The freedom struggle in West Papua: interview with solidarity activist/author Maire Leadbeater

Maire Leadbeater is a longtime anti-imperialist activist based in Auckland.  In recent years she has been particularly active in solidarity work with the cause of freedom in West Papua, which has been under vicious Indonesian occupation since the early 1960s.  Maire is also the author of the See No Evil: New Zealand’s betrayal of the people of West Papua, published last year by Otago University Press.  The book will be reviewed here on Redline shortly.

Philip Ferguson: Could you tell us about how and why you got interested in the cause of the people of West Papua New Guinea?

Pic: Radio NZ/Daniela Maoate-Cox

Maire Leadbeater:  In the 1980s there was a vibrant Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific movement that linked all the anti-colonial struggles in the region. West Papua was included but I did not really get active on the issue until after the liberation of East Timor in 1999. We East Timor activists used to be challenged sometimes – why are you not working on human rights issues in West Papua and Aceh?  So in 2000 some us did broaden the focus  to take in Aceh, West Papua and the pro-democracy movement in Indonesia. Aceh achieved a peace agreement in 2005.

PF: Your book on NZ and East Timor nailed successive NZ governments for collaboration with Indonesia in mass murder and repression in East Timor.  Now, you’ve done the same in relation to West Papua New Guinea.  Do you think the NZ state was at least somewhat discredited by their role in relation to ET and this has limited their ability to help screw over the Papuan cause, or have they pretty much got away with collaboration with Indonesian repression and downright butchery in West Papua New Guinea?

ML: Since the Suharto regime gained power in the mid 1960s, New Zealand has always prioritised its bilateral relationship with Indonesia over the defence of human rights and the right to self-determination.  You could say there was some exception to that just after the terrible aftermath of the referendum in East Timor in 1999 when NZ cut off defence ties and subsequently sent peacekeeping troops to East Timor.

Has New Zealand got away with it – so far yes, but perhaps our political leaders are a bit concerned about the growing movement here and in the Pacific.  Foreign Minister of Vanuatu, Ralph Regenvanu, has personally put our Foreign Minister on the spot this month.  Regenvanu  says  the crisis in West Papua is now so critical that the Pacific Islands Forum must step up with a strong resolution.  He says he is counting on New Zealand for support!

PF: Let’s also go back to the start.  When does the struggle in WPNG begin?  What drove it?

ML:  Well, there was an incipient anti-colonial movement in West Papua when the territory was still under the Dutch – the Koreri movement dates right back to 1854 and it is still intertwined with Papuan resistance to this day.

Turning to Indonesia- its nationalist movement led by Sukarno grew strong during the Second World War and there was a unilateral declaration of Indonesian  independence on 17 August 1945.  The colonial Dutch did not accept that and fought a brutal war with the republican movement for the next four years.  Finally the Dutch ceded sovereignty to the new nation of Indonesia (formerly known as the Dutch East Indies) in December 1949, but in the protracted negotiations the Indonesians agreed reluctantly that West Papua would not be included in the handover.  Thereafter, bringing back West Papua  (or West Irian as the Indonesians preferred) to the fold was a kind of clarion call used by Sukarno and his government to unite the people behind the incomplete anti-colonial struggle.

The problem here is that the West Papuans themselves had not been part of the Indonesian nationalist struggle and, for the most part, politically aware West Papuans supported the Dutch plan to prepare the territory for self-government and independence. West Papuan leaders in the 1950s and early 1960s attended Pacific-wide meetings, such as the South Pacific Commission, so they had reason to expect that they, like their Melanesian and Pacific neighbours, would achieve independence.  Remember the 1960s was the decade of decolonisation for Africa and the decade when Pacific nations were working towards or actually achieving their independence – beginning with Samoa  in 1962.

You could say that resistance began as soon as the West Papuans realised that they were being handed over to Indonesia without having any say in the matter.  At first that was peaceful resistance – petitions  and letters to the UN during the short period it was in charge in 1962-63,  Then from 1965 an armed rebellion, initially  led by the Arfak tribe. The  Free West Papua Movement or OPM grew from this beginning and it continues to this day although the peaceful diplomatic struggle is again prominent.

PF: How did it end up under Indonesian occupation?  Could you say something about the role of the US, Britain, Australia and NZ in the denial of self-determination to the people there and their role in the Indonesian take-over?

ML: In the 1950s Indonesia pursued its claim to the territory through the United Nations but was never successful in getting the required 2/3 majority, so in the late 50s it stepped up its alternative strategy of military incursions.  Initially the Dutch easily rounded up the infiltrators with the help of the Papuan population, but by 1962 Indonesia was well armed by the Soviet Union and the US, so the situation escalated.  In January 1962  the Dutch Navy intercepted and sank Indonesian torpedo boats off the coast and 50 Indonesian personnel died.

President Sukarno was a nationalist and his support base included the numerically strong Indonesian Communist Party. The United States had already tried and failed to destabilise Sukarno’s government and had chosen to continue developing close ties to the conservative elements in the military.. West Papua became a pawn in  a  Cold War game.  When New Zealand diplomats realised that the United States, Britain and Australia were all pushing for a settlement that would allow Indonesia to take over, they advised Prime Minister Holyoake to accept the inevitable, as they saw it. New Zealand had earlier supported the Dutch decolonisation plans but now it made a u-turn.

Negotiations between the Dutch and the Indonesians took place in New York under the auspices of the UN but in reality driven by the United States.  The resulting New York Agreement signed on 16 August 1962 provided for a short period of UN administration followed by full Indonesian administrative control. West Papuans were excluded from the deliberations.  PM Holyoake supported this outcome and  emphasised the provision in the Agreement for a later act of self-determination.

In 1969 Indonesia carried out what it called an Act of Free Choice.  It is hard to imagine a more shocking travesty of a self-determination referendum. Only 1,022 people out of a population of around a million were given the chance to vote and everyone involved was under extreme duress and threat. I have some powerful quotes in the book both from journalists who were on the spot and from participants.

From the New Zealand point of view,  I was appalled to realise that our ambassador to Indonesia had observed  two of the ‘voting’ assemblies  and made it clear in his reports that he had observed a coerced process. But our delegation at the UN voted to ‘take note’ of the Act of Free Choice when the matter came up for debate at the General Assembly.

From the time of the Indonesian take-over New Zealand chose to give West Papuan representatives in exile short shrift  and appeals and letters went unanswered.

PF: Typically colonial powers use a combination of carrot-and-stick, but the Indonesian governments – whether the military dictatorship or the civilian governments – seem to have relied mainly on the stick.  Could you tell us about the kinds of measures carried out by the Indonesians under the Sukarno regime and then under the Suharto military dictatorship?

ML: When Indonesia took over full administration from the UN in May 1963, the dark night of repression descended. No dissent tolerated; full prisons; shops denuded of goods; cultural artefacts and books publicly burned. A transmigration programme got under way to get Indonesian settlers into West Papua to build a base of support for Indonesian rule. Some efforts were made to win over West New Guinea Council members with all-expenses paid jaunts to Jakarta, but you are right harsh measures predominated.

Guerrilla resistance began in mid-1965 in the Birds Head region and it  was met by brutal military offensives against undefended villages. The change of regime in Jakarta was little noticed in West Papua.

When Suharto came to power, he opened the door to western investment, so that meant  US Company Freeport Sulphur (now Freeport McMoRan) begin its gold explorations.  It signed its highly favourable contract with Indonesia in 1967 – before Indonesia had full sovereignty over West Papua.

In 1977 the  OPM mounted a  sabotage attack against Freeport which had taken tribal land. 1977-78 was a terrible time in the Central Highlands – thousands were killed in indiscriminate retaliatory bombing and strafing raids.

Under Suharto there was also a  campaign in the 1970s to ‘Indonesianise’ the West Papuans – especially the highland tribes. There were aerial drops of shorts to encourage the tribal Dani to cease wearing penis gourds or koteka, as well as to relocate people from family compounds into orderly villages built adjacent to roads. Unsurprisingly that did not win hearts and minds.

PF: Since the end of the dictatorship and the resumption of civilian government in Indonesia have the tactics and strategy of Djakarta changed much?

ML: Of course the West Papuans’ hopes were raised  when Suharto fell in 1998. The banned Morning Star flag began to appear at demonstrations.  In Biak the Morning Star stayed aloft above the local watertower for several days but then the security forces clamped down, killing the demonstrators while they were asleep or at prayer – bodies were taken out to sea and dropped overboard.  Nobody knows for sure how many were killed in the massacre.  In 1999 civil society leaders organised a delegation of 100 Church, tribal leaders, students, even some military. The went to meet with new President Habibie in Jakarta, but he rejected their demand for independence, and the members of ‘Team 100’ faced intimidation on their return home.

The millennium time did, however, bring a period that was referred to as the ‘Papuan Spring’.  President Abdurrahman Wahid allowed the people to hold a large Congress attended by thousands, even some who had been living in exile for many years.  From this emerged a charismatic leader, Chief Theys Eluay, a convert to the independence cause.   But the door soon closed again – newly-elected leaders were thrown into jail and in November 2001 Theys Eluay was murdered by Kopassus special forces.

Megawati Sukarnoputri replaced Wahid in 2001 and Jakarta proposed  devolving some powers to West Papua: under  ‘Special Autonomy’.  New Zealand politicians thought it was a great idea, but for the most part West Papuans saw it as a new ruse to dilute support for independence.

These days Jakarta often talks about its ‘development strategy’ suggesting that if the people have new infrastructure and more jobs etc the  desire for independence will lessen. However, development in West Papua comes with a terrible price – agribusinesses, mining, rampant deforestation. A new Trans Papua highway is carving its way across the country causing terrible damage to the forests and opening up formerly inaccessible areas for exploitation.

PF: I recall Labour, I think it was Helen Clark, saying nothing could be done about the Indonesian occupation of East Timor.   That it was a done deal and just part of history now and irreversible.  Of course, history turned out to be not yet over after all, and ET is now independent.  What impact did the expulsion of the Indonesian occupation in ET have within WPNG?

ML:  In 1986 Helen Clark returned from a visit to Indonesia and was reported as saying Indonesia was not going to give up East Timor no matter how long Fretilin kept fighting.

East Timor’s liberation gave hope to the West Papuans but unfortunately the loss of East Timor was a blow to  the Indonesian military leaders’ national pride, so the hoped for democratic space didn’t eventuate – until President Wahid came to power.  And that period was all too short. One of the problems is that democratic reform in Indonesia  has never extended as far as the military – especially in terms of holding perpetrators of abuses to account. That includes the atrocities in East Timor, the massacres of the anti-communist purge in 1965 as well as the crimes in West Papua.

PF: Could you tell us about the liberation movement in WPNG?  Who is leading the struggle and what strategy and tactics is it using?

ML: The United Liberation Movement for West Papua was formalised in 2014 at a meeting hosted in Vanuatu, bringing together most of the different factions of the movement in West Papua and the West Papuan leaders in exile. In 2015 the Melanesian Spearhead Group formally admitted ULMWP with the status of ‘observer’.  Currently Benny Wenda is Chairman.

In terms of strategy there is a big focus on the diplomatic struggle and the call supported by a major petition for there to be a new self-determination referendum and for the UN to take responsibility for its past errors.

You could say the issue is on the international agenda – at the UN Human Rights Council and even being debated in the Westminster Parliament – but that still needs to be translated into action on the political status of West Papua.

Young West Papuans have found new ways to reach out to the international community through social media and video. And there is good work going on with young progressive Indonesians too.

There is still an ongoing  armed struggle. In December last year an armed wing of the OPM attacked and killed construction workers on the Trans Papua highway.   The commander who claimed responsibility said that the workers were military personnel.  The Nduga area where the attacks took place is now heavily militarised and thousands of residents are living as displaced people in neighbouring towns or in the jungle.

PF: I know that initially the struggle had some sympathy from newly-independent African countries, especially former French possessions in West Africa.  Do you know what the situation is regarding those countries’ attitudes today?

ML: Benny Wenda has tried to revive these connections. In 2016 he attended Ghana’s independence celebrations and got a sympathetic reception.  He has also been to Senegal and to South Africa.  Bishop Desmond Tutu is a strong supporter of freedom of West Papua.  In terms of actual government statements – unless I have missed something – not so far.

PF: What impact has the independence of Vanuatu had, since there have been progressive governments there which have supported freedom struggles in the Pacific, especially in Melanesia?

ML: Vanuatu has given wonderful support to West Papuans and I don’t just mean the government .  There is very strong grassroots support for West Papua and the Churches and traditional chiefs also play a great role.   The Church and tribal leaders helped the West Papuan movement to achieve unity. Vanuatu has taken the issue to regional and international forums and right now it is hoping to get support for a UN resolution to have West Papua referred back to the Decolonisation Committee of the UN. Other Pacific nations have fallen in behind Vanuatu  including Solomon Islands,  Tonga and Tuvalu.  But Vanuatu stands out for consistent support since its own hard-won independence. I find it inspiring because I know that Vanuatu like other Pacific nations has had to stand up to pressure and public attacks from Indonesia.

PF: One of the things that strikes me is that there was quite an active ET solidarity movement in Australia and NZ, but the struggle in WPNG seems a lot less known here, despite having started earlier and gone on longer.  Why do you think that is?  What is solidarity like elsewhere, like in the Netherlands?

ML:  It is hard for a solidarity movement to gain traction when it is about a place that many people have never heard of and seldom hear talked about or written about. That was also true of East Timor for a long time too, but in the 1990s the issue did surface – particularly after the Santa Cruz massacre in 1991 and the important documentary work of John Pilger.  You mention the Netherlands, the former colonial power and that is another difference to the East Timor situation – Portugal, Timor’s former colonial power became active in support of East Timorese self-determination and there was strong popular support for their stand.

Yes, the Netherlands has a strong solidarity movement and many West Papuans now live there – but the Dutch government does not take a stand.  The strongest movement at the moment seems to be around the Pacific – focused on the appeal ‘Bring back West Papua to the Pacific family.’

PF: What sort of solidarity movement has existed in New Zealand in the past?  What is the situation today?

ML:  There was a West Papua group in Wellington for a while in the 1990s, and the NFIP movement took up appeals. In Auckland we formed the Indonesia Human Rights Committee in 2000 and as the years went on the focus became more and more about West Papua, although we always valued our links to Indonesian colleagues working on human rights and for democratic change.  In 2013  West Papua Action was formed.

Over the years we had campaigns such as ending military ties, calling for the Super Fund to divest from shares in Freeport, and the ‘Don’t Buy Kwila’ campaign.   We actually succeeded in getting the Super Fund to divest from Freeport.

There has always been support from other human rights and peace groups round the country, but now there are specific West Papua groups in Dunedin and Christchurch which are doing great work involving other NGOs and holding seminars.

Up in Auckland we have a sister group – Oceania Interrupted – whose members are Pasifika and Maori women.  Their demonstrations are a kind of performance art. And they have seeded new awareness among their communities and among Pacific students.  Last December our December 1 flag-raising event was held on Ngati-Whatua’s Orakei marae.

PF: What can people do today to support the liberation struggle?

ML:  Get active in their local group. Support West Papua campaigns. Personally I think the “Don’t buy kwila” campaign is important and it should be better known.  All or virtually all, the kwila that comes here for decking and furniture comes from the pristine forests of West Papua. And it is a species on the way to extinction. The Indonesian timber industry is riddled with corruption and laws against illegal logging are poorly enforced.   Indigenous people depend on the forest for survival so deforestation is a human rights issue. It is also a climate change issue.

Make a donation – tours of West Papuan activists are not cheap!

Also check out our Auckland-based solidarity group:

See No Evil can be purchased in good bookshops or direct from the publisher, Otago University Press.