Benny Wenda – ledare för den västpapuanska befrielserörelsen ULMWP och bosatt i exil i London – ringar in gruvdriften vid Grasberg som roten till Västpapuas ”50-åriga koloniala tragedi”. Demonstration utanför USA:s ambassad i Jakarta, 15 augusti. Foto: TT/AP Photo/Dita Alangkara


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Violence Rule in West Papua

The ongoing conflict in West Papua has not ceased due to the global Covid-19 pandemic. Indonesia, on the contrary, increases its presence in their easternmost region – since 1969 integrated in the Indonesian archipelago after a heavily criticized UN-backed referendum, called “Act of Free Choice.” Battles rage between the Indonesian army and the West Papuan liberation movement, O.P.M. (Organisasi Papua Merdeka), while peaceful manifestations are crushed by police, and thousands of civilians remain internally displaced in the central highlands – far away from any media attention, or humanitarian assistance.

By Klas Lundström

WEST PAPUA In the middle of August, O.P.M. leader Hengky Wanmang was shot dead by Indonesian army forces close to the Grasberg mine; one of the world’s biggest sources of copper and gold extraction.

“It’s with great sadness we inform the public about the death of Hengky Wanmang, shot dead by Indonesian troops; a gang of terrorists shooting at our liberation fighters to protect American interests in Papua,” said Sebby Sambon, spokesperson for O.P.M. in a statement.

The Grasberg mine – jointly owned by the Indonesian state and the American mining company Freeport-McMoRan – and its neighboring, buzzing settlers-town of Tembagapura, has acted as centerstage for mass protests, battles, and politically motivated arrests and disappearances all year long. Three civilian Papuans – two men and one woman – were fatally shot by Grasberg’s private-run security forces on August 17, incidentally the date of Indonesia’s Independence Day, while digging for gold scraps along the mine’s perimeter fences.

Liberated political prisoners, dead independence fighters

August 2020 also saw the deaths of two of West Papua’s most prominent lawyers – Yuliana Yabansabra and Ganius Wenda. Yabansabra, as is stated officially, died due to breast cancer, while the reason for Wenda’s death is yet to be specified publicly. What is known is that both lawyers received death threats and open assaults shortly before their deaths, having successfully paved the way for the release of the “Balikpapan 7” – seven Papuan prisoners kept locked up in Kalimantan, of what is Indonesian Borneo.

Benny Wenda, political leader of the West Papuan liberation movement, U.L.M.W.P., and currently in exile in London, considers the mining production at Grasberg being the root of West Papua’s miseries and the main reason behind Indonesia’s increased military on the western slice of New Guinea.

“Freeport McMoRan is directly responsible for these deaths. The stealing of our resources by the company, facilitated by the guns and boots of the Indonesian military and police, is the root cause of these endless killings around the mine,” Benny Wenda says in a statement.

Indonesia increased its military presence in West Papua on August 21, by deploying at least 500 soldiers and military police to the turbulent pacific region. The political message sent by the government was clear, however in sharp contrast to the one trumpeted by the Indonesian president, Joko Widodo, the day prior, due to the last year’s racist scandals where prominent Indonesian leaders have openly labeled West Papuans “monkeys.”

“To forgive each other is the best. You may get angry, but forgiving is better,” the president said. “It’s OK to be emotional, but it’s better to be forgiving. Patience is also better.”

Internal flight, dreadful conditions

“Patience” is, however, the last thing human rights activists in Nduga Regency, in the West Papuan central highlands, can afford with. Theo Hesegem, director of Frontline Defenders, and one of few networks close to the ground in the isolated central highlands, witness in both words and reports about the terror, violence and obliviousness that has become everyday life in Nduga.

“The situation is far from secure, the situation is chaotic and utterly worrisome,” Theo Hesegem tells Global Magazine.

Nduga’s current hell started in December 2018, close to a bridge construction site in the Yigi district. The construction of the bridge was an integral part of Indonesia’s mega infrastructure project Trans-Papua; where jungle, ecologically delicate zones, and the homes of indigenous people have to make way for a 4,000-kilometer-long highway. Indonesian staff at the construction company Istaka Kaya were caught photographing an O.P.M. assembly, whereupon the workers were surrounded, accused of espionage, and 19 people were executed shortly afterwards. An Indonesian soldier also got killed by gunfire, near a military post, in the following commotion.

As a result of the deaths of the workers, Indonesia launched a largescale military operation in Nduga, with heavy aircraft bombardment of guerilla strongholds and civilian villages, resulting in over 40,000 people fleeing their homes to seek shelter in the mountains. Initiated witnesses accounts and photographs obtained by a number of journalistic institutions (among them Global Magazine) indicate the use of chemical warfare by the Indonesian army.

In the temporary refugee camps in the central highlands, the situation remains dire for the many thousands of remaining internally displaced West Papuans. The access to supplies such as food and safe drinking water is scarce, and there have been cases of deaths of newborn babies and pregnant women whom have died in labor, due to absent medical assistance.

“We count it to more than 260 deaths since the flight to the mountains, among them a few in complete solitude, without anyone nearby at the end,” says Theo Hesegem. “Up there, they suffer the lack of food and medicines. Many people have also died after returning back to their home villages.”

Lawlessness and big politics

Father and son, Elias and Seru Karunggu – 40 and 20 years old respectively, both carpenters – were killed, on July 17, by Task Force “330” in their hometown of Kenyam. The killings were, officially stated, the results of a derailed arrest of “two armed men.” Any indications or proof has of yet not been disclosed in any technical shape or form.

“They were carpenters, both of them,” says Theo Hesegem, who arrived in Kenyam the day after, invited by the Karunggu family.

It did not take long before Hesegem himself received anonymous threats on his phone.

“Nobody has been charged, either for the killings or for the threats, despite many indications tell me that Indonesian security forces are behind both,” says Theo Hesegem.

The conflict has intensified in Nduga during 2019 and 2020. The Indonesian army has dug deep trenches in the region, resulting in the O.P.M. increasing their presence as well. We might stand on the threshold into a decisive stage in the conflict about control of western New Guinea, believes Frans Maniagasi, former member of the Indonesian council who outlined the current autonomous status of the region, which expires later this year.

“President Widodo has repeatedly displayed a commitment to solving the Papua issue once and for all,” Frank Maniagasi wrote in an op-ed for The Jakarta Post, on August 21. “Widodo has accelerated infrastructure development in Papua and visited the easternmost region more frequently than any other Indonesian president. But this is not enough.”

Demonstration utanför USA:s ambassad i Jakarta, 15 augusti. Foto: TT/AP Photo/Dita Alangkara

Which road to peace?

The only way to sustainable peace – according to Benny Wenda, an opinion shared with many other West Papuans – leads through another UN-supervised referendum, where the West Papuans can make their stand, choosing to either maintain West Papua’s current autonomous status as a part of Indonesia, or to break out as an independent nation (just like East Timor, in 1999). The referendum is a road which Indonesia, however, not considers necessary to even contemplate. The extraction of the West Papuan natural resources – the forests, the gold, the copper, the fishing waters – remains integral parts of the economy, and every Indonesian president – just like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro looks north to the Amazon – considers mines, highways, and palm oil plantations as necessary tools to bring “welfare” and “development” to “under-developed regions.”

The Indonesian development institute, INDEF, however, has put a wet blanket on the Trans-Papua Project’s sustainability, and pointed to the region’s unforgiving economic reality. The Trans-Papua Project’s primary excuse for its flattened jungle areas and demolished ecosystems is development and growth, but immediate changes in leadership is necessary if the project is to stand a chance to anchor itself among the local population, or even be able to control in terms of environmental care and socioeconomic consuquenses.

“Provincial-level political interventions are urgently required until more robust policies can be put in place,” a research team, based at James Cook University, Australia, wrote in a report for Environmental Science & Policy.

The idea of a newly planted Indonesian capital in the heart of Borneo has also started to take form. A project of that scale demands more than logged jungle and relocated local citizens, above else, it demands capital resources; something that the Grasberg mine has guaranteed the Indonesian treasure chest a steady income since the UN-backed referendum in 1969. An income that, although, has decreased recently, not only in the wake of the global Covid-19 pandemic, but primarily due to the escalated conflict.

Far away from financial calculations, in a cruel parallel reality, thousands of West Papuan continue to demand another referendum regarding the future of the western part of New Guinea, meanwhile O.P.M. continues to charge against the modern-equipped Indonesian army. In the firing line, stand the everyday West Papuans, those who try to make a living in order to survive in the powder keg that has been West Papua’s reality ever since the world community handed over western New Guinea to Indonesia.

“Many people in Nduga has lost everything,” says Theo Hesegem. “I hope those who have fled their homes and villages back in 2018 will be able to return before the end of the year. But that remains impossible, as long as the Indonesian forces remain present here.”

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