Fighting for a forgotten cause in West Papua | Globalization | DW | 10.04.2013

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Fighting for a forgotten cause in West Papua

West Papua's 50-year struggle for independence from Indonesia is one of the world's longest-running conflicts. Exiled activist Benny Wenda is trying to draw attention to it, this time with a peaceful message.

Wearing his Papuan patterned shirt, Benny Wenda cuts an unmistakable figure on the streets of Melbourne, Australia. He's currently halfway through his latest global tour, trying to raise awareness for the issue of West Papua.

There is both a sense of peaceful resilience and some exasperation when he explains what the situation is like for West Papuans.

"Every single day you cannot go hunting or gardening, everywhere you go there is a military post, everywhere," he says. "Everywhere you go, intelligence is watching and intelligence monitor what you do."

West Papua is situated on the island of New Guinea, just north of Australia. Formerly a Dutch colony, the region was effectively transferred to Indonesian administration in 1962 under a treaty drafted by the United States. In a controversial 1969 vote, Indonesia was given full control. Since then, conflict has been ongoing between the militant Free Papua Movement organization and Indonesian troops.

A map of West Papua, also showing, Australia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea

West Papua is situated on the island of New Guinea at the eastern end of Indonesia

Standing up for a cause

Wenda was born in the Baliem Valley in the central highlands of West Papua in 1975. He says he was forced to witness human rights violations committed by Indonesian forces from a young age.

"My aunt was raped in front of my own eyes," he says. "My mum was beaten up in front of me. I was five years old. I couldn't do anything. I just cried."

When the Indonesian military bombed Benny's village in the late 1970s, his family, along with thousands of other highlanders, was forced to live in hiding in the jungle.

It was these experiences that fuelled his passion to search for the truth and to try to free his people from this oppression.

"That's when I stood up and said, 'This is not fair,'" Wenda explains. "I went to school, I studied and I started to fight back to free my people."

Wenda became a leader of his tribal assembly in 1999, during a period known as the "Papuan Spring," which saw an increase in peaceful demonstrations for independence.

Not long afterwards he landed in prison, arrested for supposedly planning an attack on a police station and burning two shops during rioting in 2000. He says his imprisonment was politically motivated and that the trial was unjust. The non-governmental organization Fair Trials International supports his claims.

While in jail he composed a song for his supporters. One of the lines of the song goes, "How can I help my people now that I am locked up?"

After months of solitary confinement, Wenda managed to escape. He fled to Papua New Guinea and was later assisted by a European NGO to travel to the UK, where he was granted political asylum.

Campaigning for change

In exile, Wenda set up the "Free West Papua" campaign, which seeks self-determination for West Papua and an end to human rights abuses, which he says are worsening. Twenty-two activists were killed last year alone, he adds.

A woman of the traditional, Dani tribe from Lembah Baliem stands by bead necklaces and traditional bags on October 10, 2009 in Wamena, West Papua, Indonesia. (Photo: Ulet Ifansasti)

A Dani tribeswoman from West Papua stands beside bead necklaces and traditional bags called "noken"

Some estimates say that as many as 500,000 Papuans have been killed since Indonesia took control, and human rights organizations continue to receive reports of rights violations committed by Indonesian forces.

"The human rights situation is getting worse, everyday," Wenda says. "West Papuans are dying on the street at the hands of police. By killing Papuans they get rank and they get promotions."

Much of the Indonesian and global interest in West Papua is based on its vast natural resources, exploited for gold, copper, oil and logging. This economic interest, coupled with the strategic relationships many countries have with Indonesia, appears to help keep the issue of West Papua out of the spotlight.

Spreading the word

Wenda is now pushing for greater access for the foreign media and human rights organizations when working in West Papua.

"For the last 50 years journalists have been banned," he says. "Why is Indonesia scared of allowing journalists in? Are they hiding something? If they promote democracy, then a democratic country should be able to allow in any journalist."

The Indonesian embassy in Australia declined DW's request for comment on Benny Wenda. Regarding media access to West Papua they said there was no ban on foreign media, adding that six journalists were allowed to visit in the last two years.

As a political leader in exile, Benny Wenda continues to receive information from leaders inside West Papua and he uses his international campaign to bring their message to politicians and communities around the world.

"My message is simple," he says. "My people have been crying for freedom for the last 50 years. The world needs to open their eyes and listen to my people's cry for freedom."

"I strongly believe that people power will change things, and one day my people will be free."

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