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‘We are ready’: why West Papuan independence isn't just a dream

West Papua


Benny Wenda (left) / Rex Rumakiek (right) © Clare Harding / Free West Papua Campaign

Benny Wenda is a West Papuan independence leader and International Spokesperson for the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP). He was imprisoned by the Indonesian government but escaped in 2002 and now lives in Oxford, UK.

Rex Rumakiek is the Secretary General of the West Papua National Coalition for Liberation, and an Executive Member of the ULMWP. He was part of the original delegation that founded a Free West Papua office in Vanuatu. He now lives in Sydney, Australia.

Benny Wenda: I’ve been involved in the struggle since childhood. I saw what was happening in my village where I grew up, and since then I have dedicated my life to fighting for independence for the West Papuan people.

Rex Rumakiek: I am an ex-guerrilla fighter. When I came to Australia, I got my Masters in Politics and Public Administration, which now helps with the work we are doing.

BW: I travel the world as a spokesperson for the movement, building support but also learning and preparing for a free West Papua. Indonesia likes to say that an independent West Papua will be a failed state. They say we aren’t ready. But West Papuans have been fighting for 50 years – it’s been a long struggle, but it has also given us time to prepare, to learn from the experience of other countries that have achieved independence.

So we are ready. Mentally, physically, spiritually we are ready. We want to set the world an example of what a 21st-century democracy can be.

Tribal democracy

RR: We have to be careful. We don’t want independence to be a trigger for tribal conflict as happened in other countries. We have 230 tribes who are sovereign in their own right, with their own boundaries, tribal rules and agreements with neighbouring tribes that date back for centuries. People already understand that system; now we need to make it fit into a national governing system too. We may need something like a federal structure.

BW: Before the Europeans arrived we had our own forms of tribal democracy and survived for 50,000 years. So I think with that experience, we can form a democratic government as the Republic of West Papua.

RR: Looking at the experience of Papua New Guinea and other Melanesian countries, we need a multi-party system. An elected parliament should make decisions, which should then be reviewed by a second chamber.

BW: One model we’re developing would have a second house of parliament made up of elders and village chiefs, so that every tribe would have a representative in parliament – a new form of tribal democracy.

We have three main factions that came together to form the ULMWP. These three factions would automatically become three political parties in the elected parliament.

RR: But when we start as a new country, we will have no time to waste with political arguments; we will need to develop the country. So will we need to make joint decisions at first, as a transitional unity government.

BW: We have a few draft constitutions from our founding organizations, from the West Papua Revolutionary Army and from academics. By the end of this year, we aim to combine them into a single draft constitution for West Papua. We are also discussing who will take which positions in the transitional government. These discussions are already good practice for us as political leaders, and a way to begin the power-sharing process.

Day one of a free West Papua

BW: At the moment, the country’s wealth is being taken out by Indonesia and by international companies. Instead, that wealth should be distributed according to the West Papuan people’s needs. Every person in West Papua must have freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion. We need to protect our environment, our forests. This is the whole reason for fighting for independence. We have to look after the people.

RR: The first thing we have to do is review all the Indonesian policies because they don’t allow the people any say in decision-making. In the current system, the people have no power over how policy is made. We have to change everything.

BW: The first basic needs of the people in rural areas are healthcare and education. Every district needs clinics and doctors in place. We need schools so people can learn, including learning their own languages. We need good roads so people can get to these services. After that, it will be up to the people to decide what they want, but we need to start with healthcare and education. We have good partners in other countries – we can learn from other systems, and bring on board the right people and experts to help us put the infrastructure into place.

RR: We’re looking at different economic systems – we may want a semi-socialist Scandinavian-style system; we’re looking into this at the moment. We want a system that will care for everybody in a democratic way. However, our tribal society means that we will also need to decentralize. We need a structure where local communities can influence decisions, where their voices can be heard.

BW: There are different ways of life in the cities and the rural areas. People in the city are embracing new ideas but that doesn’t mean they want to lose their original culture. We need to protect our cultural identity, which is closely connected to nature, while also providing the infrastructure to meet people’s basic needs.

Land rights and settlers

RR: When Vanuatu became independent in 1980 they declared that land taken by the colonialists would return to the traditional owners. They have a customary system, where the traditional custodians must be consulted on any decisions over the use of that land. I would suggest we adopt a similar system.

BW: The Indonesian government claims to own a lot of West Papuan land, including land that was originally taken by the Dutch. Some of that land was then sold on to others. The West Papuan government will need to review all these titles and decide whether that land was taken illegally by Indonesia, whether it belongs to the government or to the people or to someone else. All land owned by the people needs to be given back. It’s a very difficult issue. But it needs to be looked at.

RR: We expect it to be similar to Timor Leste: after independence, many Indonesian settlers will just choose to leave because they want to live in Indonesia. But of course, those who want to adopt West Papua as their home can stay. If they adjust to Melanesian society they are welcome to stay.

Some of the settlers who’ve come to West Papua have established relationships with the tribes, and are helping to bring development and progress to the region, but some are very destructive. So the government will need to talk to the tribes and help make those decisions about who stays and goes in a peaceful way. It will be difficult, and the law must be very sensitive on these issues.

Relations with Indonesia

RR: I’ve been speaking to leaders from Indonesian civil society about how they need to explain to their public why we have to leave Indonesia. The people of Indonesia need to understand that if independence is coming they need to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. We are going to be neighbours for the long run so we have to start developing good relations now. Some Indonesian NGOs are already making statements saying they are sorry for what is happening in West Papua.

Relations with extractive companies

BW: The mining, gas and timber companies are operating as part of an illegal occupation. Indonesia does not have the right to give permission to these companies. Corporations like Freeport and BP don’t really care about the environment, about our people’s way of life. All they and the Indonesian government care about is how to get more money and resources out of our country.

For us, the land is our mother. The forest is our supermarket. Everything we need is there. West Papuan people love the land; it’s more important than money. When you go to cities you need money, but in the villages people don’t really use it because everything is abundant – until the Indonesian government brings the logging and mining companies that destroy the environment, pollute the water, and kill the food sources.

RR: We have to freeze their operations, and renegotiate any agreement that they had with Indonesia. If they want to continue to operate they have to follow those new agreements, on our terms. Our environment is very precious to us and our traditions, so we have to develop policies that will protect the environment and strict rules that must be observed.

The West Papuan people should decide whether they want extractive industries to expand or not

We need to come to agreements where these companies will invest in the health, education, and employment infrastructure that we need. We have to calculate things carefully, and make sure we don’t depend too much on extractive transnationals. If they can support the development of our infrastructure, we can at some point become self-sufficient. Whatever we do, these resources will come to an end someday.

BW: It also depends on the West Papuan people – they should decide whether they want these industries to expand or not. My obligation is to ensure these companies operate in a way that protects the environment, not only on paper but in reality. We have friends around the world who are experts on these issues and can help us to do this.

People around the world that love the environment, who love democracy, who love justice – we will need to come together and take a strong line with these companies, and make sure they meet their responsibilities. So even after independence, the international solidarity will need to continue, to help us build the country we want to build.

RR: There are logging companies operating in PNG – they had an agreement with the government that was very good, they had to plant four tree seedlings for every tree they cut. But they didn’t follow the agreement – they just carried on logging without replanting. This is where decentralization can help – we will have laws that give local people the power to stop these companies if they do not follow the rules.

The people know best what is good for their land and for themselves. We need something in the national laws that local people can use if they feel the government isn’t respecting their local environment and local needs. If at some level the government can be overruled, that will force us to be careful, because our people are very sensitive to these issues.

Ensuring women’s voices are heard

RR: The roles that women play in the villages are very important, and they suffer more than anyone else in this society under the occupation. Their voices must be promoted. They are the providers of food, they care for their families and they suffer so much. So definitely we will develop policies to promote women’s participation.

BW: Women’s groups on the ground are already very well organized, playing a major part in the fight for freedom. Women are already part of the struggle, but they need a greater voice – all of the leaders need to consider that. We need to involve women from an early stage. They must be part of forming the government and writing the constitution.

Energy systems

BW: My dream in West Papua is for a green energy future. Our highlands have a lot of wind, we have the sun for solar power, we can get electricity from flowing water here like the Dutch did. The new hospitals and schools that we build could be powered by green electricity. The people of West Papua love nature, that's who we are.

RR: I like the idea of electric cars and electric transport systems, powered by clean energy from our own natural resources. I’ve seen this technology working and think I shall be a champion for it.

What other visions do you have for West Papua?

We want a system that will care for everybody in a democratic way. However, we also need to decentralize

RR: We want to take up our responsibilities in the UN and support other countries in need around the world. At the Pacific Islands Forum in Papua New Guinea, there was a panel on climate change and the impact on small Pacific islands, and the Kiribati president spoke. I immediately stood up and said: ‘Small countries in the Pacific, we have spare land, we can take you. If others won’t take you, we will. We can give you land so you can look after your people.’ These are things that we’ll be able to do for our immediate region – we can assist those who are affected by climate change.

BW: What I want most is to see my people have a better life. For 50 years they have suffered under Indonesia. I want to see them smiling, dancing, playing music and enjoying their lives. That’s my aim. I want to see people united with their exiled families. I want them to see the rebirth of a new country full of love and joy. I want us to put in place good governance that respects the rights of every human being to live and enjoy nature and the beauty of the earth. I want to see West Papua as a bird of paradise, flying freely. I want to welcome people to our lands – I want everyone to come and see the new country of West Papua.

Compiled from two separate interviews by Danny Chivers in February 2017.

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