West Papua: Dutch past, Indonesian present, independent future?

John Rumbiak
22 May 2003

The West Papuan campaign against rule by Indonesia and corporate exploitation of the territory’s rich resources is one of the world’s most important and least known resistance movements. As East Timor celebrates a year of independence from Jakarta, and Indonesian forces launch an assault in another rebellious territory, Aceh, Paul Kingsnorth on behalf of openDemocracy talks to John Rumbiak, a leading campaigner for human rights in West Papua.

West Papua: key points

  • West Papua, the western half of the island of New Guinea, is home to around 250 separate tribes, each with its own language – a fifth of all the world’s languages are found in New Guinea. It contains the world’s second-largest rainforest and some of the most intact traditional cultures on earth.

  • Previously part of the Dutch empire, West Papua has been a province of Indonesia since 1969, following a UN-sponsored ‘referendum’ in which the Indonesian military forced 1,500 ‘representative’ Papuan leaders to vote at gunpoint for annexation by Indonesia.

  • Since the 1970s, West Papua has seen a growing movement for independence, led initially by the armed Free Papua Movement (OPM) and more recently by a growing number of peaceful political groupings campaigning for a new referendum on Papuan independence.

  • Since Indonesia annexed Papua, between 100,000 and 800,000 people have been killed, tortured or ‘disappeared’ by the military.

  • West Papua is rich in resources, and is home to some of the world’s biggest oil, gas, timber and mining corporations. The US mining giant Freeport McMoran operates the world’s biggest gold mine in the Papuan highlands, providing over half of West Papua’s GDP and a fifth of Indonesia’s entire tax base. Corporate exploitation has entailed routine, widespread human rights and environmental abuses.

openDemocracy: Tell me a bit about yourself, and your work.

John Rumbiak: I am supervisor of ELS-HAM, the Institute for Human Rights Study and Advocacy. It was established officially in May 1998, a few weeks before the fall of the Indonesian dictator, General Suharto. It emerged from a commitment by churches, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), community leaders, tribal leaders and others who were concerned about the continuing human rights violations in West Papua.

Our work now is monitoring human rights in Papua and trying to educate the international community to understand that when we talk about human rights in Papua, the fundamental issue underlying this problem is the issue of self-determination. There are massive human rights violations in Papua whose roots lie in the opposition of the Papuan people to the annexation of Papua by Indonesia. The Indonesian position is that Papua will always be part of Indonesia, and thus the government keeps repressing the people of the territory; this is the source of the ongoing human rights violations.

Indonesia’s dual strategy

openDemocracy: That must be dangerous work. Have you personally experienced problems with the government or the army as a result of your work?

John Rumbiak: West Papua is very much under surveillance. Wherever you go, there are Indonesian intelligence agents following you around. It’s not a normal life. One example: in August 1996, when one of my human rights reports came out, I was working for another NGO funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The US government came to talk to me about the report. The American ambassador came to Papua to see me, but the Indonesians would not allow him to visit our office. So he invited me to visit him at his hotel. When I arrived, he was shocked to see both Indonesian intelligence and uniformed soldiers accompanying me. They filmed and took notes of our meeting. The ambassador was furious, and asked me if I was OK. I said no, I am not OK; this happens to us all the time. This is the life story of the Papuans.

openDemocracy: Your personal profile internationally is quite high now amongst other NGOs and the media too. Do you think this makes it harder for the Indonesians to try and silence you?

John Rumbiak: There are crazy people amongst the military. They don’t care; they can kill you any time, and then play with the legal system to escape justice. This is exactly what happened to the moderate Papuan leader Theys Eluay, who was murdered by Indonesian soldiers in 2001. A recent report we compiled on the Freeport mine showed that Indonesian generals had masterminded an attack on Freeport staff, in which several died, and blamed the attack on Papuan rebels, to justify yet another crackdown on them. Since then, I have received so many threats that I have been forced to flee to the US, where I now live.

Indonesia now has a two-pronged strategy to deal with the Papuan ‘problem.’ Firstly, they have introduced something called ‘special autonomy’ to Papua, allegedly to give Papua more control over its politics and resources to dampen demands for independence. All the Papuan leaders have rejected this as a sham. The second part is to crack down harder with the military on the leaders of the people; more repression, arrests, torture, extra-judicial killings. The military see Papua as their own resource base – they make a lot of money from it. They will not give it up without fighting.

openDemocracy: Do you think there is any danger of the Indonesians cracking down on independence activists in Papua under the guise of the ‘war on terrorism’?

John Rumbiak: The military would like to do this, to say to the world: “this movement in Papua is a separatist, terrorist movement, and the international community should support our fight against it”. We do a lot of lobbying in the US, and we have some support from senators in the US, who support our call to cut military ties with Indonesia.

But one reason I am travelling around the world now is to educate the international community that you can’t classify the Papuan movement as a ‘separatist terrorist’ movement. On the contrary, the movement is increasingly a united and peaceful one. All sections of society have now declared Papua a ‘land of peace.’

Such a peaceful movement is a very big threat to the military in Papua. We can see this from the example of Aceh. There, you had this beautiful peace agreement taking place in December 2002, but suddenly the Office of Joint Security Committee, led by a top Indonesian general appointed by the international community had its headquarters burned down by militias, while the police did nothing. Now the war in Aceh has been restarted.

We need to explain to the international community: the same generals that caused so much bloodshed in East Timor are now doing the same in Aceh and in Papua. So will you wait until more blood is shed, or will you do something now?

BP: you cannot be serious

openDemocracy: Another issue in West Papua is the presence of multinational corporations. BP now plan to come to Papua to extract liquid petroleum gas. You recently met with the head of BP, John Browne, here in the UK. What did you say to each other?

John Rumbiak: BP has a very bad reputation amongst local people in Colombia and in other places where they operate, so in Papua they have a pleasant-sounding policy called ‘community-based security.’ They want to work with local people to secure the site, and not employ the military. But I am worried. I am not interested in nice concepts, I am interested in the reality on the ground. And in Indonesia, this reality includes powerful military and political security forces, who greatly benefit from the rich resources of Papua. How then can a company like BP make real its claim not to use the Indonesian military?

So my challenging question to Lord Browne was: don’t you see how powerful the Indonesian military is, and don’t you think this threatens your policy of ‘community-based security’. He agreed with that. In that case, I said, what’s your strategy? He replied, well if it doesn’t work, we’ll pull out. But I am not sure how much BP understands the way Indonesia works, and I also think that their talk of ‘community security’ and ‘ethics’ is just PR. I don’t believe they would pull out once they were in; they would have too much to lose.

I met several people from BP this week and I don’t feel satisfied. They didn’t really answer my questions. I had a strong sense that they were not serious. I said to them, don’t pretend to be a church or a humanitarian organisation, you are a corporation. Your presence in Papua will affect whole communities, and the military will be based in the region where you are working. I don’t see that there is a future for BP’s supposed new policy.

East Timor or Aceh: what future for West Papua?

openDemocracy: Let’s imagine that at some time in the future, Papua is self-governed or independent. What do you think that the Papuan people’s relationship with multinational corporations should be? Is it possible to imagine a situation in which that relationship could be mutually beneficial?

John Rumbiak: That is the question. It could happen, but people must understand something: Papua is in many ways a ‘last frontier’ in the modern world when we talk about culture, about the environment and about humanity as a whole. It would be a tragedy if what exists in West Papua, and on the whole of the island of New Guinea were to be lost to the world. Most of the world’s traditional cultures have been devastated. That happened because the wrong systems were implemented: the wrong type of government and economy, the wrong way of exploiting resources.

In Papua, these traditional communities still exist, and if we want to avoid repeating earlier mistakes, then two things must happen. First, Papuans must understand the destruction that has happened in other parts in the world, and how it could happen to them. That means education. Second, Papuans have to be prepared to really make a decision to develop a kind of nation-building that would guarantee their culture, their environment and their resources.

In economic terms, this could mean that if companies wanted to come to Papua, they would have to implement strong international standards on ethics, human rights, development and environmental protection. None of this happens now. Freeport, for example, dumps 125,000 metric tonnes of mine waste into rivers every day.

openDemocracy: How could an independent West Papua survive the enormous economic pressures that globalisation would bring and still develop its own indigenous democracy and economy?

People really have to decide what kind of political and economic system they want, otherwise one day they will wake up to find that they have lost everything. We must be prepared: it is not simply Indonesia as a state which is the problem in West Papua, it is an entire ideology. So the campaign for freedom from Indonesia must be extended to an understanding of the ideology of the system itself. This is the way to avoid making the same mistakes ourselves, if we get our own government.

The system of governance must be changed. We need to design a Papuan system for the future of Papua that will safeguard what we value; to change the values of the system itself. We have 250 tribes, 250 languages, an egalitarian traditional of local government, a unique culture and environment. How can we design a system that builds on these foundations instead of destroying them? How can we ensure that the Indonesian migrants, many of whom have been in Papua for forty years and consider themselves Papuan, are not excluded from society but allowed to play their part in it? This is very different from simply replacing Indonesian faces in the government with Papuan faces. It is a challenge of nation-building.

But I am optimistic. West Papua is very much a forgotten struggle, but that was also true of East Timor for many years. And the people’s movement for self-determination in Papua is growing stronger by the year. I believe things will get better. But we must be prepared for success, or we could find that it is almost as dangerous as failure.

Scene from Gisaro - the Sorrow and the Burning (Papua New Guinea,1987)

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