West Papua: Dutch
past, Indonesian present
An interview with Papuan human rights activist John
OpenDemocracy, 23rd May 2003
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.
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?
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
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
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
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
" 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