Benny Wenda and Oridek Ap, West Papua leaders: “Our independence was stolen. Indonesia claimed our territory illegally”

Welcome to a new Descifrando la Guerra interview, we are today with our special guests: Benny Wenda, he is one of the West Papua independence leaders; and Oridek Ap, he is one of the representatives in the European Union. Thanks for your attendance.

English version – Versión en español

Complete interview on video with subtitles. Source: Descifrando la Guerra.
  • [Question]: First of all, we want to talk about the organization and the interim government. You were appointed in 2017, right? So my first question is about it. Why do you consider yourself as a President? What is the correlation of political forces that gave you the legitimacy?

[Benny Wenda]: Yes, in West Papua we have three main political organizations namely [West Papua National Coalition for Liberation], [National Parliament of West Papua] and Federal Republic [of West Papua]. So the three main political parties in West Papua became united. In fifty years we never united because Indonesia were using that, you know, advantage of the divided and conquered and dividing the world. So for the first time we realised that we have to unite to achieve our goal because without unity you cannot achieve it. And Indonesia used, you know, “oh this is a handful of people” trying to divide but we’re united. In 2014 we formed United Liberation Movement (ULMWP), first time ever in our history supported by Vanuatu government, and current correspondent of the unity. Since 2015 we’ve applied for membership of the Melanesian Spearhead Group. They had accepted us as an observer. Of course our colonial master Indonesia associate member. So since then, we felt the confidence. In 2017 upgraded our organizations to upgrade our status as a chairman, become a chairman of the United Liberation Movement. And then in 2020 West Papua council passed our Constitution for the first time. We have many facts and have our own Constitution but because of unity and important that is the serious and we have to unite and we have formed a provisional government after adopting our Constitution. And then in 2020 we announced our provisional government. That Constitution allowed me to announce the provisional government. And then we announced in May, we announced the cabinet. And then, last year in Glasgow we announced our vision, our green state vision. So we have all complete. So this is in order to reject Indonesian illegal occupation in West Papua. We don’t obey the Indonesian rules in West Papua, our territory. We have our own Constitution, we have our government, we have our vision, we have our cabinet, we have a legislative and judicative. Also we have a Prime Minister, Edison Waromi, in West Papua. He leads the cabinet in West Papua. So I’m exiled. I’m Interim President in exile because many presidents or many leaders have been killed before. So now we promote our cause and we’re ready to engage regionally, internationally, with anybody.

  • [Q]: Yes. That’s interesting because I want to know what is the real support you have on the ground there in West Papua. Because you both live outside of the country, right?

[BW]: Yes. We… our people… All the leaders are inside. Three leaders formed United Liberation (ULMWP) and signed the memorandum of understanding back in 2014. They are all inside West Papua. We are working as a team. And our people are behind them. So that’s why we confidently tell the world we’re ready to engage anybody.

  • [Q]: Do you support any kind of armed struggle for achieving the independence?

[BW]: We used to in 1970-1980. And in 2000 under my leadership at that time back in West Papua we approached a peaceful way to engage with Indonesian government. But they didn’t like it and they arrested me. They put me in the prison for almost 25 years. They wanted to kill me. I managed to run away so now I’m in exile. So this is the flag. It’s forbidden in West Papua. If you are holding this flag… I ended up in prison because of this flag for 25 years. So Indonesia don’t like the peaceful way to engage. They don’t like. That’s why now we are ready to engage anybody.

  • [Q]: So you could support some armed struggle if it’s necessary for the process.

[BW]: I think armed struggle, yes. I’m not denying there is our great fighters. I call them home guards. They are defending their right because there is no way to escape, no way to run away. Indonesia is well-equipped with modern weapons. My people just use bow and arrows and axes. They are just defending their lands, their rights, their forests and their mountains. I cannot deny. But now we want to approach by a peaceful way and engage with the international community. That’s our position now.

  • [Q]: And what have you achieved since 2017 diplomatically?

[BW]: Yes. We are really engaged regionally, we are member of the Melanesian Spearhead Group. And Indonesia is an associated member. We’re already sitting with Indonesia face-to-face. They never bring the solution to that issue in the table, in the Indonesian table. But we offered, you know, talking about human rights situation. They don’t. After that we become a member, now we lobby the Pacific Islands Forum to adopt the resolution, to the 18 countries in the Pacific that now they you and I commissioners of West Papua. The second forum not really in there but… we’ve moved into internationally, OACPS (Organization for African, Caribbean and Pacific States) also adopted the resolution. From there… We also got, you know, 84 countries at demanding to United Nations to fix West Papua because of current situation in West Papua. 60.000 West Papuan are displaced from its own land, 400 West Papuan have already died 2018 up to now. This is why it’s urgent to act calling for all the countries. In fact, Spain, led by Senator Gorka, passed the resolution. I hope that the government continues to support it to fix it.

  • [Q]: Let’s continue with you, Oridek. What is the strategy you think you must follow to achieve the independence? For example unilateral declaration of independence, an agreement with Jakarta, continue with the armed struggle…

[Oridek Ap]: No, as President said we have our elders, we have defenders of our land but we have changed our strategy. We believe that we should follow the political ways. But like every people in the world we have the right of self-determination but we have also the right of self-defence. So of course that’s the right of every people. But the best way to achieve a political goal is through diplomacy. As you now Indonesia is a great military power. It would be almost suicidal to have a military approach. So there’s one thing from our response side, that we believe that through diplomacy we can achieve more. It has been already proven because we manage to gain a lot of political spots in our region: in Melanesia, in Pacific, but also in Africa, in Caribbean and in Europe. So it’s a better way than what our elders used to try. They never had the support that we have now achieved.

  • [Q]: What relationship do your movement have with the other political force, the Free Papua Movement (OPM)?

[OA]: That’s our background. We are also from Free Papua Movement. That’s our background. When I say “our elders” I mean “them”. His elders are OPM, my elders are also OPM. But we chose to unite with the other two factions because we believe that we should unite to achieve our independence.

  • [Q]: Political groups were united, as you said, in 2014. And you were appointed as President in 2017. And there was another reunion with the military arms that took place in 2019, but some of that groups refuse this is a unified force. What do you think about it?

[OA]: Yes, that’s because some of them uses social media to protect their own position but actually behind the scene all the elders are united. You know, these young generals, okay. But the elders are united and that’s the most important thing. At some point the truth will come up. People will know there’s only one West Papuan army. We are not talking anymore about sporadic military attacks.

[BW]: Yes, may I add something on that. We have three factions with its own military union, like federal. The three factions were united, all the military wings came together in 2018. We announced the West Papua Army. So yes, of course, every struggle has every faction. But somebody is using the name of West Papua Army as a different faction but everybody were united. So every individual can do that in the social media but everybody were united. That is propaganda done by Indonesia. We don’t believe that’s a true social media. Our people are already united. There is already a signed agreement, a memorandum of understanding. We put that back in 2018. Everyone who acts on that either individual, that’s always Papua Army. We wants to peacefully engage with Indonesian government. Indonesia is using here the propaganda, almost 300.000 US$ paid to operate propaganda messages on the social media. We know it, it’s investigated by BBC. So that’s a fact and up to now we believe we’re already united. That’s why we are confidently ready to engage anybody, including Indonesia. That’s why I requested President of Indonesia “sit down with me, talk about withdraw the military, talk about right to self-determination of people of West Papua”. If the people of West Papua choose staying with Indonesia, it’s fine, but if they want the independence, it’s fine. The most important thing is to talk about the solution, we are not talking about confrontations but the solution. Any movement in the world, including this country, also have their own experience. That is why we arrived to be here in this house, this is the starting point.

  • [Q]: So you claim United Liberation Movement of West Papua has actual control over all of the three military groups of the West Papua Army.

[BW]: Yes, yes.

  • [Q]: What is your strategy regarding Indonesia and the process of independence in the future?

[BW]: Yes, we were already an independent country in the 1960s. We already had independence. And our independence was stolen. Just few days and stolen by Indonesia. This is from one colonial power to another newer one colonial power. So Indonesia claimed our territory illegally. That’s a full stop. No question. That’s why Indonesia doesn’t want to come to table to talk about it. So the legal argument, political argument are completely lost. They’re just trying to convince the world and the European Union that are developing infrastructure. You cannot build infrastructure on top of the suffering… No. So we are ready. We have our Constitution, we have our parliaments, legislatives, judicatures, executives. So we are ready. That’s why I’m confident to tell the world.

  • [Q]: Does your strategy go through a referendum?

[BW]: That is what we are demanding Indonesia. Because Indonesia called and big powers called in 1969 for a referendum. There is no referendum in West Papua. How can a 800.000 population [turn into] just 1.020? For example, for people in Catalonia or any country that represents like 500, just one person is chosen to vote for all in behalf of Catalonia, the Basque Country or Madrid. That is not a referendum. It’s mean one man, one vote. It didn’t happen. That’s why it’s a fraud. And, yes, Indonesia claimed that United Nations recognised their sovereignty. But United Nations just took the “No”. Never endorsed. That’s why they are scared.

  • [Q]: How would you avoid in an eventual referendum that it could happen the same as in 1969 when Indonesia chose the voters for the referendum?

[BW]: We already proved that in 2017. Our people voted in 1.8 million. 1.8 million have already voted. I delivered it to UN Commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, in Geneva. These were big books. So people already voted. And I’m confident that when referendum comes, people 100% will vote for independence. That is a proof. That’s why Indonesia is scared.

[OA]: If there’s another referendum coming to West Papua it needs to be a supervised vote. Supervised by the UN. So there’s some criteria we need to have to safeguard our right.

[BW]: In 2016 we announced international supervised vote in British Parliament because back in 1969 nobody knows that was just a hunted by gunpoint. But now with the technology we demanded United Nations international supervise, put in place, we draught the military and give the people the opportunity to choose their own destiny. That’s what we have demanded.

  • [Q]: Talking about the region, do you have any support, explicit support for the independence of West Papua in the Asia-Pacific or Oceania region?

[OA]: Actually, there are some friends, civil society friends in Philippines and Japan. So it’s a starting point. In Malaysia also. They are not that many but it’s a starting point. And we believe that when we got the chance to meet people in Asia and they understand, they will support us. Since three, four years even our Indonesian friends are willing to risk their careers, risk their lives just to defend our rights. So when we are able to convince the Indonesian about assisting us of course we can convince the whole Asia. We should convince and focus on Indonesian people themselves because even Indonesian people doesn’t understand why West Papuan want to be free. All these years, they didn’t understand the pain my people are feeling, the suffering. For more than sixty years they treated our people as subhumans. It became known to the world after the oppression in 2019. That’s because the Indonesian military forces with some militia groups were so clever enough to record themselves, yelling, threatening our student and calling them monkeys, and so on. And our people got angry. It’s not new but because it was viral our people got angry. Because they say “all these years you came into our houses, into our kitchens, you took everything and we did nothing to you and you yell and call us monkeys”. So since then, our people said “okay, if we are monkeys, don’t come and steal our gold, don’t come and steal our trees, just go back to your human land”. So you know, it’s not something new. We believe that we can convince the whole Asia if they know about what it’s happening in West Papua, they will understand and they will support. But the thing is West Papua is closed to the outside world. For sixty years no media attention, no support for a humanitarian organization. They could have been our support but it’s banned in West Papua. That’s why we think the best way to convince the world is by peaceful ways. And we’ve used music and storytellings of many years before we sit down here as leaders of our people. We have used music to campaign and with our storytelling we manage to find friends and we could have contact the MPs (members of Parliaments) or senates. We believe that if the world know us, they will understand our pain, they will understand our sovereign and they will understand our struggle. And when they understand, they will support.

  • [Q]: Are you receiving some support from the European Union and The Netherlands?

[OA]: What I said, Netherlands for the first time in fifty years they are really into talks openly about supporting a UN Mission in West Papua. That’s the first time in fifty years. I’ve been lobbying since the beginning of 2000 in an out of the building, in another Ministry, in Dutch Parliament. But answer is always the same, always reluctant and carefully written but change has come and it was also texted to the motion from Senator Gorka. You know about David defeated Goliath? You just need a small brick to defeat a big enemy so that is the small brick that we see as a possibility to kill the oppressor. That’s happening, that’s happening right now. It’s not clear for other people as it is to West Papuans. But we believe that. And our people, when they saw the motion from they prayed silently or they prayed in secret because right now, as I speak even prayers are not allowed. When we call our people openly in social media to come and pray for certain meetings or political victory they will come and disturb. They will stand outside with guns and military cars, so that’s the reality in West Papua.

  • [Q]: Do you support the protests that took place in Indonesia against the autonomy law for West Papua?

[OA]: Of course we support the protests. Our people is against that law.

  • [Q]: Even in Jakarta I mean.

[OA]: Even in Jakarta but those are our friends who are willing to sacrifice their lives, their careers to defend our rights, to defend our people. So of course we support. We’ve never supported the special autonomy from the beginning. They gave us that so-called “special autonomy” because in early 2000 we were demanding “merdeka”, independence. So that’s why they gave us this little bag of candies for our people to “okay, eat them, forget about West [Papua]”. They give a little piece of meat but actually we have the right.

  • [Q]: Vanuatu has been hosting some summits with politicians from West Papua for these years. How is your relationship with that government even when they changed recently?

[BW]: I think that Vanuatu is one of the founding fathers called father Walter Lini. He stated that Vanuatu was not free and other Melanesian were not free including New Caledonia and West Papua. So that principle is held by all the community, all the Vanuatu people. The governments from the opposition and the government they all support because they believe in justice and freedom. And they also fought for the independence from the British and their friends), so they all believed and we have good relation with Vanuatu. Constantly they are supporting us for this until today. They believe in freedom and liberty for their brothers.

  • [Q]: And how is your relationship with the Melanesian Spearhead Group? Because you are willing to became a full member of this organization. So how is this process going? Do you want to became an associated member as Indonesia or a party like the Kanak one (FLNKS)?

[BW]: We’re entitled to become a full member because of the Melanesian principle, the Melanesian forum is for Melanesian people, not the others, not the outsiders. So the Melanesian principle is to liberate all the Melanesian who are under colonial rule. That’s the principle of the Melanesian Spearhead Group. Indonesia is there because of West Papua. So we have demanded full member. At the moment we are an associated observer, Indonesia is associated member. But we are entitled to become a full member, just like Kanak (New Caledonia). So Indonesia is up to the government but we aim a full member, that is our place. By blood we are Melanesian. Culturally, linguistically we are entitled to be a full member. Not Indonesia. Indonesia is different culturally, it’s not connected to Melanesia.

  • [Q]: What role can Spearhead Group play for the independence of Papuan movement?

[BW]: I think Melanesian leaders are capable to handle with current situations in the region. For example, Papua New Guinea it’s small, newly independent country. That’s why Indonesia should learn from Papua New Guinea. Papua New Guinea can deal with the Bougainville issue, giving freedom to choose their own destiny, which is to hold a referendum. Kanak had a referendum, three times now. French were willing to give the opportunity to choose their own destiny. They had referendum, they didn’t succeed but hopefully they will continue. So that is why we see that Melanesian leaders are capable to deal with such issues. That’s why I’m encouraging Indonesia to learn they have the obligation to give the opportunity to West Papua to choose our own destiny. That’s what early I already said, whether West Papua to be free or independent… At least, to have the opportunity to choose our own destiny.

  • [Q]: How do you see the process of Bougainville as you have mentioned? Because Papua New Guinea is going wait until at least 2027 for the real independence of Bougainville. Do you support this process?

[BW]: Absolutely because that is the commitment of the government of Papua New Guinea. Because that’s why now they have held a referendum but they had to amend certain laws in the Parliament. That’s why negotiations are going. I think they are brothers. They must solve the issue in Melanesian way. We call it Melanesian way, they’ve already dealt it.

  • [Q]: So you support the process of independence of another like the Chuuk experience in Micronesia.

[BW]: Yes. Absolutely. It’s their right. They’re right. There are already referendums anyway, they’re just in process.

  • [Q]: Okay. In the case of an independent West Papua, what would be your geopolitical preferences in the area? Would you be up to some Chinese investments as you said last year? Or maybe as you told in 2020 to Australia and New Zealand to think twice about securing West Papua. Is that some kind of proposal to Australia and New Zealand to counter Chinese influence?
benny wenda oridek ap
Interview by Alejandro López to Benny Wenda and Oridek Ap. Madrid, 2022. Source: Descifrando la Guerra.

[BW]: We have our own principles. We have our own Constitution. We welcome anybody who offer to support us. We are non-aligned in the future long run. Because we need everybody’s support. Anyone can offer to liberate our people’s desire to independence. That’s what we welcome. So we are not in line with a particular country but we welcome everybody who wants to support us. Because our people have suffered very long time, nearly for sixty years. We are discriminated in our homeland. We want to be free, we want to see our people who are living in exile, who are living in the bush, they come to West Papua, sit down in a family reunion. We want to see that. That is our mission. We welcome anybody who wants to openly support.

  • [Q]: So you are open to Chinese recognition and relationship or would you prefer to have ties with Taiwan?

[BW]: As I mentioned, either US or European Union, or China or Taiwan… Anybody who wants to support, we’ll welcome because we believe that we have a resource in everything but we need the political support. That’s what we are looking for.

  • [Q]: But some of them are incompatible.

[BW]: Absolutely. That’s the view of the political analysis. But from our point of view, we welcome. Even if devil comes to help us to rescue our people, we’d welcome devil too. That’s the kind of thing that we all view. We suffered for long time. The world ignored. Anybody who wants to support, it’s welcome. That’s our position.

[OA]: You know when in our way to independence, even to talk to the devil, we will talk to the devil. Or to talk to the angels, we’ll talk to the angels. But when we gain independence, you know we have our vision, as our President have said. We have our vision of the tomorrow’s West Papua. We call it the green state vision of West Papua. So we’ll work with any partners who support our vision. If you don’t support our vision, we don’t need to work with you because this is something that we promised our people and we want to stand that. We want to establish our own home according to our own values and norms. So if you support our green state vision, we will talk to you. But if you don’t support our vision and you want to impose your things, “ok, we will think about it”. At this moment we have our vision and when we realise we achieved our independence, of course we will talk to everybody who is willing to build our house understanding our green state vision. There’s something you can look up on the Internet. We have launched our vision during the COP26. It’s our message to the world, we have something to share with the world. We call it the green state vision. So when we say it to the world, we mean we are in the world. We don’t choose a side, we don’t choose one of the two giants…

  • [Q]: Well, it’s not necessary to choose a side but there’s some countries in the region that are leading the independence process like Fiji does with Australia. So I guess you prefer everyone recognising your country as independent but you will have to choose some partners for investments.

[BW]: Absolutely. Australia and New Zealand are closer because we have historical connection with Australia. Because in II World War our people became front line guarding the invasion of the Japanese. That sacrifice of all the New Guinea people, there’s more than an obligation. At this point we are seeking for a wider international recognition of our call for independence and self-determination. That’s our position.

  • [Q]: How would you prefer to have a relation with Papua New Guinea? For example an association, a federal union, a confederation or simply neighbourhood…

[BW]: By blood they are our very close brothers, only a border separates one and another. But we are already in Melanesian Spearhead Group. It’s a federation of the Melanesian and we are already in. So we don’t need to make another federation or association. All Melanesian are our brothers. By blood we are brothers. When West Papua independence is more powerful in the region, we’ll have good relations with the Melanesia, Micronesia, Polynesia. Including Asia, including Indonesia. Will be good neighbours. With Indonesia now you see something hiding, like someone hiding something and someone wants to find “what are you hiding?” They’re trying to hide in many ways but world is finding out that and one day we will be good neighbours with Indonesia. We are not against the ordinary Indonesian but the system they impose to us and the military imposed against us. That’s our position.

  • [Q]: And finally, do you consider French or British possessions in Pacific Ocean as already colonized territories? Do you think they must be independent?

[BW]: Absolutely. You’ve seen in the Pacific mostly the British colonies and half is in France and this is a colonised by these two powerful countries in Europe. And there are more obligations to support our call because West Papua is a gatekeeper. Do you know what a gate keeper is? Because we are the biggest in the west of the Pacific countries, we are the biggest in the front line facing this situation. So people thought that colonialism, imperialism was in Europe or in Africa but is happening in the Pacific. Nobody knows. That’s why the world and Europe are -beginning -particularly young generations- are finding out through social media and internet. So hopefully will trigger attention to support our call for independence.

Okay. So thank you Benny Wenda and Oridek Ap for attending us and answering our questions. And thanks to all our viewers for watching.


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Antropólogo, profesor y biólogo especializado en gestión de socioecosistemas. Ahora me dedico al análisis de política internacional.

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