Ben Bohane Journalist
February 24, 2023 — 7.00pm
“Wah Wah Wah!” came the jungle cry as I watched dozens of OPM (Free West Papua) guerrillas stream down mountain ravines towards our village, adorned in cassowary feathers, smeared in pig fat (to stay warm in the mountain air) and armed with bows and arrows.
They descended for an independence flag-raising ceremony and pig feast in Mapenduma village, in the Nduga highlands of West Papua. They had come to hear speeches from their commanders, including Daniel Kogeya and to meet me, the first journalist to ever venture there.
Nearly 30 years ago, I reported for this masthead on their struggle for independence which had many of the characteristics of neighbouring East Timor’s quest, but none of the publicity. Today their situation remains much the same: a long-running guerrilla war, an estimated 200,000 dead since Indonesia’s invasion in 1963, plus tens of thousands of refugees both internally displaced and along the Papua New Guinea border. Forgotten.
West Papua remains the most significant war in our immediate region, yet few hear about it. That’s because Indonesia forbids all foreign media from visiting, or any INGOs from operating there. It continues to target local journalists. In fact, across the entire Asia Pacific region there is only one other place so deliberately cut off from the world – North Korea. The war undermines Indonesian claims of support for democracy and a free press, while also highlighting the hypocrisy of Australia’s claims to support peace and the “Pacific family” in our region.
Australia continues to back Indonesian forces there. Yet for all the new concentration on Australia’s defence, the only war in our actual neighbourhood is never mentioned in “white papers” or “defence reviews”. Why? It’s the only real war in the Pacific that continues at a time everyone is focused on China.
In late 1995, it was Commander Daniel Kogeya and his men who took seven Europeans hostage some weeks after I left them. An Indonesian special forces operation intervened after three months. While the Europeans were rescued, two Indonesian students – who got caught up in the stand-off – were shot and killed. Afterwards, many villagers were murdered in payback by Indonesian forces.
Kogeya was eventually captured, tortured and killed by Indonesian forces. But his movement continues with the OPM Central Command in the mountains above Freeport mine and is responsible for the latest kidnapping of New Zealand pilot Phillip Mehrtens.
The pilot, who has flown for Jetstar and other airlines in Indonesia and Hong Kong, is reportedly unharmed, but there are risks if Indonesian forces attack his OPM captors like they did in 1996. Amid negotiations, the New Zealand government has intervened to stop one Indonesian rescue operation, fearing a violent outcome, perhaps with the 1996 situation in mind. West Papuan leader Benny Wenda has called for his release and blames the situation on Indonesia continuing to block a visit by the UN Human Rights Commissioner for the past three years.
While international attention has focused on the pilot, another “kidnapping” last month went largely unreported: the arrest of West Papua’s Governor Lukas Enembe.
Kidnapping can never be condoned, but context is important. In a region completely cut off from international media and scrutiny, West Papuans have few avenues to publicise their struggle. This is another desperate cry for international intervention since the UN and regional powers have failed them. The UN bears much responsibility since its fraudulent Act of Free Choice in 1969 officially handed West Papua to Indonesia.
More than 50 years later, it appears we can never offend Indonesia even as its military operates with impunity in West Papua. Why are we forging closer defence ties with Indonesia, which maintains strong military and security links with Russia, attacks regional interests and undermines our Pacific “step up”?
Locals believe Indonesia was most likely behind a massive cyberattack on Vanuatu recently which brought down the entire government’s intranet, paralysing its ability to function online for six weeks. This was the most serious cyberattack on any Pacific nation so far and feels like an “Estonia moment” – when that Baltic country became the first nation to come under a sustained cyberattack, by Russia.
For decades Jakarta, Washington and Canberra have been complicit in the greatest injustice found in our immediate region – allowing Indonesia to continue its brutal occupation of West Papua unhindered so as to profit from its considerable resources, mainly by US-owned Freeport which operates the world’s largest gold mine there.
In the end, American corporate interests in West Papua should not be allowed to trump legitimate Australian and Pacific security interests at a time when building a regional Pacific alliance to counter China (and Russia) is the main game. Indonesia seems not to have got the memo and does not appreciate how much criticism Australia gets in Melanesia because of its appeasement of Indonesian aggression. Thus, Pacific nations seek to minimise Indonesian influence while welcoming Chinese engagement.
At a time Australia is pushing its climate change credentials, it seems unconcerned the most significant ecocide going on in our region is the destruction of West Papuan rainforests by oil-palm conglomerates. This is happening in the second-largest wilderness area in the world after the Amazon basin.
Just across the sea from us, 4 million West Papuans remain hostages to war, greed and timid diplomacy. No-one comes out of this long-running tragedy looking good; not Indonesia, not the UN, America, Australia or the paralysed Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG), supposed to represent Melanesian interests.
Some see West Papua as “the Ukraine of the Pacific”. So it’s ironic that Australia is helping faraway Ukraine but not the one next door to us whose struggle is equally justified and ultimately more consequential for us.
In West Papua, we remain on the wrong side of history, and humanity.
Ben Bohane is a Vanuatu-based photojournalist and producer who has reported the Pacific since 1994. He is co-founder of the Australian war photography collective DegreeSouth.