Nona Kogoya was two years old when she died.
She had been a normal, healthy young girl; but that was before the soldiers came. In February Nona’s village, in the highlands of New Guinea, was attacked by heavily armed Indonesian soldiers. The soldiers came without warning, running from home to home, firing their automatic rifles at random and dragging civilians, including Nona, from their thatched huts. Then they set fire to the houses. Nothing was spared: even the church was burned to the ground. As the houses burned, the soldiers trampled the villagers’ crops &emdash; their only source of food for the coming year &emdash; and, to ensure that no hope was left, impounded their livestock.
Terrified, the villagers ran for their lives into the forest. They kept running for days, and they stayed there for weeks. They were safe from the soldiers, but they had no shelter, and had to survive on what food they could find in the forest. Nona, unsurprisingly, fell ill. The soldiers had the forest surrounded, and wouldn’t let anyone take food, supplies or medicines to the refugees.
On 10 February Nona died and was buried in a shallow grave in the forest. She was not the first innocent child to die in West Papua, and she will not be the last.
What happened in Nona’s village was not an isolated incident: it has been repeated across the highlands of West Papua for months. Indonesian soldiers have been burning villages, attacking civilians, raping women and killing men in a widespread and planned military operation. As you read this, at least 5,000 refugees are living precariously on the slopes of cold mountains and in deep forests, hiding from the army. International observers, journalists and aid workers are banned by the Indonesian government from getting into the country.
It is a huge, horrific and deliberately planned attempt to cow and terrify an entire population. But you would be forgiven for not having heard anything about it. The world’s media didn’t report it. The world’s politicians, so concerned about human rights abuses under Saddam Hussein and North Korea’s Kim Jong Il, said nothing.
You would be forgiven, too, for not having heard of West Papua, the country in which these atrocities are taking place. For the Papuan people, this is par for the course. They have got used to the fact that the ongoing genocide of their people and their nation is routinely ignored by the rest of the world. For the soldiers and politicians of Indonesia, the nation that has occupied West Papua, against the will of its people, for almost half a century, this was just the way they like it.
What the Indonesian military is doing in the Papuan highlands is known as a ‘destabilising operation’. It has happened many times before, and it works like this: first, the special forces of the Indonesian military, Kopassus (known as ’Indonesia’s SS’), murder some innocent civilians: in this case a number of priests and schoolteachers. Then, Kopassus issues a statement claiming that Papuan rebels fighting for independence from Indonesia were responsible for the killings. Finally, the soldiers enact a bloody price on the civilian population in revenge for the killings that they themselves carried out. The result, at least in theory, will be a terrified population, too scared to stand up to the occupying forces of a brutal foreign army.
This is Indonesia’s secret war: a war carried out by a sophisticated modern military machine against a tribal people with little more than bows and arrows to defend itself; a war for gold, timber and cultural supremacy; a war that will go on until the world wakes up to the horrors that happen every day in the highlands of this forgotten nation.
West Papua, the western half of New Guinea (the world’s second largest island), is one of the most remarkable places on earth. Between them, its million or so inhabitants, who live in tribal communities in largely untouched rainforest, speak around 500 separate languages. It is home to hundreds of unique species, including the bird of paradise and the tree kangaroo. Though nominally a part of the Dutch East Indies during the 19th century, Dutch New Guinea, as it was then known, was left virtually unmolested until the middle of the 20th century. Then, life for its people was to change swiftly, brutally and for ever.
After WWII the Dutch East Indies became a new nation state: Indonesia. But the Dutch wanted West Papua to become independent. The Melanesian, animist Papuans, they argued, had nothing in common with the Asiatic, Muslim Indonesians. They should have their own country. The Indonesians, in turn, insisted that West Papua was theirs.
On 1 December 1961 the Dutch, in a defiant gesture, ceded independence to West Papua. A new Papuan flag, the Morning Star, was raised as West Papua’s people proclaimed their freedom. Celebrations were to be short-lived. The UN, under pressure from the US, Indonesia’s newest ally, refused to recognise the new nation, and in 1962 an Indonesian invasion force parachuted into the Papuan rainforests.
The UN intervened and promised the Papuans a referendum on independence, but Indonesia objected. The ‘savages’ of Papua, said the Indonesian government, were too backward to cope with democracy. Instead, Indonesia would choose 1,022 ‘representative’ Papuan leaders and ask them which they wanted: an independent West Papua, or absorption into Indonesia.
In 1969, as the UN looked on, Indonesian soldiers instructed the Papuans to choose. Some had been warned that their tongues would be cut out if they voted for independence. Others had been told in graphic detail what would happen to their wives and children if they made the wrong decision. None of them did. Unanimously, they voted for West Papua to become Indonesia’s 26th province.
This process, which the UN proceeded to rubber-stamp, in one of the most shameful moments of its history, was known as the ‘Act of Free Choice’. Papuans have referred to it scornfully ever since as the ‘Act of No Choice.’ It was to open the door to the most brutal period in Papuan history.
Under their new dictator-president, general Suharto, Jakarta embarked on a campaign to ‘Indonesianise’ its new province and to wipe out Papuan culture. Hundreds of thousands of Indonesians from Java were moved to West Papua, often against their will, and dumped in ‘transmigration’ camps carved out of the rainforest. Raising the Morning Star flag, singing Papuan songs, wearing traditional dress, and even talking in public about independence were banned.
Those who resisted this ethnic cleansing were murdered, tortured or ‘disappeared’ with a horrific ferocity. Rebels were shot in front of their families, tortured to death in prison cells, thrown from warships to the sharks in the Pacific or dropped from helicopters back onto their villages as a warning to others. Officially, more than 100,000 Papuans have been killed by the Indonesians since occupation; unofficially, the figure is said to be as large as 800,000.
Visit Papua and trek into some of the more remote communities, and almost everyone you meet will have a story to tell about the suffering they have seen or endured. When I visited the country in 2002, I was told of massacres and assassinations, shown huts where torture had taken place and streets where demonstrators had been gunned down. The people talk about it as if it were part of everyday life; it is.
Why does Indonesia bother? In a word: resources. For West Papua is a literal goldmine, which the Indonesians, with the help of some of the world’s worst corporations, have been exploiting for decades.
Even before it took control of West Papua, Indonesia had been negotiating with the US mining company Freeport, which wanted to open up what looked like a vast copper deposit in West Papua. In 1969 Freeport moved in. In, too, came the Anglo-Dutch oil company Shell, and a clutch of other mining and oil prospectors. The Indonesian government, thousands of miles away in Jakarta, laid out some maps of West Papua on a table and drew lines on them to designate the forestry ‘concessions’ (taking up much of Papua’s vast rainforest, second in size only to the Amazon) that it was going to hand out to logging companies.
The notorious case of the Freeport mine is the best example of how corporate exploitation is affecting the people of West Papua. Freeport’s Grasberg gold mine contains the largest gold reserves, and the third-largest copper reserves, anywhere on the planet. It is both an engineering marvel and an act of breathless colonialism: the company has, literally, sliced the top off a previously inaccessible mountain, a mountain that was home to the mother goddess of the local tribes, thousands of whom were forcibly evicted from their land by the company.
The Grasberg mine produces more gold in three months than most gold mines produce in a year. It provides a fifth of Indonesia’s entire tax base and accounts for half of West Papua’s GDP. By the end of Grasberg’s life, Freeport expects to have dumped three billion tons of waste rock into the valleys surrounding the mine: that’s twice the volume of earth extracted during the construction of the Panama Canal. It has, according to observers, damaged 30,000 hectares of rainforest in the last three decades, and every day it dumps up to 200,000 tons of mine waste, laced with acid and heavy metals, into the sacred Aikwa river, from which local people used to drink and fish. All of this without one single Papuan giving permission for it to happen; and all of this made possible only by a ring of Indonesian soldiers guarding the mine from the original owners of its stolen land.
But Indonesia has not had everything its own way. Since the beginning of the occupation, the Papuan people have been resisting. And in recent years that resistance has grown to the point at which, with international help, the Papuan struggle could, at last, begin to succeed.
The first stage of Papuan resistance was the creation of the OPM, or Free Papua Movement, a guerrilla army formed in 1970. Small, determined and hopelessly outgunned, the OPM has nevertheless kept the flame of freedom alive for 35 years. Recently, much to the chagrin of the Indonesian government, that flame has been fanned by the arrival of a new generation of independence campaigners.
Many of these came out of a daring mass meeting held in 2000, known as the Papua Peoples’ Congress. The year before, Suharto had been toppled as president of Indonesia, and a new climate of openness seemed possible. That year, for the first time in three decades, the Papuans had celebrated their ‘independence day’, 1 December, and raised the Morning Star flag without an ensuing massacre.
At the congress, 3,000 delegates, some of whom had hiked barefoot through the mountains for weeks to get there, created a new organisation: the Papua Council. Made up of 500 tribal leaders, the council was exactly what the Papuans had never had: a respectable, non-violent lobby group calling openly for independence.
At the same time, other peaceful pro-independence groupings &emdash; Demmak, a pan-tribal coalition, AMP, a student organisation, and others &emdash; sprang into life. The OPM declared a ceasefire, in solidarity with them. Papuan human rights workers began issuing reports critical of Indonesia. And for the first time, Papuan leaders were travelling the world, openly calling for independence. Indonesia’s secret war was being exposed to the light.
It couldn’t last. Despite its nominal new status as a ‘democracy’, Indonesia’s attitude to ‘separatists’ in its midst has not changed. Senior military and police figures who had been responsible for so much bloodletting in the recently independent Indonesian province East Timor were brought in to deal with the Papuans. Kopassus got down to doing what it does best: murder, rape and torture.
In November 2001 the leader of the Papua Council, Theys Eluay, was abducted and murdered by Kopassus. Demmak was banned and its leader, Benny Wenda, arrested, imprisoned and tortured. He might have suffered the same fate as Eluay had he not managed to escape and flee to Britain, where he has now been granted political asylum. Student demonstrations were broken up and their leaders arrested. John Rumbiak, West Papua’s leading human rights advocate, received so many death threats that he fled to New York, where he now lives in exile.
One Papuan leader who was beaten during interrogation by Indonesian police later reported the words of his tormentors. ‘We have experience in operations in East Timor’, they told him. ‘Be careful &emdash; we will shoot you allâ€¦ We will shoot you and your lawyerâ€¦ We are not afraid.’
But perhaps the Indonesians are afraid. Officially the government line on West Papua remains defiant and consistent. ‘Like any other country,’ said Indonesia’s then president Megawati Sukarnoputri last year, ‘we will not and never will let any group or movement break up our unitary state. This is a non-negotiable principle.’ Since then, Indonesia has elected a new president. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono isa former general who spent some of his formative years suppressing rebellion in East Timor. Yudhoyono, unsurprisingly, is no keener on Papuan independence than his predecessors have been. He does know, though, that Papuan anger is real &emdash; and growing.
Hence Indonesia’s recent decision to grant the Papuan people something called ‘special autonomy’: a small degree of control over their resources and government. It was hoped that this would dampen down demands for independence, but every representative Papuan organisation has rejected it as inadequate and redoubled its calls for freedom. Indonesia has brutalised the Papuans for too long for them to be fobbed off now.
Yet despite this, there are increasing signs of hope. Exiled Papuans are spreading the word around the world. Websites are springing up, presenting evidence smuggled out from West Papua about what is happening within its borders. Solidarity meetings are being held in Europe, the US and Australia. International NGOs like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are focusing on West Papua as never before.
Here in Britain a new national campaigning organisation, the Free West Papua Campaign, will be officially launched this month, with the support of MPs from all political parties and activist groups all over the UK. The campaign’s aim is to expose what is happening in West Papua and to battle on the national and international stages for what every Papuan group is now calling for: a re-run of the previously rigged UN vote on their independence; a chance for their voice to finally be heard.
For a long time, Papuan leaders have been saying that ‘West Papua is the new East Timor’, which eventually succeeded in winning independence from Indonesia. For years this seemed a far-fetched claim. Today, it seems highly likely. Slowly but surely, the Papuans are bringing their case before the world. What they need now is for as many voices to join them as possible, as they call for the freedom they have been denied for so many years.
Find out more and support the Papuan People by visiting the website of the Free West Papua Campaign