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Military Madness

West Papua

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Surveying the carnage. A young Wamena man at the grave of a West Papuan community police volunteer shot at Bloody Wamena. He was armed with a bow and arrow. Photo: Chris Richards

One terrible day in the highlands revealed what’s at stake
for West Papuans – and the strategy of violent strife being
fermented by the Indonesian military, whose local commander
tried it out first in nearby East Timor.

[image, unknown] As the Morning Star was still on the horizon on 6 October 2000, the Indonesian police in Wamena were using chain saws to fell every flag bearing its name. Two Papuans who got in the way were killed. Word travelled quickly. By the end of the afternoon, 40,000 highland men and women swept into town – naked and grease-painted, ready for a fight.

Imagine – wave upon wave of highland men in nothing but feathered head-dresses and long thin penis sheaths made from gourds; highland women with nothing but small grass skirts covering their crotch. They had walked and driven for hours to get there, carrying the only weapons they possessed – bows and arrows, spears and machetes. By the next day at least 37 were dead and 89 seriously injured.

All this is hard to imagine as I walk down the streets of Wamena now. This small highland town is the stepping-off point for tourists who want to visit the Baliem Valley, which my Lonely Planet guide describes as ‘one of the last truly fascinating traditional areas in the world’. There were less than three thousand tourists in 2000 – but they are making this town into something it was never meant to be. I have arrived in November – the off-season. Cycle-driven rickshaws (becaks) race up and down the streets without passengers. Men, naked but for their penis gourds, travel into town with woven bracelets and cowry-shell necklaces, setting out their wares in front of empty hostels and hotels. Mounds of uncollected garbage dot the street. A barefoot child wants to hold my hand, befriending me before asking for rupiah. Then an open truck drives by carrying eight armed soldiers.

In a town touting for tourists it is impossible to avoid the military and police. The police are the first to greet you at the airport. They question what you’re doing, then try to corner some of the tourist dollars. ‘Would you like to buy this map? I have a friend who can rent you a motorcycle.’ You cannot travel here without a permit. I had lied to get mine in Jayapura. If I’d told the police why I really wanted to come to Wamena – to talk about 6 October – they would have thrown me out of the country.

Thirteen Papuans were killed that day, adding to the widely accepted death toll of 100,000 indigenous people already killed by the Indonesian armed forces. Unofficially, West Papuans will tell you that the death toll is much higher: that more than 800,000 have died. There are presently 15 to 20,000 police and military in West Papua. So, what is the threat posed by Papuans in Wamena?

‘It’s the raising of our flag – the Morning Star,’ says Amelia Jigibalom. ‘All countries in the world have freedom when their flag is flying high.’ If the spirit of independence in the hearts of West Papuans is the greatest – and unseen – enemy of the Indonesians, the most obvious outward sign of their resistance to Indonesian rule is the raising of the West Papuan flag. Amelia and four other local leaders – Reverend Obed Komba, Murjono Murib, Yafet Yelemaken and Reverend Yudas Meage – have gathered together to tell me about what took place here on 6 October. Obed is one of the 31 Presidium (Executive) members of the Papua Council. The other four are part of the broader decision-making body: panel members of the Papua Council. It’s this that has made them the latest military target. Obed starts with the background.

When the Papua Council was formed to unite all West Papuan independence groups in June 2000, Indonesia’s then President Wahid said Morning Star flags could be raised until 19 October 2000. But on 1 October in Wamena the head of police in the region, Daniel Suripati, came to Obed’s house and told him that he would bring down the flags before then. He showed Obed a letter from Indonesia’s police chief, Suroyo Bimantoro, giving the order. Obed told him this would cause conflict. So Obed arranged for another round of negotiations with police to take place on 6 October in Jayapura. Just before that meeting was scheduled to begin, Suripati gave orders for Wamena’s flags to be taken down.

Obed’s story confirms what I feared: that any independence the Indonesian Government gives may be clawed back by the armed forces. The Government has just passed much-publicized laws to give West Papua greater autonomy. These laws purport to give Papuans more say in government, but they allow the military to remain unregulated and police to be governed at a national level.

In Indonesia, the military are multi-functional. They are supposed to do what all armies do: protect the country from external threats. But they have also had a long-standing place in the social and economic life of the country. So the Generals sit in 38 national parliamentary seats. And the military has extensive corporate interests across Indonesia. West Papua is rich in natural resources. It has the biggest gold mine in the world, rainforests ripe for logging and oil so pure it needs little refining. These industries have proved lucrative sources of legal and illegal profit for the military. From just one entity – Freeport McMoRan’s Grasberg gold and copper mine – the military has successfully demanded a one-off payment of $35 million, supplemented by an agreement to pay an annual contribution of $11 million. Most of this has been used to bolster the inadequate military budget for the region, so military accommodation and equipment are better here than elsewhere in Indonesia. But up to a third of this amount has gone straight into the pockets of a select group of officers and their subordinates.1 To protect their lucrative income stream, the Generals have stationed in West Papua at least one member of the armed forces (soldiers and police)for every 170 citizens. To justify this, they support conflicts that only they can quell.

The anger caused by the downing of the flags in Wamena was entirely predictable. When the 40,000 highlanders arrived, community leaders knew that blood would be shed. They jumped on to motorcycles and into cars and sped around the town cajoling, imploring, begging for peace. Slowly but surely, the highlanders put down their weapons – in the east, the south and the north. But not in the west.

I’m in the western neighbourhood of Woma – where much of the violence took place – the night after talking with the five leaders. Tonight there is no violence. Only a feast. Galile has come home from university, and a pig is cooked with coals in a 44-gallon drum to celebrate, with sweet-potato trimmings. It is a rare change from the usual vegetable fare. Thirty people eat in the back yard. They talk earnestly about the latest family ‘fight’. Two of Galile’s cousins want to marry – a brother and his sister. The family is divided about whether this should be allowed. Then the group starts laughing. The brother wants to pay five pigs as a bride-price. But he has no-one to give the pigs to – his father and the bride’s father are one.

Galile is an English student. At the hospital on 6 October, when the doctors had fled, he helped sew up his friends and neighbours. I doubt if he’d ever used a needle before then. After the feast, Galile takes me down a narrow lane to the house next door. We sit on the floor and are shown picture after picture of the slaughter of ‘Bloody Wamena’ – bodies missing a head or a limb, machete cuts across faces and torsos, heads blown apart by gunshot wounds, charred human remains in burnt-out houses ... a child whose lifeless body is rolled into a ball, as if in hiding.

The dead faces in the pictures tell of an emerging division that will strengthen military strategy. While 13 of the 37 killed on 6 October were West Papuan, the others were non-Papuans – Indonesian migrants whom the locals call ‘Javanese’. That day in October, a racial line was clearly and deliberately drawn across the community. After cutting down the flags, the police ran into 18 Javanese homes for cover. Once there, they started shooting people in the streets and markets. The West Papuans’ response was immediate. They searched Javanese homes with bows, arrows and machetes raised, killing the few police they found and anyone who’d harboured them.

At least 100,000 indigenous people are widely accepted as having been killed by the Indonesian military or police

The deaths of West Papuans were never likely to excite official attention in Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta. The deaths of the Javanese were another thing. No accusing finger has ever been pointed at the Indonesian police, who started the riots. Instead, 80 Papuans were arrested, including a group of school children. Most were kicked and beaten with rifle butts and canes. Some were forced to drink urine and had rifles pointed into their mouths. One died in police custody. Seventeen faced trial. They were convicted of rebellion. For this, and other lesser charges, they were given prison sentences ranging from one to three-and-a-half years. Their appeals to the courts, to common sense and to decency have failed.

Then, on 11 October, the five leaders were arrested. Two of them were told in custody that they had incited Bloody Wamena. Not because they pulled a trigger or shot an arrow. But because they had helped form the Papua Council. This, the arresting police told them, created an expectation of independence in the community that led to the unfurling of the flags. They, too, have now been convicted of rebellion. Their sentences range from four to four-and-a-half years. Their appeals have yet to be heard.

But in the eyes of the armed forces the people of Wamena had still not paid a high enough price. Two months later, hundreds of kilometers away, Jayapura police conducted a retaliatory raid on hostels accommodating students and school children from the Wamena region. More than 100 were taken into police custody. Two were killed. The brutality meted out to the others has since been described by Oswald Iten, a Swiss journalist who was awaiting deportation in the same cell complex as the students. ‘Blood sprayed the walls all the way up to the ceiling.’
West Papuans know that the legal system is being used against them. They are used to it. But, until Bloody Wamena, Papuans and non-Papuans had always lived peacefully together. Not any more. More than 13,500 non-Papuans have now fled the town. Already the military are exploiting the division. In fear for the safety of themselves and their families, 365 Javanese in Wamena now pay the military 500,000 rupiah ($50) per day to be trained to use a gun. It is the West Papuans at whom their guns are meant to take aim.

A new arrival in West Papua means that this strategy could soon set like cement. Major-General Mahidin Simbolon is the head of the Trikora military command in Jayapura. In 1999 he helped to oversee the operation to create, recruit and finance the local militia units that turned on East Timorese separatists. It didn’t stop the independence of East Timor. But it may have more of a chance in West Papua, where the UN is not acting and the international community – distracted by Afghanistan and the aftermath of 11 September 2001 – is not watching.

The Morning Star flag no longer flies over Wamena. The armed forces have won the present battle. Now what about the war?

1 Lesley McCulloch ‘Trifungsi: the role of the Indonesian Military in Business’ (Bonn International Centre for Conversion, 2000) page 29 http://www.bicc.de/budget/events/milbus/confpapers/mcculloch.pdf

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