Few have heard of the Indonesian controlled state of West Papua. Even fewer that one of its independence leaders, Benny Wenda, lives in exile in Oxford. Sitting in Wenda’s semi-detached in Marston the divided island of New Guinea seemed incredibly remote; not helped by the snoring toddler on the other sofa. Immediately, however, Benny’s charm and passion for his country’s cause was enough to dismiss any lasting apprehension that I had arrived at the wrong address.
To understand why West Papua has sought independence from Indonesia for decades it is necessary to start from Dutch decolonisation. Indonesia claimed West Papua because “Indonesia looked at West Papua and claimed that as both were former [neighbouring] colonies West Papua was automatically Indonesia’s” – not least, Benny asserts, because of West Papua’s vast natural resources. The Dutch contested this, West Papuans are ethnically Pacific Melanesians rather than Indonesian, and maintained control over West Papua until the early 1960s, when Indonesia played “a very clever game by forcing the West to give West Papua to them, or [they] would join Russia and be Communists in the Cold War. So America pushed the Dutch to give West Papua to the Indonesians, with no West Papuan participation.” Wenda’s sense of betrayal by the West is most apparent when discussing the subsequent independence referendum in 1969. By 1969 Indonesia had already been allowed to take over and suppress West Papua for more than five years. So, with only 16 UN observers in the country, Indonesia intimidated and hand-picked one in twenty of the 700,000 West Papuan electorate to vote. It gave Indonesia the mandate it needed to secure control by deploying the military into every district.
It is against this backdrop that Benny’s direct contact with the Indonesians began. Aged two, the military bombed Benny’s remote highland region, killing much of his family, and forcing his community to flee into the jungle for five years, only returning when conditions became unbearable. It was then, Wenda explains, that he saw for himself “that we were treated a different way: internal discrimination, racism, and lack of freedom of movement with military everywhere… which continues today. With the military raping villagers anytime, all the girls covered their faces in mud to disguise themselves” At school he experienced discrimination first-hand, recounting how on his first day he entered a class with only five West Papuans, “and tried to sit next to an Indonesian girl, smiled at her, and she spat in my face. My reaction was that I was stinky, as a black man and had not washed enough because the Indonesians looked at you that way, as sub-human. Then next morning, I bought a soap and washed three times to make sure I was clean enough so she will be happy … I was really confident and went into the class, but before I put my books down I smiled and she stood up and spat again. The whole class was laughing, I was really upset and declared ‘I am like you, I cannot change my body, this is me’.” Benny attributes this experience to his desire to go to university and ensure the same did not happen to future generations.
On his return from university, he was chosen as Secretary-General of the Koteka Tribal Assembly and represented over 250 tribes. In 2002, however, he was arrested on false charges that he had led an attack on a police station. Defended by Australian and British human rights lawyers he was never found guilty of any crime, but still sentenced to 25 years imprisonment. He escaped after three assassination attempts, and fled to Britain via the border with Papua New Guinea, even though Indonesia deployed hundreds of extra security personnel to recapture him. Benny’s escape and flight into exile provides, surprisingly, one of the few light moments in his tale. After breaking damaged ventilation in the prison toilets, a two week walk across the border and a flight out of Papua New Guinea, he arrived at Heathrow speaking no English only to be almost deported immediately. Placed in a small holding room, fortunately he overheard “an Africa guy, who immigration questioned, say ‘asylum’ and immediately take serious notice of him… and so thirty minutes later I just said it, not properly, but “Salum”, or something, and they began laughing and saying, “Why didn’t you tell us?” It was not the end of Benny’s problems. On passing security, he failed to recognise a man holding a sign for ‘Benny Wenda’. “I thought this was Indonesia waiting, and I ran back inside but heard ‘Hey Benny it’s me’ and I turned around and jumped over the barrier and cried, and everyone thought I was a crazy man for running from this friend waiting for me.” Reunited with his family, after they too had to be hidden and smuggled out of West Papua, they have restarted their activism from Oxford.
Benny’s ‘Free West Papua Campaign’ seeks to raise awareness of the human rights situation in West Papua. Particularly concerning is the fact that West Papuans are now a “minority in their own land.” He controversially attributes this demographic change not just too Indonesian migration and settlement but also what he describes as “a slow genocide [as] Indonesians are using many methods to kill West Papuans.” Beginning with the imprisonment and deaths of many Papuans in their flight into the jungle it has now, Wenda claims, developed into deliberately spreading HIV/AIDS. Infected Indonesian prostitutes are, allegedly, placed in villages and logging and military camps so that they can be hired by unknowing West Papuans in return for valuable natural resources. With charities and monitoring groups banned from West Papua there is no independent corroboration, but a recent report showed that the HIV infection rate has, shockingly, increased by 30% in just four months. Wenda also wants to curb Indonesian persecution of West Papuan culture. He portrays a nation under attack, but not defending it “would see the death of the culture and languages. The struggle is about cultural identity and environment… as the forest is like our supermarket but they have been polluted by multi-nationals working with the Indonesians.” Western multi-nationals are extremely active in the resource rich region, with the mining conglomerate Rio Tinto and British Petroleum singled out. According to Wenda, Rio Tinto argue they are “just investing, but own a 45% share in West Papuan mining, in the middle of a genocide, and are funding directly or indirectly the Indonesian military…who use [the revenue] to abuse the West Papuans.” Wenda wants “multi-nationals like Rio Tinto and BP to admit what is happening. [They] cannot just ignore human rights abuses, especially guarded by Indonesian military.” Damningly WikiLeaks recently published a US embassy cable from Jakarta, showing that the USA has serious concerns about rampant corruption and human rights abuses in the region.
With the eternally optimistic Wenda, it seemed only right to conclude by asking him what he thought the future held for the troubled region. Unsurprisingly, he was hopeful. His lobbying is gaining international political support whilst in West Papua mass protests have recently broken out. In Benny’s words, “West Papua is beginning to wake up… a lot of people are getting confident after what has happened in the Middle East. Indonesia has kept my people as prisoners for a long time, and they are deciding to free themselves.” There is no doubt that if an independent West Papua does emerge, Benny Wenda will be at its heart.