Breaking Free From Betrayal
issue 318 - November 1999
I become homesick when I arrive in Jayapura, the capital of West Papua, which bears a striking similarity to Queensland, Australia. But my nostalgia for home soon turns to disgust when I hear about West Papua’s forgotten history. Because the nations where I have lived – Australia, Britain and the United States – have all betrayed the West Papuan people. And the international institutions in which I held hope have instead been hapless bystanders or even backers of military brutality.
‘It’s very easy to understand,’ insists West Papuan leader Theys Eluay, ‘This is what we want – independence.’ It is also obvious that the locals in West Papua (officially known as Irian Jaya) have arrived at this conclusion themselves and, in stark contrast to Aceh, without propaganda wars and threats. This great slice of Papua, with 240 tribal groups, has involuntarily been Indonesia’s easternmost province since they took the territory by force from the Dutch in 1961. Ever since then the military have controlled the province’s resources and people using torture, rape, killings and land dispossession. Now, however, from the villages to the cities a grassroots movement for independence is spreading new shoots.
Zadrak Wamebu from the Institute for Irian Jaya Indigenous People Study and Empowerment agrees: ‘There is now a self-confidence in people. There have been many demos to raise the flag and also on land rights. Recently hundreds of people carried the body of a victim of the military to their headquarters in Jayapura. This body was buried in front of the military headquarters, not in a cemetery, so that they are forced to acknowledge what they are doing. Every month someone is killed. If you look at things now, everyone’s ready to face the military because we know too much. Before they just went along with it.’
People went along with it because they were never presented with an alternative. West Papua has been betrayed by the best of the West – by the US, the Netherlands, Britain, Australia, the world’s biggest mining company and most recently, the Highland peoples believe, by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
The US were the first to ignore the West Papuans. In 1962, they brokered a deal whereby the Dutch would leave the territory and transfer sovereignty to the United Nations until a local vote could be held for independence or integration with Indonesia. The West Papuans were not involved in these discussions and instead of the UN, Indonesia quietly took over administration of the province and repression began in earnest.
‘We don’t know why the US had to make that deal,’ says Theys. ‘We were already a nation, we had a culture, a flag, even an anthem. We already had freedom and rights as a nation. But we were never listened to. Why weren’t we asked?’
Seven years later, in 1969, under the ‘Act of Free Choice’ Indonesia selected 1,025 West Papuans to be ‘asked’ whether they wanted independence. All elected for integration with Indonesia.
One of the few journalists there at the time (the world’s media was focused on Indochina), Hugh Lunn, has written an account which records Papuans’ heartfelt and ignored pleas to the outside world. On arriving at his hotel he found a letter soaked in blood which said Indonesia was killing dissenting Papuans. Then a Papuan who came into his room supposedly to repair a light mimed himself being shot in the back of the head while another pretended to be handcuffed. UN staff who spoke to Lunn off-the-record had all experienced but not publicized similar creative requests for international support.1
Australia also ignored such pleas. At the request of Indonesia, it arrested two pro-independence activists when they entered Australian-administered Papua New Guinea. They carried testimonies from Papuans calling for independence and for the UN to abandon the Act of Free Choice. These were never delivered – instead the activists were put in jail.
A statement prepared by the US Embassy in Jakarta and presented to Australia before the UN-supervised vote says: ‘Personal political views of the UN team are... 95 per cent of Irianese (West Papuans) support the independence movement and that the Act of Free Choice is a mockery.’2
This new evidence confirms that the UN, Australia and the US all knew that the Act of Free Choice was actually what Papuans call the ‘Act of No Choice’. The duplicity is incomprehensible to most Papuans – the UN had embraced many new nations; the US, in its anti-Communist crusade, avowed support for freedom and Australia followed suit. But all these promises and pronouncements were void when it came to their own oppression.
After West Papua was officially proclaimed Indonesian, the small rebel group, Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM or Free Papua Movement) although armed only with bows, arrows and spears, provided the Indonesian military with a rationale to clamp down on the province. An estimated 60,000 troops were deployed. From 1967 to 1972 the military violence is estimated to have caused between 30,000 and 100,000 Papuan deaths. Then, in the late 1970s, a series of ceremonies raising the West Papuan flag in the Highlands resulted in the military bombing and strafing of whole villages, killing at least 1,000 people and causing at least 5,000 to flee and hide out in the forest.
photo: ANOUK RIDE
According to Denny Yomaki, from the Irian Jaya Environment Foundation, the OPM is not a real threat but an excuse for military occupation. He says locals found groups of fake OPM on the border who have better weapons and who also have crates of Indonesian-brand beer and whisky delivered once a month. This stands in stark contrast to the ‘real’ OPM as Denny explains: ‘Some of the OPM fighters in the forest have been fighting for 30 years now and they are isolated – they have never seen cars or TVs or whatever. In the forest, the only way people can think is to fight with bows and arrows and whatever they have.’
Western silence over continuing human-rights abuses was ensured once they became intimately involved in Indonesia’s great land grab. West Papua may be the most profitable real estate Indonesia owns – mainly due to its rich mineral resources. The chief mining enterprise is the world’s largest copper and gold mine run by the American company Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold. The Indonesian government has a nine-per-cent stake in the mine. Another major profiteer is British mining giant Rio Tinto which owns nearly 15 per cent of Freeport’s share capital, producing around $150 million for Rio Tinto in 1998. All that the West Papuans will get from this huge enterprise is a scarred environment – Freeport now dumps 70 million tonnes of tailings a year into the Ajikwa river and will leave behind a 230-square-kilometre scar in the jungle when the mine closes in 30 years’ time.3
‘We have been spectators not participants in development,’ laments Theys Eluay. ‘Java’s too crowded and they see Papua as a way to feed themselves. Without us they will starve.’
Capturing the world’s attention
After years fighting a war largely unknown to the outside world, in January 1996 the OPM resorted to desperate measures to get their demands heard. They took hostages: scientists from Britain’s Cambridge University, the Jakarta Biological Science Club and the World Wide Fund for Nature, their assistants and local people from the district of Mapnduma. Eleven were released within the first two weeks but four British, two Dutch and five Indonesian citizens remained hostages. OPM leader Kelly Kwalik says: ‘We took the researchers hostage because we had no other way for our cause to be acknowledged.’4
The ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) had a solid relationship with the people of Mapnduma district. So it was natural that they became involved in attempting to reach an agreement to release the hostages. By early May it seemed that they had reached an understanding. A ceremonial feast to celebrate the release of the hostages and International Red Cross Day was scheduled for 8 May in Nggeselema village.
Yet the OPM cancelled the release of the hostages: they felt the ICRC had broken their agreement by failing to bring official representatives of the English, Dutch, German and Indonesian governments to Nggeselema.5
‘Even though we wear penis gourds and torn shirts we have the brains God gave to us all,’ said Kwalik. He was angry and announced that the hostages were not going to be released yet, but he did not threaten their lives. He also asked: ‘Is this really the Red Cross or people disguised as the Red Cross?’4 Kwalik was convinced that when they gave back the hostages they would be attacked by the Indonesian military. The next morning on 9 May Sylvianne Bonadei, the ICRC staff member who dealt most closely with the local people and the OPM, visited Nggeselema. It was agreed the ICRC would return three days later and it was clear that negotiations were not closed.4
At 3:00pm a helicopter with the logo and flag of the ICRC landed in Nggeselema village. As always when it arrived, locals approached the helicopter to welcome the medical staff. But the four white passengers (one of whom some eyewitnesses claim looked like Bonadei) fired into the crowd, the church and the clinic, killing two civilians. Five military choppers that had followed behind the ICRC helicopter then conducted an aerial bombardment that razed the village and left twelve people dead.5
At the same time as the attack, the ICRC announced its resignation as negotiator at a press conference at the Sheraton Hotel in Timika.5 The local people in Nggesselema had no way of knowing that their attackers were imposters.
Sylvianne Bonadei firmly denies she was on that helicopter of killers – and the other ICRC staff were put on a plane to Jakarta that same day. The ICRC is investigating who might have impersonated their staff and used their symbol and equipment. Bonadei says: ‘If the emblem has been violated... it was our only powerful means of getting into that place and get the trust from these people, so how can they possibly trust us again?’4
So who were the white attackers? Residents of Keneyam – a village used as a military base during the hostage crisis – have testified that 16 white people wearing army camouflage arrived in their village on 8 May 1996, the day before the attack.5
Britain appointed Military Attaché and SAS veteran Colonel Ivor Helberg to provide specialized assistance and advice to Indonesia’s General Prabowo during the hostage crisis. He says he had a team of police hostage experts working with him but others claim these men were actually the élite English military unit, the SAS. Ivor Helberg himself says: ‘I cannot imagine that either the Indonesian Government or Her Majesty’s Government... would allow some third party, mercenary organization to actually execute the kind of operation on our behalf. I mean, can you imagine if it all went wrong? It would be horrendous, wouldn’t it? What would the parents [of the hostages] think and that sort of thing?’4
Nick van den Bergh of the mercenary group Executive Outcomes (EO) has said that he led a team of five people in the Mapnduma area in 1996. The team worked as technical advisors and trainers for helicopter attack teams. He has also confirmed the participation of members of the SAS but denies that his EO troops were involved in the attack on Nggeselema.1 It has not been verified whether the white soldiers who undertook the attack were SAS, police working with Helberg, Executive Outcomes soldiers, or a combination of all three.
Screams not heard
Meanwhile the violence and fear continues. This and last year, for example, independence rallies in early July resulted in the military firing on unarmed protesters, killing over 20 people and wounding over 100. Amidst the clamour surrounding East Timor, the military presence here has continued without comment. Military Head General Wiranto has made moves to strengthen rather than relax Indonesia’s grip – including proposals to legislate a state of emergency.
Contact these organizations:
Down to Earth (see action).
For more information: www.cs.utexas.edu/users/cline/papua/
Some hopes for a political solution have been raised by a national dialogue on the province under President Habibie. Representatives from all over the territory have told Habibie they want independence. Indigenous activist Zadrak Wamebu thinks that Habibie is a better person than Suharto but: ‘Habibie doesn’t have control over what the military does. There’s still people dying. The military is supposed to be just used in an emergency. There’s so many armed forces here and there’s no need. If there’s an emergency, civilians can join the army and sort it out.’ He adds with bright-eyed enthusiasm: ‘I’ll join the army!’ Then pauses for a moment: ‘But, no, I wouldn’t join it because I’m anti-violence.’
Zadrak ponders what an independent West Papua would be like: ‘It’s hard to say. A system would have to consider all tribes. It would be dangerous if they took on a similar system to Suharto. If there were one tribe that controlled all the others.’ He adds teasingly: ‘Well, except if they were my friends...’
But he is certain about one thing: ‘The political system and the political culture which we’ve experienced have supported terror not freedom. We need a situation where people are sharing, where you have to listen and respect what your elders give you. We need to be in a different world where it’s not seen that some people have to be out in front of the rest.’
1 Hugh Lunn, ‘How the West was lost’ The Weekend Australian 21-22 August 1999.
2 Sydney Morning Herald 26 August 1999.
3 World Development Movement.
4 Australian Broadcasting Corporation Website.
5 Press Release Military Operation for the Release of Hostages and Human Rights Violations In the Central Highlands of Irian Jaya: Unveiling the Mystery of the Bloody ICRC Mission, The Involvement of Foreign Soldiers and the Indonesian Army, signed by Johanes Bonay, SH (Director IHRSTAD), Herman Saud (Christian Evangelical Church in Irian Jaya ), Mgr Leo Laba Ladjar (Bishop of Jayapura), Rev Benny Giay, PhD (Research and Development, Christian Missionary Alliance of Indonesia, Jayapura) 25 August 1999.
This article is from
the November 1999 issue
of New Internationalist.
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