In Conversation with Benny Wenda

Over the course of the last decade, Benny Wenda has emerged as the increasingly confident voice of West Papuan independence. Twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, he has worked from exile in the UK to organise and legitimise the struggle of indigenous West Papuans.

We spoke to Benny Wenda via Skype on October 7, while preparing an analysis for the Lowy Interpreter, which was published nine days later.

Mr Wenda speaks several languages. English is far from his first. In order to ensure clarity on the page, some of his grammar and usage has been corrected, but every effort has been made to retain the intent and nuance of what he said.

Dan McGarry: Over the last year and a half, there’s been an increase in the amount of popular uprising, and also in the level of violent confrontation, both by Indonesia security forces and in some cases by armed militants, who presumably are supporting the cause of independence. Can you tell me first of all what your sense is of where things are at right now, and where you think they’re going to go over the next year or two.

Benny Wenda: Thank you Dan. I think it’s very important. What’s happening on the ground now, the situation, over the last year is worse and worse—the worst in our history. The uprising is across Indonesia, it’s across West Papua. People are coming together because for the last 50 years people have been silenced. The [recent racism] has been a spark for 50 years of sentiment. Since then, everybody has been united in one spirit. Even civil servants in the Indonesian government. Because they called us monkeys.

‘Monkey’ – that’s not only West Papua, but across Melanesia. Because they’re black.

That sentiment has led more people to unite. And I think that Indonesia is scared. They’re scared that we’re united, and we’re politically united too, under the ULMWP. That’s never happened before.

That’s why Indonesia is also increasing its military deployment in West Papua. It’s almost doubled—doubled. It’s 16,000 troops last years, and now more. One particular deployment in the highlands is because of the West Papuan Army. Over the last two years, the armed groups have united themselves into the West Papuan Army. They are trying to unify themselves to show the world that we are unified, they’re fighters, not criminal groups as stigmatised.

But Indonesia has also used military force. They want to divide and conquer. That’s their colonial power, imposed over the last 50 years.

So this is why West Papuan people are coming out in demonstrations everywhere.

Seven West Papuan leaders were arrested last year.  They sent them to Kalimantan. That caused widespread sentiment among Indonesian citizens.

[Human rights advocate] Veronica Koman is now in exile in Australia just because she was speaking out the human rights situation.

Surya Anta was arrested just because of peaceful demonstrations.

This is a time bomb. Indonesia cannot hide this issue under the carpet. This is becoming an international issue. It’s across Melanesia and the Pacific and it’s also international.

In 2000, we began to lobby the Pacific Islands Forum, but because we were many factions, the PIF never recognised our agenda. But since we’re united under the ULMWP, they recognised us and adopted a resolution [asking UNHRC to arrange a fact-finding visit to West Papua]. So we know for sure that the Pacific leaders are listening to our cry for justice and freedom for the people of West Papua.

DM: It was noted at one point [in the 2019 PIF Communique] that the government of Indonesia had agreed to allow the UN Human Rights Commission to visit West Papua. To your knowledge, has that ever happened?

BW: No. They announced in the papers that it would, but it’s never happened.

DM: Why do you think that is?

BW: I think Indonesia is worried that as soon as the UNHCR visits West Papua—there have been a lot of human rights violations from the 1960s up to now, and they’ve been covered up. So they’re really worried that as soon as the UNHCR comes to West Papua, people will tell them the truth.

Telling the truth. That’s their worry.

DM: You talked about how some of these fighting forces have coalesced into… what did you call it, the West Papuan Army? Is that correct?

BW: Yes.

DM: Does the ULMWP then support this armed conflict in West Papua?

BW: Before there were different factions, three factions. But it was very difficult to consult, because geographically, it’s very difficult to communicate.

In Timika, sometimes they* create violence and they blame the West Papuan Army. We don’t know all the groups other than the West Papuan Army.

[*Wenda later expanded, saying the ‘they’ he was referring to here might well have been Indonesia security forces engaged in a so-called ‘false flag’ operation.]

But we want everyone united to peacefully engage with the international community and the Indonesian government. Particularly, I’m calling for the President of Indonesia to agree with me to holding a referendum to allow a peaceful transition. Just like the FLNKS with the French government, you know? The Noumea Accord, you know? They agreed to that kind of international agreement. And also the Bougainvillean and Papua New Guinean government.

This has never happened. There was one bill in the 1960s, the Autonomy Bill, and a second Bill from 2001 up to now. But they just impose what Indonesia wants. They’re not listening.

DM: Do you think that more armed conflict is inevitable, or is there a peaceful path to independence?

BW: I think the armed conflict is… you know, they’re a Home Guard. There’s nowhere to go, and they just defend their land. Defend their right to survive. Because Indonesia occupied their territory. Almost the entire population is controlled by the Indonesian Military. So they have a right to defend themselves. That’s their homeland. But what the ULMWP are leading toward is a peaceful solution. We are demanding that the Indonesian government resolve this peacefully. This is why we are bringing the case to the UN to review it. Because the UN was involved in the first place, and big powers like Australia, America, Britain and some other European countries are involved in [giving away] our right to self-determination. Under international law, our case is still active.

That’s why Indonesia is getting worried. When we get to that point, they worry, because they lose the political argument, the legal argument. That’s all lost. The only argument they’re holding onto now is autonomy, and also development.

But you cannot build development on top of suffering.

That’s why the people of West Papua are not demanding autonomy or development. They just want freedom.

To be free to leave. To go to their garden, to go fishing, just like the Melanesia way of life.

DM: So nothing short of independence is going to be sufficient in the eyes of the ULMWP?

BW: I’m pretty sure… I’m confident that something might happen. People power—my people in West Papua, they’re confidently coming out because their voices are being heard by the ACP, 79 countries plus the Pacific leaders already hear their voice. And I think that gives them confidence.

Now we’re members of the MSG, as observers. Indonesia is an associate member. This is one example that I want to tell you today. Indonesia is sitting in the Melanesian Spearhead Group, and we are sitting engaged, face to face. And I know that Melanesian leaders want to give them advice to find a solution. But [Indonesia] are not. They are making the problem worse.

We are always there. We have the opportunity to speak there. They also speak there, and show their colonial attitude toward us. But that is weakness. There are five countries in the room. But Indonesia is not trying to reach a solution. They’re trying to wipe out our Melanesian population.

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