‘One day my people will be free!’ Benny Wenda, of the Free West Papua campaign, insists from his home in exile in Britain. Forty-nine years after West Papua gained a short-lived independence – it lasted just seven months before the Indonesian military invaded – the struggle for self-determination continues, but Benny is cautiously optimistic.
In October, Indonesian military video footage found its way into the international media – apparently due to the military accidentally allowing the tape to pass to a Papuan. The videos, which can be seen on YouTube and the Free West Papua website and which, Wenda says, expose ‘Indonesia’s Abu Ghraib’, show soldiers brutally beating, torturing and threatening Papuans. As a result, the mainstream press, including Britain’s rightwing Daily Telegraph and the New York Times, picked up on the story, giving the West Papuan cause more exposure than it has had for a long time. The timing was fortuitous, since it coincided with President Obama’s announcement that he planned to visit Indonesia in November – a trip twice postponed earlier this year. Obama spent part of his childhood in Indonesia but had failed to address the issue of West Papua with his Indonesian counterpart, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, prior to the visit.
Political awareness of West Papua’s plight is, growing, however. On 22 September, the US House of Representatives conducted an open hearing entitled Crimes against humanity: when will Indonesia’s military be held accountable for deliberate and systematic abuses in West Papua? A day later a number of Scottish members of parliament signed a declaration in support of West Papuan independence, as part of the Scottish launch of the International Parliamentarians for West Papua group.
Violence against Papuans in the country’s forest-covered highlands has increased dramatically this year, with Indonesian troops sweeping through the region, burning down villages and forcing Papuans to flee into the inhospitable jungle.
Once there, it is almost impossible for their situation to be monitored, asserts Wenda, because ‘the roads are blocked by the military, and the media and NGOs are banned’. Many of them simply disappear. In one incident in October, a pastor in Manokwari was attacked and killed by Indonesian police, who disputed his right to wear the traditional costume which distinguished him as a guardian of the village.
Wenda believes that media exposure is critical – and that the internet and social media sites have become a valuable means of letting the world know what is going on. ‘The world has ignored my people for so long,’ says Wenda, ‘but if you believe something in your heart, it will happen.’ If international political, media and campaigning pressure can keep up its current momentum, Indonesia may have no choice but to listen.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7