The legacy of European colonialism continues to loom large and there are many regions of the world where indigenous people still face hardship, violence and, in some cases, genocide. One such region is West Papua, a former Dutch colony taken over by Indonesia through an international agreement brokered by the United States and United Nations back in 1963. 

Since then, the Free West Papua Campaign estimates that over 500,000 civilians have been killed by Indonesian state agencies, with thousands more tortured, raped, and imprisoned. The Indonesian government has banned foreign media, NGOs, and human rights groups from operating within West Papua, greatly reducing international awareness of what is going on in the region.

The Free West Papua Campaign, based in the United Kingdom, seeks to draw international attention to the plight of West Papua and to encourage international investigations into the abuses which continue to take place there. The Campaign also pushes to give West Papua its own internationally supervised independence referendum.

Last month, Lyndsey Croal spoke to Benny Wenda, the West Papuan Independence leader, founder of the Free West Papua Campaign, and International Spokesman for the United Liberation Movement of West Papua. Wenda is currently living in exile in Oxford. In 2002, he was arrested and detained by the Indonesian government who maintained that he encouraged an attack on a police post, allegations that Wenda strongly denies. He escaped detention and subsequently came to the UK where he was granted asylum in 2003. Soon after, he started the Free West Papua campaign and he hopes that one day, he and his family can return to an independent West Papua.

In this interview, Benny Wenda talks about the current situation in West Papua, the campaign, and his future hopes for his country, his people and his own family.

Q: Can you tell our readers a little about what is happening in West Papua right now?

The situation in West Papua is worse than ever, since 2014 when the current president came into power. Now, West Papua is mostly becoming a killing field, committed by the Indonesian military. This is happening in the same region since 2014, in Paniai region, where most of the violence is happening. Just recently, on the 1st August, woman and children were being killed and 16 people were wounded badly, four of them critical. So, this is what is happening in West Papua: the human rights situation is getting worse and worse while I’m speaking.

Q: Given the international media blackout, how well is local media communicating details of the situation?

There has been a media blackout for fifty years now, with Indonesia banning international journalists, including networks such as BBC, ABC, or Fox News. If journalists do get in sometimes they are arrested, for example, a few years ago a French journalist was in West Papua, which I tried to organise, and they caught up with him and arrested him for four or five months in prison. Indonesia is very clever in their public relations for the western world, particularly in the UK, America or Australia. They claim they allow journalists into the country but the reality is that they don’t. In West Papua, local journalists are being killed, and they cannot tell the truth. But at least there is one local media outlet called Jubi, which is run by Papuan people. They are often arrested and face intimidation under gun point, and have at times sacrificed their lives to tell the world West Papua’s story.

“The Indonesian military can decide what news to tell and what news not to tell; they censor everything.”

But most of all the Indonesian media is just a propaganda culture. The Indonesian military can decide what news to tell and what news not to tell; they censor everything. Luckily, we also have social media and I think that it can make a huge difference for journalists for raising awareness. So sometimes independent journalists pick up the West Papua issue internationally.

Q: How did the Free West Papua Campaign come about?

The West Papua struggle has been going on for nearly 56 years now and no one knows much about it, particularly in Europe or the UK. When I came here I thought people would know about our struggle, because British people are open minded. So, I thought surely, they will know. But when I tell our story they don’t know. They say, ‘Where is West Papua’ and they all just say ‘Papua New Guinea,’ because that is the British colony, so they know Papua New Guinea but West Papua is unknown.

I formed the Free West Papua campaign here in Oxford in 2004 to educate the ordinary people in the UK about our struggle and then across international borders in West Papua, Australia, New Zealand and in some other parts of Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean. Since then the West Papua issue has become an international issue and that’s why without friends in England and Scotland to support this campaign, we would not have come this far. I have spent hours in Scottish Parliament launching the International Parliamentarian for West Papua, supported by Aileen Campbell. So, we are just trying to highlight this critical issue and I think since then there has been a lot of development throughout the world so that is what Free West Papua stands for: to educate the world to understand our struggle, and that is why we have growing support around the world now.

Campaigners hold a demonstration at the launch of the Pan-Pacific solidarity movement for West Papua in London in 2015. Image: Free West Papua Campaign

Q: I understand the UK has given you asylum since 2003. How did it come about that you came to the UK?

When I decided to come to the UK, many people asked me why I was not seeking asylum in the Pacific, in Australia or New Zealand. There were two reasons. The first reason is that I knew they would understand me because they are open minded. Britain have colonised half of the world and they have given independence, including to some of the countries in the Pacific: Vanuatu, Solomon, Papua New Guinea and Fiji. As West Papua is also part of Melanesia, that’s why I decided to come to the UK as they would understand West Papua’s struggle against colonialism.

Secondly, I have a friend called Mike Utsky . He went to West Papua when he was 21 years old. That was when we met. When he left, I was arrested and so he began to campaign here in the UK. That’s partly why I decided to come to the UK. Eventually the British government allowed me to stay in this country and I think that the freedom I have enjoyed has helped me to educate the world about West Papua. Though my heart is with my people, so I will go back to where I came from.

Q: Why do you think it is so important that West Papua be offered a referendum on its independence?

In 1969, Indonesia and the big powers, including Britain, called a vote. They called it the Act of Free Choice. We in West Papuan call it the Act of No Choice. We call it this, because out of a population of 1 million people, only one in twenty were handpicked and were forced to choose Indonesian rule. This didn’t happen under international law which guarantees ‘one person one vote’. They just rounded up all the elders and forced them to vote.

In fact, the United Nations (UN) was directly involved. This is an island we are talking about, the second biggest island in the world after Greenland. Despite its size, just six officials and sixteen helpers were sent from the UN to West Papua. That referendum we always call a fraud, despite the UN’s involvement.

Therefore, we are campaigning for another referendum, another chance to allow the West Papuan people the chance to choose their own destiny. What happened previously is fraud because of the Cold War and they were just trying to sweep away the West Papua issue. That is why we are now campaigning for another referendum. There are strong historical grounds – and politically and legally, we are in a strong position. We are demanding that Indonesia and the United Nations allow West Papua to choose its own destiny. To support this, we are also running the ‘Swim for West Papua’ movement, a 69km swim from Lake Geneva to highlight and deliver the petition to the Human Rights Council and the United Nations.

Q: Given the growing success of the campaign and what you hope to achieve from the petition, what are your goals going forward for West Papua and what are your long term hopes for its people?

The Free West Papua campaign is the main organisation that highlights our campaign for self-determination. But we also have a bigger organisation called United Liberation Movement of West Papua (ULMWP), which brings together all the factions in West Papua with the outside world. ULMWP has a Secretary General and three executive members. We are united.

So, our first goal is independence; we want political independence from the Indonesian government. That is the aim of this campaign, the aim of this fight. This issue is not just a West Papua issue, but is an international issue because there was international involvement in the first place. So, we have to alert the world and the UN must correct what went wrong before, because what went wrong is part of the UN’s own history. West Papua was violated under international law. The country respects international law, but the West Papua case is a cover up, and so we need international solidarity to move to support our campaign for the right to self-determination. We have also launched the call for an internationally supervised vote in the UK parliament, which has been endorsed by all the MPs and some of the Pacific leaders, including the Prime Minister of Tonga. The Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has also endorsed this, so it’s getting there.

Q: I understand your children are growing up in the UK as well. Do you hope that you can all go back one day to an independent West Papua?

Yes, that’s our dream, and I always try to be as honest as possible to my people. I always say that we are here on a mission, we are not here seeking a better life; and they understand. Before my children are grown up I need to tell them why we are here. I don’t want to hide that; we are here on a mission, we are not here looking for a better life, a good life, a good car or whatever. I hope they will understand this.

Benny and his family play traditional West Papuan music as the Lani Singers. Image: Free West Papua Campaign

Q: Has the international community been attentive enough to West Papua’s situation?

With the international community, now seven countries are officially supporting the ULM in the Pacific: Vanuatu; the Solomon Islands; Tonga; Tuvalu; Nauru; Palau; and the Marshall Islands. Those countries are supporting West Papua to bring attention to the UN and to give West Papua another chance to vote. There are also solidarity groups across the Pacific, in Australia and New Zealand, for example, because this is a regional issue.

I am really confident that this situation will be changed very soon. That’s why Indonesia is undertaking an aggressive military operation; West Papua is becoming a war zone because the Indonesian government is trying to pressurise people to keep the silence.

I say fifty years is enough: you keep my people in a prison like slaves, and so now my people are bravely coming out on the streets because they see the world is changing. The new generation is picking up on Facebook and Twitter. I think that is why we are confident.

Q: As well as the international community, I understand there was some criticism of Interpol’s actions some years back, relating to your call for arrest by Indonesian authorities? With your name being put on Interpol’s list and then removed?

You are fighting a big powerful military, just one person cannot win, they will try to stop it in many ways. When Interpol put this list out, I thought I’m in the UK, I’m free, but Indonesia tried to chase me everywhere we go, and partly they try to limit my movement because they know when I’m allowed to stay in this country I have more freedom. That’s worrying to them because I travel a lot in Africa and Caribbean. This was the only way to try to stop me crossing borders to other countries. But because this action was politically motivated, a British lawyer, Australian Lawyer and Fair Trial International helped fight to remove my name. The Indonesian argument was just political motivation and so Interpol secretariat erased it. Now I’m free to travel again.

Q: How does the Indonesian government justify its actions in West Papua?

What they are doing now is they are trying to convince the world that they are bringing development and infrastructure to the region. This is because the political and legal arguments are lost. But they cannot convince Papuans and the rest of the world.

“People in West Papua are not crying out for development, bridges or infrastructure; they are crying for their justice and freedom.”

You cannot bring development, or build a historical building for example, under the suffering of the people, while you are killing the people and while you are destroying the environment, our forests, and our mountains. People in West Papua are not crying out for development, bridges or infrastructure; they are crying for their justice and freedom. They don’t want their lands ruined, their forests cut, their mountains destroyed. The people of West Papua are asking me to tell the world: we want freedom; we want to free our land. And when we are free, we will welcome everyone. Just now, whilst Indonesia is killing us, while they rape and torture us, we are not safe. That is the message we have from West Papua.

Q: You have called the events in West Papua a genocide. Why do you think it’s appropriate to use that term?

I think maybe under international law some experts on genocide prevention may say that this not appropriate. But as the killing is increasing, the term ‘genocide’ is important, because I am a campaigner, so I’m right to defend my people in terms of this humanitarian crisis. Indonesia have been killing since 1963 until today. Yes, Amnesty International estimate 100,000 deaths, but from work from independent investigators from the Church and from our own side, we know that there have been more deaths than what Amnesty international are saying. Some evidence is that my own family are not listed in the Amnesty investigation. No one investigated my village because Indonesia prevented an independent investigation. Also, Juan Mendez, a specialist from the UN department on genocide prevention, estimated about ten years ago that West Papua is among other countries that risk extinction. So, I think genocide is the right way to describe it. The official figure from Amnesty is 100,000. I say 500,000. That is the figure that evidence shows from the increasing of everyday killing, and from the fact that my own family is not listed. If Indonesia claim that I am wrong, then they would be brave enough to allow an independent investigation or a UN human rights fact-finding mission to West Papua.

“People who love nature, animals, the environment and human rights, please get involved to save West Papua and then we can work together. I want West Papua to be an example to the world that we need to protect this planet. We are still one planet, we are one family; only our colour is different. We need to help one another. That is my message.”

Q: Why should people support your campaign and what can they do to support it?

I think people around the world and solidarity groups should support West Papua, because West Papua is unique. This is the last frontier. I think people will be proud because West Papua is not fighting to overthrow the power. This is fighting from one colonial power to a second colonial power; it is purely colonialism, racism, and discrimination. I know that British people do not accept colonialism, imperialism, or racism, and that is why they understand more than anybody. Therefore, it is very important, and new generations will be proud one day when West Papua are independent, like with the South Africa apartheid movement. Like Jeremy Corbyn, I saw a picture when he was a young man involved, and he is now proud to have been part of that apartheid movement. I think this is a twenty-first century struggle, so I believe anyone that supports West Papua will be proud to be part of this movement.

Also, West Papua is a very special country. There are for example birds of paradise, wildlife, and species in West Papua that are unique; you cannot find them anywhere else on the planet. West Papua also has the second biggest forest reserve. People who love nature, animals, the environment and human rights, please get involved to save West Papua and then we can work together. I want West Papua to be an example to the world that we need to protect this planet. We are still one planet, we are one family; only our colour is different. We need to help one another. That is my message.

In August, a grassroots movement of the Free West Papua Campaign, Swim for West Papua, sent six young swimmers across 69km of Lake Geneva, to deliver the petition to the United Nations, calling for an internationally supervised vote for West Papua.

Thank you to Benny and Kate Gething-Lewis from the Free West Papua Campaign, for facilitating this interview.

 Feature image: Benny Wenda in traditional West Papuan clothing giving a speech during his ‘Freedom Tour’ in 2013. Thank you to the Free West Papua Campaign for sharing images used in this article with CABLE.