By Rupert Read
The Pacific Island of New Guinea must have seemed a long way from home last Monday night as West Papuan tribal leader, Benny Wenda, made his way through the fog to UEA, to speak about his people's struggle for independence from Indonesia. I was fortunate enough to be in the audience of 60 or so people, that night. It was a moving experience.
Just two years ago Benny was a political prisoner in the hands of the brutal Indonesian military, held in solitary confinement for weeks in a prison toilet with his hands and feet shackled. (After the talk, in the bar, Benny showed me the deep scars on his legs and wrists, that he bears as a result.) Benny's 'crime' was that he is a leader of the peaceful campaign for West Papua's freedom. For that, Indonesia sentenced him to 25 years in jail.
Now, after escaping from prison and spending months trekking through the jungle to eventual safety in neighbouring Papua New Guinea, Benny is living in political exile in Oxford. "I am a long way from home" Benny said to me, "but my heart is still with my people. I am carrying the bones of all Papuans killed by Indonesia on my shoulders."
One of the things that really struck me about Benny's story, as having relevance to us all, is how, when he arrived at Heathrow, Benny was ... an asylum seeker. After coming face to face with an asylum seeker, and one who almost ended up being sent straight back to Indonesia, I cannot abide any more the frequent claims in the press here that we must stop the 'flood' of asylum seekers, of refugees, into this country. Those people who would 'send asylum seekers back' would have sent my new friend Benny to his death.
Having managed to find refuge in Oxford, Benny has gathered a team of activists around him and set up the Free West Papua Campaign. For the first time in his life he can speak openly about the terrible suffering the Papuan people have endured under Indonesian rule and about their yearning for independence.
Indonesia occupied West Papua 42 years ago when the Dutch pulled out. Under a 1962 Netherlands / Indonesia treaty, the Papuans were promised an act of self-determination involving "all adult" Papuans, to choose between independence or being part of Indonesia. Indeed, December 1st 1961 was supposed to have been Independence day for West Papua. Next Thursday is its 43rd anniversary. But the West Papuans are still not independent...
For what actually eventually happened, in 1969, cruelly called the "Act of Free Choice", was neither free nor a choice. Indonesia hand-picked 1,025 Papuans out of a population of 800,000 and forced them at gun-point to vote to become part of Indonesia.
Since the 1960s the Indonesian military has slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Papuans, sometimes using British-made LandRovers and Hawk jets in the process. Most of Benny's family were killed when his village was bombed in 1977. "I saw the river flowing red with the blood of my people" said Benny, to the audience at UEA. "My mother held on to me as she ran for her life into the jungle. For the next four years we lived in the jungle to avoid being captured by Indonesian soldiers. I saw hundreds of my people die because we had no proper food and shelter. We didn't even have time to bury their bodies."
After seeing all this, Benny had no option but to become a peaceful campaigner for independence.
Benny explained to me later, in more detail, what exactly the story behind the Indonesian seizure of West Papua was: "Indonesia wants our gold, copper, oil and timber... but not us people", he said. "We are simply not respected as human beings. Even though Indonesia claims it is a democracy, hundreds of Papuans are imprisoned as political prisoners simply because they want freedom. Right now, thousands of my people are starving as refugees in the jungle ... simply because they are Papuans."
At the Monday night meeting organised by the UEA Greens' student group, Benny passed on some more bad news he has just heard from back home. Last Saturday (19th November) the Indonesian police baton-charged a peaceful pro-independence demonstration in the West Papuan capital Jayapura, leaving 21 students critically injured in hospital.
Indonesia is a key British ally in the so-called 'War on Terror'. But in places like West Papua, the 'War on Terror' is really a war of terror...
If you want to help stop the genocide in West Papua, then go to www.freewestpapua.org
Many thanks to Richard Samuelson, and of course to Benny Wenda, for vital help in researching this article.