Leon Langdon – In December 2020, Benny Wenda told TIME Magazine, "I'm on a mission. I'll finish my mission and then I will rest." Wenda, an activist for Papuan independence, was declared president of the Provisional Government of West Papua in a statement released by the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) on December 1. Wenda was appointed president in exile by a secret congress, on the anniversary of West Papua's declaration of independence in 1961.
Benny Wenda has been a fierce advocate for the West Papuan cause. He was jailed in Indonesia on charges related to his activities in pursuit of West Papuan independence, but fled prison in 2002. He was charged with inciting an attack on a police station – a charge he denies. He was granted political asylum in the United Kingdom in 2003. Interpol issued a red notice for his arrest at the request of the Indonesian government, but this was rescinded in 2012, on the grounds that it was politically motivated. In 2020, the widespread Black Lives Matter protests inspired the "Papuan Lives Matter" campaign, which saw Wenda speak at protests in the U.K. Without a doubt, he is a fierce and unrelenting advocate for his people.
Why is it, then, that the proclamation of his presidency has been met with marked skepticism within West Papua?
The Free Papua Movement's military faction, the TPNPB, and the West Papua National Committee (KNPB), the movement's civilian campaign, have rejected Wenda's presidency and the government-in-waiting that has been proclaimed in the U.K. Sebby Sambon, spokesperson for the TPNPB, listed many reasons why Wenda's claim to the presidency was illegitimate. The fact that West Papuans had no say in the matter, that Wenda is outside of the territory of the revolution, and that he is no longer an Indonesian citizen were among them. Sebby also said that Wenda was working for capitalist interests, namely the governments of Australia and the United States. Warpo Sampari Wetipo of the KNPB has echoed Sebby's rejection, saying that the declaration could undermine the unity of Papuans.
This laundry list of reasons given by both major factions on the ground in West Papua highlight the contempt with which they now view Wenda, once their spiritual leader, and the disconnect between factions that were once aligned.
The ULMWP had risen to prominence as the main political actor in the region, and in 2014 the TPNPB and KNPB came under the umbrella of the ULMWP. However, as violence swept the region once more, both were alienated by Wenda and the ULMWP. The membership of the TPNPB and KNPB tends to be younger than that of the ULMWP. This generational disconnect is significant for a number of reasons. Violence in West Papua has been on a significant upward trajectory in recent months and years, with the United Nations human rights office making its concern known.
Much of this is driven by the construction of the Trans-Papua Highway. This massive piece of infrastructure is ripping through the heart of West Papua, endangering vital rainforests and bringing mining interests and agribusiness into the backyard of indigenous West Papuans. The construction of the highway has been attended by an escalation in violence, which has seen Indonesia deploy troops and chemical weapons along what has been termed West Papua's "highway of blood." In December 2018, at least 19 construction workers were killed by members of the TPNPB while working on the highway. This highway is a source of massive strife for those in West Papua, and since Wenda has not been in the country since long before its construction began, it is no wonder that people find it difficult to identify with him.
Wenda's December 2020 announcement led to the TPNPN clarifying that they have not been working with Wenda since 2017, due to their difference in principles. Sebby Sambon criticized Wenda's receipt of a 2019 award from the Oxford City Council for his work, saying it would be better given to those fighting within the country.
Wenda has the credentials of an activist, but his time to lead his people seems to have passed. He is viewed as a figure who is sowing discontent from afar, which could only lead to further reprisals by the Indonesian Army. The declaration of a government-in-exile, with Wenda at the helm, risks alienating Papuans on the ground. Moreover, where Wenda does have influence, with other countries, it is at risk of being undermined. Wenda has spoken to governments around the world. In November 2020, he addressed the Dutch Foreign Affairs Committee, which led to the Netherlands calling for U.N. involvement in West Papua. The declaration of the presidency has led to such backlash within West Papua, that other countries may no longer view him as a legitimate spokesperson of his people. Wenda's best contributions to West Papuan independence may have been undermined by his desire to lead his people.
[Leon Langdon is a graduate of Law with Politics from University College Dublin. He is an incoming Master's student in International Relations at New York University, and he is also a George Moore Scholar. His research interests include Asian politics, conflict resolution, and environmental security. His work has appeared in the Oxford Political Review and on TheLatest.com.]