Eating Bacon and Eggs in Secret with the Leader of Free West Papua
May 12 2017, 10:43am
Benny Wenda looked entirely incongruous as his face hovered over a plate of bacon and eggs, his chieftain’s neckwear, pig tusks at the end of a necklace adorned by shells—he calls it his “tie”—hanging from his neck to rest against his tiny frame, as we sat in the dining-room of a house in a sleepy South Auckland suburb. I was asked not to identify its location for fear of Wenda’s safety, or photograph him with any locatable features in the background; Wenda had that morning flown in from England, and his team told me they had suspicions that people with ties to the Indonesian Government had monitored his arrival.
That same government arrested Wenda in 2002, accusing him of inciting a riot in Abepura, even though he wasn’t in the country at the time. Fearing for his safety he broke through the ventilation unit of a bathroom, and scaled a wall topped with broken glass—he leaned across the table to show me the scars on his palm—dodging searchlights and guards, eventually fleeing through the jungle and across the border to Papua New Guinea. He was later granted political asylum in the UK.
“My people are crying for justice and freedom. I’m on a mission.”
We spoke for close to an hour as he recounted his life and the struggles of his people, at times his eyes filling with tears, at others with laughter. I asked him how it felt to have been away from his home for such a long time. “Very difficult because my heart and my mind is with our people and our land and our mountain. It’s very difficult… I am not in the UK for a better life, but because my people are crying for justice and freedom. I’m on a mission. That’s why I keep going and fight until my people are free in their own land.”
Wenda has never known a West Papua free of Indonesia. “I myself have been a witness,” he told me as we began. “I was born with this issue and I grew up with this issue.” Indonesian troops first set foot in West Papua in 1961; in 1962, Indonesia formally took control over the former Dutch colony under the New York Agreement, with the promise of a vote on independence by 1969. In 1967, Indonesia granted Freeport McMoRan—now the country’s largest taxpayer— mining rights in West Papua. When the promised vote arrived in 1969, it was a sham, the so-called Act of Free Choice, in which just 0.2 percent of the West Papuan population voted to ensure West Papua remained part of Indonesia. Wenda was born in 1975.
Wenda’s Lani tribe rebelled against Indonesian rule, prompting retaliation. A bombing campaign ensued, forcing Wenda and his tribe to live in hiding—the Asia Human Rights Commission reported that these acts met the criteria for genocide. “From 1977 to 1985 we were hiding in the bush. Many friends died because our crops were destroyed… Every time I talk about this,” he looked on the brink of tears, “I really cry hard.” Wenda’s tribe eventually surrendered to the Indonesian occupiers. He went to school, encountering acts of petty racism along the way, and studied politics and sociology at university in Jayapura. In 1999 he was made chief of the Lani tribe, putting him on course for his arrest.
“The killing is continuing… to this very day,” Wenda said. Some recent high-profile examples: preceding Wenda’s arrest, in 2001, Theys Eluay, leader of the Papua Presidium Council was shot dead by members of Indonesia’s Special Forces. In 2012, Mako Tabuni, Vice-Chairman of the National Committee for West Papua, was killed by police officers who claimed he had a gun, which witnesses denied. In December 2014 security forces opened fire on a crowd of 800 people in the Paniai Regency who had gathered to demonstrate; at least four school children died, and 17 more were injured. A recent New Internationalistarticle mentions stories of villagers stacking skulls in caves to record for posterity atrocities that have occurred.
Not that you hear much about it. Until recently, a foreign journalist needed approval from 18 separate government agencies to enter West Papua. Local journalists hardly fare much better: the Journalist Alliance of Jayapura recorded 38 cases of intimidation and violence between 2013 and 2014. Which brings Wenda to the work he’s doing now: “We got out, and are trying to educate the world in this region to understand about our struggle.” He leads the United Liberation Movement of West Papua, an umbrella group for the previously splintered resistance, which was formed in 2014.
He believes that momentum is on his side. The International Parliamentarians for West Papua (IPWP) now has signatories from countries as diverse as New Zealand, Scotland, and the Czech Republic; nine more, across four parties, were added this week after Wenda met with New Zealand MPs. Earlier this year, seven Pacific nations—Tonga, Nauru, Palau, Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands, the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu—called on the United Nations’ Human Rights Council to investigate the allegations of widespread abuses in West Papua.
Wenda wants to bring his nation back into the Pacific family, and this is what brought him to Aotearoa. That evening, he was welcomed onto Ōrākei Marae by Ngāti Whātua, where much of the talk was of the iwi’s own proud resistance to colonisation and its position at the forefront of Pacific solidarity. Wi Popata, one of those who welcomed Wenda on behalf of Ngāti Whātua, told me later: “The Pacific needs to unite on this. Our own Maori people need to unite on this as well. This is a big kaupapa, this is a big thing for our brothers and sisters over in West Papua.
“It’s a challenge for our own people to get out of our comfort zone, to get out of our settlement thinking and to start helping these people out from West Papua.
“It’s a challenge for our own people to get out of our comfort zone, to get out of our settlement thinking and to start helping these people out from West Papua. If we need to organise another hikoi, we’ll do that; if we need to march up Queen Street, let’s do that too.”
Green MP Catherine Delahunty, an IPWP signatory and a long-time supporter of West Papua’s bid for freedom, was also in attendance. She said it was time New Zealanders shed their ignorance of this issue. “It’s very much time Kiwis stopped seeing the Pacific as a playground and started recognising real conditions in life. This one is the most serious genocide, the most serious human rights abuse, that’s been going on since the late 60s in our region. Every citizen of this country needs to know about it so we can pressure our government into taking action.”
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs told VICE the head of the Ministry’s regional division dealing with Indonesia relations met with Mr Wenda during his visit to discuss the human rights situation in Papua.
“Successive New Zealand governments have recognised Papua as a part of Indonesia. New Zealand actively seeks out information about the human rights situation in Papua, including through diplomatic visits, and has raised human rights issues directly with Indonesia and in international forums including the United Nations Universal Periodic Review process.”
Wenda himself, when it was time for him to speak, said being on the marae felt like coming home. Of course, it’s been a long time since he’s been to his real home, but before he escaped, he made himself a promise: “Today I am leaving with tears, but one day I will come back and I will smile. I promised to my land, my people, my forest, my mountain.”