Benny Wenda addressing public forum in Sydney. May 24.
West Papuan independence leader Benny Wenda has been touring Australia, spreading awareness of the West Papuan struggle for freedom from Indonesian rule.
The tour of Wenda, the spokesperson for the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, comes ahead of a meeting of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) in Port Moresby, where an application for full membership to the group for the ULMWP will be considered.
Wenda spoke at a public meeting organised by Green Left Weekly in Sydney on May 24. He told the meeting: “Australia is a very close neighbour [but] nobody knows what [is] really happening, what [is] really going on.
“My trip is about breaking silence.
“People of West Papua cry for justice, for their environment, for their nature, for their human rights for 50 years … This fight to preserve our culture, our identity, who we are, our nature, our forest, our mountain.”
West Papua had been a Dutch colony from the 19th century until occupied by Indonesia in 1963. The territory was formally incorporated into Indonesia in the 1969 Act of Free Choice — a referendum in which only 1026 hand-picked people were allowed to vote.
Wenda told the audience about his personal awakening to the brutality of the Indonesian occupation. When he was a young boy, he watched as Indonesian soldiers raped and beat his mother and two aunts, aged 14 and 16. Wenda's aunts died from the trauma of the attack.
“I couldn't do anything at the time, just cry for my mum and my aunties … So that my sentiment [growing up was] to fight this. I don't want another girl to be raped,” said Wenda.
Rapes and random beatings were not the only abuses Wenda witnessed. “In 1999, my people chose me to become a tribal leader, and then I see it around me: Indonesian military logging. Logging is big business in West Papua, run by the Indonesian intelligence and military, not ordinary people.”
Wenda said people who try to protect their land against destructive logging and mining operations are labelled separatists. “You cannot defend your land, your forest … everything is run by Indonesian military, not the government.
“We know that Indonesia now calls itself a democratic country. But I don't know, maybe in other part of Indonesia ... West Papua is a militarised zone. They see West Papua as a colony so they can do whatever they like.”
Wenda said West Papua's forests are important in the fight against climate change. “We need to preserve all those forests [that] can protect this environment.”
Wenda singled out the Australian government's role in the occupation of West Papua, noting: “My uncle Mako Tabuni was killed by Detachment 88, trained by Australia.”
Tabuni was a leader of the National Committee for West Papua. Detachment 88 is an Indonesian counter-terrorism police unit funded by Australia and the United States.
“Our right to be free people [is] taken away by big power, supported by big powers like Australian government, Britain, America and European countries,” said Wenda.
Wenda celebrated a recent win for West Papua. At a meeting of the International Parliamentarians for West Papua in London on May 3, British Labour Party leader and IPWP co-founder Jeremy Corbyn said: “I want these issues to become central to our party's policies in the future and above all I want to see an end to environmental degradation and destruction and the right of people to be able to make their own choice on their own future.”
Wenda said: “Now we are calling on the international community to provide a vote. This is the highest agenda we are pushing.
“The root problem is what happened in 1969. The fact that [Corbyn] said this [should be] adopted as policy, that's great.”
But the outcome of an upcoming MSG meeting in Port Moresby to consider the ULMWP's membership is uncertain. Fiji and Papua New Guinea have tended to support Indonesia's membership in the group, and downplayed the significance of the ULMWP. In contrast, other MSG members such as Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and the Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front have supported the West Papuans' bid for recognition.
“It's an issue right here in the Pacific … ordinary people already own this issue and run it,” said Wenda. “But the government level, I understand the Fiji and PNG position.
“They're trying to rebalance their position because of diplomatic ties and trade. For me, I don't want to judge who is right, who is wrong [but at] the human level, they're embarrassed.
“But we belong to Melanesia and are entitled to full membership.”
Speaking about the challenges West Papua would face as an independent nation after liberation, Wenda said: “West Papua is a very rich country. How in the future can we stand on our own feet? I don't know, but we ready.
“Of course multinational companies are already there. First they need to understand our lifestyle. We're not really interested in the gold. The main thing they need to respect is our land, our sovereignty is our main issue.
“My people can decide what is good for them or bad for them, because they have seen it, many, many examples they have seen. It's always been all about money, about gold, about timber, about oil. We will really need all solidarity to help us to stabilise all this when West Papua is independent.”