The Unbroken Spirit of Benny Wenda

Author: Febriana Firdaus, Thum Ping Tjin, Hasbi Ilman

It’s been a very long time since Benny Wenda has been home. The well-known Papuan activist claimed political asylum in the United Kingdom in 2002. Today, he lives in the English university city of Oxford—across the world from the lush highlands of West Papua where he was born.

The path that led Benny to the United Kingdom began long before he was even born. Until 1961, West Papua was a Dutch colonial territory. On 1 December 1961, West Papua declared its independence from the Netherlands. Indonesia, however, had claimed West Papua as part of its territory. Following the declaration of independence, it invaded and occupied West Papua. In 1969, it secured United Nations recognition for its claim via a rigged referendum process—the “Act of Free Choice”—where 1,026 tribal leaders, supposedly representing 800,000 Papuans, were forced under severe duress to accept integration into Indonesia. Since then, West Papua has been under de facto Indonesian military rule, and those who resist have experienced surveillance, harassment, imprisonment, and violence.

For more background on West Papua, read our explainer.

Many Papuans have resisted Indonesian rule, some taking on more active roles in pushing for independence through groups such as the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP), a coalition of three major pro-independence organisations.

Today, the chairmanship of the ULMWP rests on the shoulders of Benny Wenda. In August 2018, New Naratif met with him to learn more about his motivations, his aims, and his persistence in the face of incredible odds.

The Indonesian government often paints a picture of Benny Wenda as a recalcitrant, manipulative traitor, a demagogue and subversive who aims to cleave Indonesia in two. Ahead of the interview, we imagined a man of great vigour, strength, and charisma. But we found that he was none of those things.

The overwhelming initial impression was of a gentle, genial, old man of warmth and humour. But even that was misleading: while he looks elderly, Benny Wenda was, at the time of our interview, actually a much more sprightly 45 years old. He bore himself with dignity, spoke slowly, and carried the weight of his painful experiences. He spoke fluently in Bahasa Indonesia and heavily accented English, and was calm, almost unflappable, as he dealt with probing questions with humour and humility.

Innocence lost

Born in 1974, in the highlands of West Papua, a young Benny Wenda lived in Pirime district in the heart of Lanny Jaya regency[1]. West Papua is over 2,000 miles from Jakarta—equal to the distance between Jakarta and Vientiane, the capital of Laos.

“I grew up at that time with my mum, going to [tend our] gardens. I learned how to make a bow and arrow. I learned how to grow sweet potatoes,” he says of his childhood.

This serene state of affairs lasted until 1977, when the Indonesian military arrived at his village and changed everything. Benny recounted to us the oppression, violence, and brutality of this period, including the constant surveillance and checks by the military. Several of his aunties were raped and murdered.

In 1977 and 1978, Indonesia launched extensive military operations in the Central Highlands of Papua, in response to uprisings that surrounded the 1977 general elections. The Indonesian military bombed villages, and destroyed gardens that were ready for harvest.

There’s no official record of the number of people killed, but in 1981, a former governor of Papua, Eliezener Bonay, testified before the Tribunal on Human Rights in West Papua that the death toll was around 3,000[2]. Reverend Obet Komba, a priest from Baliem Valley, reported that the military operations resulted in the death of 11,000 people in Jayawijaya alone due to gunshots, torture, disease, and hunger. It’s estimated that there were 9,000 deaths in Wamena, Pyramid, Kurulu, Kelila, Bokondini and Kobakma, and 2,000 further deaths in the Eastern Highlands[3].

It’s been over 40 years, but the memories of the people who lived through it remain painfully vivid. Saul G Bomay, spokesman for the Free Papua Movement’s National Liberation Army Command Council (TPN-OPM) recalls seeing many victims: “Many of them [were] starving to death. There was no food [because] the gardens had been occupied by the pro-Indonesian military. We were fleeing to the northern part of Baliem, the central Membramo, Tolikara, Puncak Jaya, Ilaga, and Mulia.” These areas are located in the central highlands of West Papua.

Backed by the United States, the Indonesian military operation made life in the village untenable. Benny’s family, along with their neighbours, were forced to flee into the mountains. He’d been injured in the military attack, but there was no chance to seek medical attention. The lack of treatment for the very young Benny led to one leg being significantly shorter than the other, leaving him with a limp that he still has today.

The next year, when Benny was just five years old, his family were caught by the Indonesian military while walking in the mountains. “My mother was beaten up in front of my eyes. I was a young boy and I couldn’t do anything,” he recalls.

Benny’s father risked his life to protect his son. He put Benny on his shoulder and ran. But the military chased them down. His father begged the soldiers to let the boy live. “I never saw him again,” Benny says. The last image he has of his father is of a man bleeding, beaten, begging for his son’s life.

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There are many more stories Benny could tell about his family and the village, but he declines to say more. The memories are just too painful.

Leaving the jungle

According to his biography, Benny and his family lived in the jungle from 1977 to 1983. But they could only bear the deprivations of their jungle hideout for so long. The last straw was the death of his grandmother. His biography states that his grandfather had insisted the children leave the jungle, telling Benny’s mother that it was important “so that one day [Benny] will know what happened to us and why… and one day he will act”.

After Benny’s mother died from injuries sustained during a beating by Indonesian soldiers, Benny was adopted by his uncle. He’d lost everything and faced a bleak future, but was too young to fully grasp the gravity of the situation. But he remembered enough of what his family endured to be uncomfortable with the fact that his teacher at school was a member of the military.

“I was scared and traumatised,” he recalls. And it wasn’t just his teacher; the highly visible presence of the Indonesian military in West Papua also meant that Benny would see soldiers in his village, which made him panic. “I just ran away. I didn’t want to see the military.”

His uncle eventually took him to Jayapura, the capital of West Papua, hoping for him to continue his studies there. It was a well-intentioned move, but Jayapura was—and still is—dominated by the Indonesian military.

Benny remembers the terror he felt whenever he saw a soldier or policeman, and that he’d tried to bury his memory of what had happened in the jungle deep within himself. To make things worse, he was bullied by his classmates, who were migrants from other parts of Indonesia.

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“I went to sit next to this girl and then she looked at me and then she spit my face. I thought, maybe, my feeling was, maybe I am smelly. Maybe I didn’t wash enough,” he says, smiling at this recollection of his own innocence and naivete as a high school student.

Benny bought soap and bathed three times before school the next day. But the student spat at him again, attracting the laughter of his other classmates. It then dawned on him: it wasn’t about personal hygiene. It was racism.

“You think that because I am black, because I am Papuan, that I am dirty!?! I have eyes, I have hands… I am human—just like you! We are both human and we both deserve to be treated the same. With respect,” he is quoted on his website as saying. But the prejudice runs deep: Indonesian teachers and students used words like “stupid” or “dirty” to refer to Papuan students. There was also a tendency to see Papuans as primitive and even indecent; the practice of some Papuan men of wearing nothing but the traditional koteka (penis gourd) drew reactions of scorn and disgust.

Many West Papuans will find Benny’s school experience familiar, even today. In August 2019, new protests against racism erupted in response to alleged racist slurs and abuse directed at Papuan students in Surabaya, East Java. The military response to the protests led to the deaths of at least 33 Papuans, further inflaming tensions and prompting angry protesters to torch buildings and public facilities. A month later, fresh protests erupted when a teacher in Wamena, West Papua, allegedly mocked a Papuan student with the slur “monkey”. This time, most of the victims of the ensuing unrest were migrants from outside Papua, leaving anger and hostility on both sides.

After struggling through elementary and junior high school, Benny attended a state vocational high school in Abepura, Jayapura, where he studied electrical engineering. Danny—who only gave us his first name for his safety—was a classmate of Benny’s for three years, and was a close friend. He tells New Naratif that, as a teenager, the future leader of ULMWP had been “a very quiet and serious person” who would occasionally make jokes that won him the goodwill of his peers. But Benny never spoke of his family, nor brought up anything about his involvement in resisting Indonesian rule.

The birth of consciousness

Benny went on to study sociology at Cendrawasih University in Jayapura. This was a turning point in his life. He decided to learn about his identity: his culture, his nation, and his roots.

Benny’s passion for learning about the history of West Papua raised eyebrows; one of his university lecturers even thought to warn him. During the interview with New Naratif, Benny imitates his lecturer: “Benny, be careful, your aggressively [seeking] to find out this information will [put you in] danger.” Particularly because, the lecturer added then, Benny comes from the highlands, the centre of much of West Papuan resistance against the Indonesian military.

Like the rest of maritime Southeast Asia, West Papua is oriented towards the sea. The major cities are on the coast and are generally well-connected to the world via trade and information networks. Those in the highlands, however, have much less connectivity—not just to the coast, but also to other parts of the highlands. This combination of remote location and a lack of independent or alternative forms of media means that even today—and especially in the 1970s and 1980s—highland West Papuans are less well-informed about current events than their coastal compatriots.

This was particularly true during the military crackdown in 1969, when Indonesia was trying to secure the referendum to annex West Papua. But even to this day, parts of highland Papua are denied proper internet connectivity as the Indonesian military seeks to control information and obstruct the formation of any coherent, widespread movement. The central government in Jakarta fully controls the internet and telephony in West Papua. When six Papuans were shot and killed by the security forces in the highland region of Deiyai in August, the Indonesian Ministry of Communication blocked both internet access and the telephone line, leaving journalists unable to contact sources or break the news.

As a university student, Benny sought to break the information blockade by reading voraciously. He slowly came to a conclusion on why the Indonesian military bombed his village and killed members of his family. “The reason is because Indonesia illegally occupied our country,” he says. He called the 1969’s referendum an “act of no choice”, questioning how a referendum could possibly be legitimate when, out of nearly a million people, only 1,026 handpicked citizens were surveyed under duress.

Act of Free Choice / Act of No Choice

Until 1960, West Papua was slowly but surely in the process of decolonisation. It had previously been occupied by the Netherlands as part of the Dutch East Indies, and kept separate from the Indonesian archipelago upon the latter’s independence in 1945 as the Dutch believed that the West Papuans were distinct from the rest of the East Indies. As a leaked 2007 US Congressional research paper put it, “Many Papuans have a sense of identity that is different from the main […] identity of the rest of the Indonesian archipelago, and many favour autonomy or independence from Indonesia”.

A decolonisation plan was introduced by Dr. Joseph Luns in 1960, the Foreign Minister of the Netherlands, as the dispute between the Netherlands and Indonesia intensified. But Indonesia wasn’t happy with proposed independence for West Papua. On 19 December 1961, Indonesia’s President Sukarno announced Operation Tri Komando Rakyat (TRIKORA)—the annexation of the territory by force with the support of his closest ally, the Soviet Union.

Worried that Indonesia would align itself with the Soviet Union, the US sought to retain influence over the largest country in Southeast Asia. The Americans initiated the New York Agreement, between the Republic of Indonesia and the Kingdom of the Netherlands, concerning West New Guinea (as West Papua was then called). The document included a guarantee that the Papuan people would be allowed an “Act of Free Choice”—a referendum to determine their political status. It was based on this agreement that Indonesia, led at the time by President Suharto, organised the referendum in which a small number of Papuans were forced to vote to be part of Indonesia.

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Victor Mambor, a senior journalist in West Papua and former chief editor of Tabloid Jubi, the leading newspaper in the region, tells New Naratif that there were efforts to whitewash the referendum, or at least limit knowledge of its problems. During Suharto’s New Order regime, it was dangerous for journalists to write much about the referendum, and it was therefore rarely brought to the public’s attention. There was little awareness of the vote or its problems, both in Indonesia and internationally.

But President Suharto fell in May 1998, and another contested Indonesian-held territory, Timor-Leste, voted for independence in 1999. In 2000, the West Papuans held a congress, attended by thousands, to demand self-determination.

“It was… the first time information about the Act of Free Choice was unveiled. [The] more people came, [the] more information we received about the event,” says Mambor. The congress was covered by many foreign journalists, who began to write about the issues related to the referendum, and the demands of West Papuans.

The activist

During his interview with New Naratif, Benny Wenda repeatedly emphasised that “I don’t hate Indonesian people. We study together. We eat the same food,” he says. His grievances, he insists, are only based on the unfair political situation for his people.

“This is a humanitarian issue. It’s not about Benny Wenda fighting for myself. This is how every human being lives in harmony and peace… harmony for everyone. Because we share one planet. We are like a community,” he says.

While at university, Benny initiated discussion groups for Papuan students—of all ages and from all tribes, from both the highlands and coastal regions—to come together and talk about what it was to be Papuan. Above all, he wanted to change the mindset of Papuan children, who’d had been brought up being told they were primitive, dumb and dirty, and teach them that they should be proud of being Papuan.

In becoming an activist, Benny’s goals were twofold. Firstly, to bring peace to the West Papuan people; and secondly, to bring independence to West Papua. He disavowed any form of revenge or violence, and committed to campaigning peacefully, as he believed that this would attract more people to the cause. It was also a politically astute move: the West Papuans had no military capacity to resist the Indonesians, and there was little political will among foreign governments to support their cause. Any attempt to follow the Timorese example of guerilla resistance would likely have been used by the Indonesians to justify a massive internal crackdown, sold to the rest of the world as a reaction to domestic terrorism. It was likely that the world would have quietly looked away as Papuans died. By focusing the movement on nonviolence, Benny chose to follow in the footsteps of Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

To achieve his goals, Benny Wenda also set out to change Indonesians’ views and impressions of West Papua and its people. Across Indonesia, the overwhelming view of West Papua is one of apathy and acceptance of Indonesian rule. Benny wants to win the friendship and understanding of Indonesians, and to make allies of them. His movement is very active online and over social media, seeking to dispel ignorance and enhance understanding the plight of West Papuans.

In 1998, when Suharto fell, opportunities opened up for pro-independence West Papuans. The toppling of Suharto’s New Order government reinvigorated the independence movements in parts of Indonesia, including Aceh, Timor-Leste, and West Papua. After 32 years, people in West Papua were able to call for “Freedom for West Papua” in the streets. Young West Papuans who had previously couched their protests in terms of “more democracy”, were now able to openly state that they sought full-fledged independence. All of them shared the euphoria of what they called “Papuan Spring”.

Aprilia Wayar, a novelist and journalist, had been in her first year of university when Suharto fell. She tells New Naratif of how Papuan students—both within and without West Papua—began to organise in that period of relative openness. Students outside the island initiated the Papuan Student Alliance (Aliansi Mahasiswa Papua, or AMP), which went on to become the foundation of the Papuan youth movement. This past August, AMP was one of the leading organisations in the protests across Indonesia against racial abuse in Surabaya.

Benny Wenda was far from a household name then. “But at that time, we were not familiar with Benny Wenda, nor the organisation that he was later affiliated with,” she says. Instead, Aprilia mentions Theys Eluay, Thaha Al Hamid, Thomas Wanggai, and John Mambor as the leaders who were well-known among Papuan students in 1998.

Danny, who remained close to Benny even after high school, said that his old friend never discussed any political issues with him during the turmoil after Suharto. “I didn’t have enough information [about his activism], because he just came to my boarding house, and then slept over while listening to UB40 and Bob Marley,” he says. Benny was tight-lipped about his activities. It was only later that Danny learned that Benny was active in an organisation working with the tribes in the highlands, and had been imprisoned after joining a protest, sometime in 2000–2002.

“I knew about [him being arrested] from the Cendrawasih Post (a local newspaper). There was Benny’s name, but I doubted whether it was my friend Benny or not, because many Papuans are named Benny. I was shocked when I learned it was him,” Danny recalls.

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The organisation that Benny worked with was the Koteka Tribal Assembly (Dewan Musyawarah Masyarakat Koteka, or Demmak), and he was elected the executive leader in 2000. The assembly campaigned for the protection of the customs, values, and beliefs of the tribal people in the highlands, and was an umbrella organisation for several tribes from the central and southern highlands of West Papua—the Lani, Mee, Amungme, Komoro, Yali, Damal, and Moni, along with other sub-tribes such as Nggem, Walak, Hubla, Kimyal, Momuna, Ngalik. The assembly worked together with the Papua Presidium Council (PDP), then led by Theys Eluay, the most well-known West Papuan activist at the time.

Theys Eluay had previously led a delegation of at least 100 West Papuans to Jakarta, where they’d met with President BJ Habibie. Since Habibie had allowed Timor-Leste the right to hold a referendum on independence, Theys sought to negotiate the same opportunity for West Papua. But the talks failed—instead Habibie launched a special autonomy programme, ostensibly to devolve limited powers of governance to Papuans.

Benny was adamantly against the programme, which he saw as insufficient to answer the demands of West Papuans and their fight for independence—a fight in which many had already lost their lives. “I will never compromise on the offer [of special autonomy, expected to be extended in 2021] from Jakarta. That’s why Indonesia doesn’t like me,” he says.

Benny continues to reject any offer of dialogue with the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, a state research bureau that works on West Papua and other regions. While the Indonesian government would prefer talks to be done with the institute—which then makes recommendations to the government—Benny sees this arrangement as extremely limited. Such engagements with the institute tend not to include representation from multiple facets of West Papuan society: the churches, customary leaders, and Majelis Rakyat Papua (West Papuan People’s Assembly). Without such representation, it’d be difficult to come to any meaningful conclusion that would have sufficient buy-in.

Instead, Benny is focused on a single proposition: to let the people of West Papua choose their own path, via a free and fair referendum. He tells New Naratif that he’d respect the result of a free and fair vote, even if the result isn’t in line with his own political beliefs. “If [the people of West Papua] want to stay with Indonesia, that is fine,” he says. But Papuans have to choose that themselves, free from interference or intimidation.

He’s stuck to this position throughout the years. In October 2019, the Indonesian government announced plans to have a dialogue with him and ULMWP. But Benny told (link in Bahasa Indonesia) the media that he would only participate if certain conditions were met; namely, that the meeting include a broadly representative group of Papuans, rather than just him and his organisation. He also asked that access to West Papua be granted to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, international media, and other NGOs; sought the withdrawal of the 16,000 security forces deployed to West Papua since August 2019; and the release of political prisoners.

“In order for us to believe that things have changed, Indonesia must show good faith and agree to our conditions. Our desire is to achieve a democratic referendum, to uphold our right to be independent,” he explained to the media.

In 1999, the election of Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid as president gave the West Papuans new hope. Gus Dur had more tolerant politics than his predecessors; for the first time, West Papuans were free to raise their own flag, the Morning Star, a symbol of West Papua’s political and cultural identity. But Gus Dur’s administration was short-lived; he was toppled in 2001, and Megawati Sukarnoputri assumed office.

“He was a man of peace. He was a man of truth. I think he was a symbol of peace and justice,” says Benny, reflecting wistfully on Gus Dur’s short time in office.

Megawati reasserted Indonesian sovereignty over West Papua, condemned the independence movement, and cracked down on “separatists”. In November 2001, Theys Eluay, leader of the PDP, was assassinated by soldiers. There were fears that other West Papuan activists, including Benny, were in danger. But he refused to compromise on Demmak’s aim: full independence from Indonesia.

Escape from prison

On 6 June 2002, Benny was arrested in Jayapura. His home was ransacked without a warrant, and the police refused to inform him of the charges brought against him. He was tortured in police custody and held in solitary confinement for several months. He was eventually charged with inciting an attack on a police station in Abepura in 2000, even though he hadn’t even been in the country at the time of the alleged planning and execution of the attack. Despite this, he faced up to 25 years in prison.

Benny’s trial commenced 24 September 2002, lasting for several weeks. Armed police surrounded the courtroom each day, keeping an eye on his many supporters. According to his biography on his website, there were irregularities with the proceedings. The prosecution and even the judge allegedly asked for bribes from his defence team (they refused), and there were problems with identifying key prosecution witnesses and getting them to testify in court. He had little confidence that he would get a fair trial.

While in prison, Benny recounts, he was physically attacked by the prison guards and threatened by the head of the prison, Sudarsono. Because of the lack of evidence against him in the trial, he explains, there were rumours that the military intelligence would kill him in prison before the trial reached a verdict. On the advice of his lawyers, he didn’t eat the food provided in prison because of the risk of poisoning. He was also at risk of violence from other prisoners. He knew that he would be murdered if he stayed. He needed to escape.

Here, Benny grows vague. He won’t say much about how he got out; all he says is that, as he left, he made a promise: “I said, if I manage to escape, I will carry the message with me… I’ll tell the world that my people want to be free. That’s my promise. I will tell my people that I leave you with tears but one day I will come back to you with smiles. That’s my promise.”

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Turning again to his biography, Benny escaped from Abepura prison on 27 October 2002. The Indonesian police allegedly issued a shoot-to-kill order. But Benny was smuggled across the border to Papua New Guinea, and later assisted by a European NGO group to travel to the UK, where he was granted political asylum. In 2003, Benny and his wife Maria were reunited in England, where they now live with their five children.

He remains one of Indonesia’s most wanted men to this day. The Indonesian government has made attempts to hinder his work, such as issuing an international arrest warrant through Interpol in 2011. The warrant was revoked in 2012 following an appeal.

But the animosity continues to fester; recently, Benny made headlines once more after then-Security Minister Wiranto accused (link in Bahasa Indonesia) him of masterminding demonstrations across West Papua. Benny’s response was to point out that Wiranto is himself a war criminal, who has been established by the UN and domestic investigations to have played a role in facilitating human rights violations by the Indonesian army and state-backed militia in Timor-Leste.

Building a united movement

Soon after being granted refugee status in the United Kingdom, Benny set up the Free West Papua Campaign, which works to spread awareness of human rights abuses in West Papua and seeks self-determination for the people of Papua. He travels constantly throughout the UK and Europe to highlight the plight of his people. “From here in Oxford, I travelled up and down in this country, to tell them my story, with my wife and play [West Papuan] music,” he said.

As he started the campaign, a friend commented on the seeming impossibility of the cause. “Benny, your case is [against a] big country. How can you change the mindset of this big country?”

Benny was undaunted. He had to start somewhere. And support grew slowly over the years, from both the UK and overseas. Today the Free West Papua campaign has branches and supporting organisations in Europe, the USA, Australia, the Pacific Islands, the Philippines, and Africa, built up through the work of multiple Papuan exiles and their allies.

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He’s also participated in other initiatives. In October 2008, he was involved in launching International Parliamentarians for West Papua at the House of Commons in London, alongside Lord Harries of Pentregarth and then-Member of Parliament for Oxford Andrew Smith. The group focuses on developing support for West Papua among parliamentarians across the world, so as to one day achieve support at the UN level for West Papua’s independence.

In 2014, Benny and other pro-independence activists initiated the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP), the organisation of which he is chairman today. ULMWP unites three main political organisations—the Federal Republic of West Papua (NRFPB), the West Papua National Coalition for Liberation (WPNCL) and the National Parliament of West Papua (NPWP)—under one umbrella.

“We have a common opponent, which is Indonesia. We want to show the Indonesian government and outsiders that we are united… We just want to peacefully hold a referendum,” he said of the organisation’s purpose. ULMWP largely focuses on lobbying international groups and governments to seek support for the Papuan cause.

But to portray the Free Papua Movement as a unified organisation would be extremely misleading. As the mess of acronyms which combined to form the umbrella ULMWP shows, it’s heavily divided by ethnic, regional, personal, and strategic disagreements. The creation of the ULMWP was a breakthrough driven largely by a common desire for recognition and eventual membership of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, but the movement still lacks significant coordination. The armed units cover different areas, with limited territorial control and no single commander, and the political groups have never been able to direct them for common purpose. The political groups are divided between those who would favour a more aggressive approach, in order to provoke violence from security forces and hope that international outrage over human rights violations would change international reluctance to intervene (as happened in Timor-Leste); and those who would prefer to negotiate with the Indonesian government, mediated by an international third party (as with Aceh). But the conditions in Aceh that produced a peace agreement in 2005, ending a three-decade insurgency, were vastly different to those in Papua, and Indonesian agreement to an outside mediator is extremely unlikely. As Chairman of ULMWP, Benny attempts to straddle and find compromise between all these positions.

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Another positive breakthrough occurred in 2017, when activists risked arrest and imprisonment to collect 1.8 million signatures (including 70.88% West Papua’s indigenous population) for a petition demanding self-determination, only to be blocked from delivering it to the UN. They finally succeeded in January 2019 after Benny was allowed to join a Vanuatu delegation meeting with the UN Commission for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet—a move that angered the Indonesian government, who accused Vanuatu of “taking manipulative steps”.

“This is the UN’s mistake. You broke your own rules, you have to fix it,” he tells us.

As news of his work and exploits are transmitted across the globe, Benny has gained popularity among West Papuans across Southeast Asia. Three young West Papuan students who had joined the protests against racism this past August tell New Naratif that they see Benny Wenda as a role model. In Boven Digoel, on the border between West Papua and Papua New Guinea, a West Papuan says he’d heard about what Benny’s work in the UK. His eyes sparkle when he hears that New Naratif met him in Oxford. “We follow what Benny is doing from here,” he says.

“Almost everyone [in West Papua] knows who Benny Wenda is,” says his former classmate Danny.

But internal divisions remain. While praised by ordinary Papuans, Benny has been criticised by fellow pro-independence activists. In July 2019, when Benny announced that three armed groups—the West Papua Revolutionary Army (TRWP, short for the Tentara Revolusi West Papua), the West Papuan National Army (TNPB, short for the Tentara Nasional Papua Barat) and the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB, short for the Tentara Pembebasan Nasional Papua Barat)—agreed to join forces to step up their push for independence—he was rebuffed by the TPNPB-OPM spokesperson, Sebby Sambom.

Sebby accused Benny of hijacking the pro-independence movement, and making unilateral claims. “That is cheap propaganda by Benny Wenda and Jacob Rumbiak who want to seek legitimacy from [us], because we do not recognise ULMWP,” he told the BBC.

Ironically, even if parts of the Free Papua Movement do not recognise the leadership of the ULWMP, the Indonesian government has tacitly recognised it as the movement’s leading representative. It directs its attacks and criticisms towards Benny and the ULMWP, blames it for protests and violence (Wiranto’s recent verbal attack on Benny and ULMWP is a case in point), and makes its offers of dialogue to it.

Victor Mambor says that arguments between pro-independence activists are common. Since the death of Theys Eluay, there hasn’t been a clear leader for Papua to unite behind. But that might be a secondary issue considering the larger goal, and different people can play different roles. “Benny has his own job to do,” he says.

A little hope for Jokowi

Among President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s campaign promises in 2014 was a pledge to let West Papuans express their freedom of speech, as they’d done during Gus Dur’s administration. It’s a promise that many say hasn’t been fulfilled; instead, Jokowi appears to be focusing more on commitments to develop infrastructure in the region, supposedly to enrich the Papuan people and improve their quality of life.

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Benny is sceptical of Jokowi’s claims, particularly since the people of West Papua have little to no say over what and how development takes place. “You can bring development, [but] development should have already happened 30 years go. So you cannot bring development onto the suffering of over hundreds of thousands already killed, and [where] the sentiment is already rigid.”

Jokowi has also let West Papuans down before. In 2014, children in Paniai Regency were killed by joint police-military officers. Jokowi pledged to solve the case, but ended up handing the responsibility to General Wiranto, an indicted war criminal. Without any transparency into how the investigation is being conducted, the victims’ families are still without answers or justice.

Benny had hoped that re-election in 2019 would put Jokowi in a better position to fulfill his promises, but this doesn’t seem likely as Jokowi appears to be aligning himself closer to the Indonesian military. While Jokowi has visited West Papua following his re-election, he’s been silent over the death of West Papuans during the recent unrest.

There are also new challenges outside of Indonesia. The country has launched an Agency for International Development, aimed at strengthening diplomatic relations in the region by providing aid, with priority given to Pacific nations. Government watchdogs have flagged concerns that this could be one tactic to lobby or even co-opt countries that have sympathies with the West Papuan movement. In a world of political and economic deals conducted by ruling elites, such a move would present another tricky puzzle for activists to solve.

Benny Wenda isn’t sure if he will ever return to a free West Papua. But he lives in hope: “One day, a young bright leader and a new generation of Indonesians, [will be] coming out. They will understand… one day, they will change. One day, they will admit what they’re doing.”


[1] Pirime was part of Jayawijaya regency until 2008. Under the special autonomy law, the village was transferred to the administration of Lanny Jaya regency.
[2] Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic, Yale Law School, Indonesian Human Rights Abuses in West Papua: Application of the Law of Genocide to the History of Indonesian Control, page 24 (April 2008)
[3] Dirk Vlasblom, Papoea: Een Geschiedenis (Mets & Schilt, 2004), p. 537.

Text by Thum Pingtjin and Febriana Firdaus
Illustrations from the comic “I am Human, Just Like You” by Hasbi Illman

More about West Papua in New Naratif

Further Reading

Organisations Working on West Papua

Febriana Firdaus

Febriana Firdaus is an independent investigative journalist whose major focus is reporting the struggle for self-determination in West Papua. Her piece on the killings of the children in the highlands in West Papua was published in the TIME. She also notably received the SOPA Award for excellent reporting on the environment for her 'vigorous and detailed look at a major environmental problem' in Mentawai Island.

Thum Ping Tjin

Thum Ping Tjin (“PJ”) is Managing Director of New Naratif and founding director of Project Southeast Asia, an interdisciplinary research centre on Southeast Asia at the University of Oxford. A Rhodes Scholar, Commonwealth Scholar, Olympic athlete, and the only Singaporean to swim the English Channel, his work centres on Southeast Asian governance and politics. His most recent work is Living with Myths in Singapore (Ethos: 2017, co-edited with Loh Kah Seng and Jack Chia). He is creator of “The History of Singapore” podcast, available on iTunes. Reach him at

Hasbi Ilman

Hasbi Ilman is a comic artist, illustrator and graphic designer from Indonesia. He's also editor-in-chief of Jurnalis Komik (, an independent alternative media platform that centers comics journalism. For more of his work, see

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