An interview with Benny Wenda – Since Indonesia annexed West Papua, its people have faced brutal military repression while the US helps whitewash the occupation. But the country's freedom movement is pressing ahead with a unique liberation project based on ecological principles.
West Papua has the world's third-largest rainforest and is one of its most biodiverse areas, with an equally rich array of indigenous tribes and languages. It is also the site of a long but little-known struggle for self-determination. In the 1960s, West Papua exchanged one colonial occupier, the Netherlands, for another, Indonesia. Its people have been struggling against Indonesian rule ever since.
Amnesty International estimates that the Indonesian military has killed at least one hundred thousand West Papuans in that time; other estimates are even higher. West Papuans have suffered systematic racial discrimination and land theft. The global mining, palm oil, and logging corporations operating in their lands are wiping out irreplaceable natural habits. But a media blackout has kept the experience of West Papua largely concealed from the outside world.
As a child, Benny Wenda lived in a remote village among the Lani people who rebelled against Indonesian control in the 1970s, and he witnessed the brutal repression that followed, including sexual violence against his female relatives. While at university, Wenda began to learn about the suppressed history of his country and its culture and organized West Papua study groups. He became a leader of the West Papuan independence movement.
After being arrested on trumped-up charges in 2002, Wenda was tortured and held in solitary confinement. Facing a twenty-five-year prison sentence, he soon escaped and eventually received political asylum in the UK. Wenda is the leader of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP), established in 2014 to bring together the three main political organizations campaigning for West Papuan independence.
In 2017, the ULMWP presented a petition to the UN with 1.8 million West Papuan signatures – 70 percent of the population – calling for self-determination. In 2020, the movement announced it was establishing a provisional government for West Papua, with Wenda as the interim president.
Last year, the ULMWP launched its "Green State Vision" at the COP26 summit in Glasgow. It aspires for West Papua "to be the world's first Green state" by making ecocide a criminal offence and "serving notice" on all extraction companies operating in West Papua.
Ben Wray: Why did Dutch colonial rule not end for West Papua at the same time that it ended for Indonesia in 1949? How did West Papua come to be under Indonesian occupation by 1963?
Benny Wenda: Indonesia and West Papua were both Dutch colonies. After Indonesia became independent, the Dutch argued that West Papua was separate, that its people were different from those of Indonesia – culturally, linguistically, geographically. The Dutch held on to West Papua for over a decade after Indonesian independence. Then, in 1960, they prepared to give us independence. They formed the Dutch-New Guinea Council, and the West Papua flag was recognized.
Indonesia said: "No, the rest of the Dutch colony, including West Papua, is ours." But the Dutch kept saying that West Papua was separate. Then Indonesia's leaders used another strategy. This was the time of the Cold War, and they saw this as a chance to convince the Americans, the British, and other European countries.
They said: "If you don't give West Papua to us, we will join the other side in the Cold War," because communists had emerged as a major political force in Indonesia, so the big Western powers saw this as a threat. Indonesia successfully played this Cold War game to get Washington's backing for its claim over West Papua.
On August 15, 1962, in what is known as the New York Agreement, there was a secret deal between the United States, Indonesia, and the UN. Without any West Papuans being involved, they decided our future.
The deal was to transfer sovereignty to Indonesia and then hold a referendum on West Papua's future status by 1969, which was to be on the basis of one person, one vote.
However, what actually happened in 1969 was that Indonesia handpicked 1,022 people, put them in a room, and forced them to vote. Indonesia called it the "Act of Free Choice," but we call it the "Act of No Choice." Even a representative from the UN said that it was a whitewash. The UN never recognized the result, and it still doesn't today: in fact, the UN has said that it regrets being involved in the process.
That's why the legal argument to reclaim our territory is very strong. We were basically crucified for the sake of the interests of the global powers.
Ben Wray: In the 1970s and after, there was fierce West Papuan resistance to Indonesian control. Can you talk us through those years of resistance and Indonesian repression under Suharto's dictatorship?
Benny Wenda: It was like a nightmare. You couldn't say the words "West Papua" or even "Papua" – you just had to say "Irian Jaya," the term favored by the Indonesian authorities. In the Suharto era, we were totally isolated from the rest of the world. The media was totally banned from West Papua.
The legacy of the Suharto era still carries on to the present. Under Suharto, it was terrible, but honestly it is still terrible today, because Indonesia sees us as its colony and treats us that way.
Ben Wray: Suharto's dictatorship ended in 1998, and East Timor won independence from Indonesian rule in 1999. What prevented West Papua from following East Timor's example?
Benny Wenda: When Suharto resigned, East Timor became independent, and we too, in 2000, fought for our independence. It was called the Papuan Spring. Our flag, the Morning Star, was raised almost everywhere, and we appointed a leader called Theys Eluay: we had a congress to vote for him, and he was like our president in a way.
But Theys Eluay was killed in 2001. The Indonesian authorities arrested me in 2002, because I was the leader of the tribal assembly at the time. They wanted to kill me, so I escaped.
Every leader that emerged in West Papua was always killed. The Indonesian government offered us what it called "special autonomy" in 2001, and we were forced to accept it at gunpoint. But West Papuans still want independence.
Ben Wray: What is the reality on the ground today? Has the regime changed at all since you were imprisoned and tortured in 2002?
Benny Wenda: Between sixty thousand and a hundred thousand people have been displaced from their homes. Since the occupation began, almost 450,000 West Papuans have been killed in total, mainly women and children. Just the other day, three West Papuan students were arrested just for holding the Morning Star flag. Many West Papuans are held in Indonesian prisons. I think the situation has gotten worse and worse.
Ben Wray: The Indonesian government of Joko Widodo, in office since 2014, recently made headlines after introducing a law that banned sex outside marriage. Has the occupation of West Papua changed under Widodo's rule?
Benny Wenda: For us, every new Indonesian president brings no change. It's the same with Widodo. He has visited West Papua fifteen or twenty times, but nothing has changed. In fact, he has sent twenty-five thousand troops to the West Papua militarized zone.
The Indonesian government knows that West Papua is illegally occupied, but it won't let go because Indonesia is economically dependent on West Papuan resources. That's a key reason it holds West Papua by military force.
Ben Wray: The United States has maintained close relations with Indonesia since 1949, seemingly regardless of who was in power in Jakarta. Is US imperialism a block on West Papua's struggle for independence?
Benny Wenda: Yes, because the United States wanted to keep Indonesia on its side, because it was worried about the Cold War. Today, the emergence of China as a US competitor influences Washington's policy toward Indonesia and West Papua. The United States also wants to be on good terms with the Indonesian government to extract resources, because it benefits the American economy.
In addition, no one really knows about what is happening in West Papua. However, as people find out about it, the big powers will change their view. If you look at the Vietnam War or the South African struggle against apartheid, when ordinary people put pressure on their governments, they can change this situation.
Ben Wray: In the last few years, we have seen an increase in resistance to Indonesian rule within West Papua.
Benny Wenda: The West Papuan people, inside and outside West Papua, have been very strong in the last five years. They have been protesting and resisting peacefully. But the Indonesian authorities have responded with a crackdown through military force. When people are protesting on the streets, they use tear gas or kill them.
However, nobody reports on what is happening because of the media ban, so it's very difficult to bring it to the world's attention. Everyday there are protests on the streets. Religious pastors are being killed and churches are being burned down. The Indonesian military even shoots children, but because of the media ban, it can act with impunity. That is the biggest problem we are facing.
Ben Wray: West Papua's rainforest makes it very important for the whole world in preventing climate breakdown. At the recent COP27 summit, the governments of Indonesia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Brazil announced that they want to establish an "OPEC for rainforests". What did you think of that announcement?
Benny Wenda: It's a cover-up. Indonesia is directly destroying the rainforests. The idea of "OPEC for rainforests" is good PR for the country to be a global player. Even if it signs global agreements, for us, it's just a question of pretending to be doing something, because we know what is really happening to the environment in West Papua. I think this is an attempt at propaganda to counter our Green State Vision for West Papua.
Ben Wray: What sort of economy and society are you aspiring to create in West Papua with the Green State Vision?
Benny Wenda: What we want is a democratic society, just like any other country. But we believe in a form of democratic governance in the context of our beliefs, our customs, and our norms. This is a balance between Western-style democracy and our own beliefs and traditions. Key to this is a belief in peace and harmony with nature.
For us, everything is based on what we need. For example, if you want to build a house and a garden, everyone comes together to discuss "who does this land belong to?" etc. We discuss on the basis of our values and then we agree to build a garden to share. This already existed before Western-style democracy came to our world.
Nature – our rivers, our forests, our mountains – is connected to us, and we want to respect it. The people and businesses that come to our world need to respect our customs and laws. Before a company invests, they need to follow our Vision. We are not against them investing, but they need to respect our laws and the meaning of the Green State Vision.
Ben Wray: Six decades of Indonesian occupation have obviously changed West Papua. Almost half of the population of West Papua is now Indonesian. Are you concerned that over time, these changes will undermine the basis for a West Papuan state?
Benny Wenda: Absolutely, this is a threat. The Indonesian government has used resettlement programs to bring Indonesians to West Papua and grab the land. They want West Papuans to eventually become a minority that will be easy to control. That is why we are fighting hard now, through the protests, the campaigns, and the lobbying, and by winning the support of ordinary Indonesians, listening to us and supporting our struggle.
[Benny Wenda is the leader of the United Liberation Movement of West Papua. Ben Wray is the author, with Neil Davidson and James Foley, of Scotland After Britain: The Two Souls of Scottish Independence (Verso Books, 2022).]