’t matter; he was convicted by the court and sent to Abepura prison, where he was attacked several times before finally escaping in 2002.
“They tried to kill me inside the prison three times,” he said. “But I managed to escape across the border to Papua New Guinea and then I used a fake passport to come to the United Kingdom.”
“I didn’t want to escape. I didn’t want to run. I didn’t want to leave my people. But my life was in danger at the time.”
Wenda points to the case of West Papuan activist Theys Eluay, who was murdered in 2001 after being kidnapped by members of Kopassus, an elite Special Forces unit of the Indonesian military.
“It seems that every leader should be killed or assassinated,” he says of the murder.
After arriving in the UK and being granted political asylum, Wenda has worked set up the “Free West Papua” campaign in 2004.
In the UK, Wenda was reunited with his wife Maria, with whom they have six young children. Together, Wenda and his wife have formed a musical group, the “Lani Singers”, which performs traditional indigenous music from their area of West Papua.
In 2008, Wenda set up a group known as the “International Parliamentarians for West Papua”. It now counts on the support of more than 80 politicians from the UK, the US, Australia, New Zealand, as well as from several European and Pacific countries.
Strapped for resources, Wenda relies on donations from inside and outside West Papua, and on sales of Free West Papua items. “We play music, produce CD’s, print the flag, and print leaflets. That’s what we do,” he said.
In 2011, the Indonesian government issued an Interpol “Red Notice” under which Wenda could have been arrested and extradited in any one of the international police agency’s 190 member states. But the notice was rescinded in 2012 after Interpol concluded that the case was “predominantly political in nature.”
In the eyes of the Indonesian government, however, Wenda remains a fugitive from justice.
The Indonesian embassy in London did not respond to several requests for comment, but an embassy spokesman told the Global Post in July that the government views him as “someone who is hiding from the law.”
A “Papua Campaign Digest” released by Amnesty International last April notes that “the people of Papua are subject to severe human rights violations at the hands of the Indonesian authorities. Their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are heavily curtailed. Many people are imprisoned simply for having taken part in non-violent demonstrations, or having expressed their opinions.”
Travel for journalists and NGO staff in West Papua is severely restricted, limiting the amount of information that trickles to the outside world.
Among the few foreigners to have seen the Indonesian occupation first hand is Dominic Brown, a London-based documentary filmmaker whose 2009 film Forgotten Birds of Paradise details West Papua’s independence struggle.
“The thing that really struck me is that it’s like apartheid almost,” Brown said. “In the towns and cities you don’t really see in terms of abuses, although they do take place. But the Papuans are kind of a second level in society there. The trans-migrants from other parts of Indonesia have all the jobs, from the taxi drivers to running all the restaurants and shops.”
“But in the highlands regions, more abuses take place,” he added. “There I met and spoke with people who would show me wounds on their bodies from torture.”
Brown noted that aside from a select group of Papuan elite that have been co-opted by the Indonesian authorities, locals have no way of organizing legally to work towards independence.
“There is no real way for Papuans to address their grievances. There is no real freedom of speech,” he said. “In Scotland, for example, there is the Scottish National Party. But there is no way in West Papua for a Papuan to be able to set up a Papuan national party which would campaign for independence. There are no political freedoms; it’s very much within the Indonesian system.”
Many activists hope that West Papua will eventually be given the same independence as East Timor, which – after a long and bloody independence struggle – was finally declared an independent state in 2002.
But unlike East Timor, West Papua is home to many foreign companies which profit from its natural resources.
“The reality is that there are so many vested interests in West Papua,” Brown explained. “You’ve got all the multinational corporations, such as BP. They are making billions of pounds and dollars every year from the current situation.”
“There is so much money at stake with all these deals. Unlike in East Timor, where there was a huge international outcry, the Indonesians have done very well at keeping West Papua out of the international agenda.”
Several candidates running in Indonesia’s July presidential election have called on the current administration to review trade agreements with Britain because of Wenda’s presence in Oxford, including BP’s £12 billion natural gas deal off the Papuan coastline.
Additionally, American mining giant Freeport-McMoRan is the majority owner of the Grasberg mine in West Papua, the world’s largest gold mine and third largest copper mine.
The threat of economic repercussions forced Britain’s ambassador to Indonesia, Mark Canning, to publicly reiterate Britain’s support for the Indonesian government.
Indonesia’s Antara News Agency quoted Canning as saying that “we (the UK) regard West Papua as part of Indonesia” and that the British government believes that “the Indonesian government is genuinely committed to addressing the problems in that region.”
In June, another British source told the Telegraph that “it is vital that we do not allow the West Papua issue to damage our work with Indonesia.”
Despite the challenges faced by the embattled province, Wenda believes that world opinion is slowly swaying in West Papua’s favor.
“The government line is that they support a unitary republic of Indonesia,” he said. “But ordinary people, and British politicians, especially MPs, are now more supportive.”
“When I came here, nobody knew. But in the last five years, I have been able to convince people across the world, across the country,” he added. “Things will change, maybe in the next five years, maybe in ten. In my lifetime. Things are moving.”
“Independence is coming very soon, because of people power. The opinion of the world is changing. I am really confident in what I’m doing now to free my people will happen soon.”
Bernd Debusmann Jr. is studying for an MA in International Journalism at City University London. Previously, he was a stringer for Reuters TV in his hometown of Mexico City and wrote articles for Fox Latino. Before that he worked as a freelance desk producer on the Latin America Television Desk for Reuters in Washington DC and was a full-time stringer for Reuters in New York City, working out of City Hall and covering local politics, the NYPD, local, state and federal court cases, and general lifestyle stories. He tweets @BernieDebusmann and runs a blog at BerndDebusmannJr.com.