The future of the left since 1884

Paradise lost

Human rights abuses in West Papua receive little coverage in the UK. But Britain is complicit in the oppression of Papuans, writes Benny Wenda



West Papua, my country, has suffered under brutal Indonesian occupation since 1963. For most of that time, the UK has provided the Indonesian state with political and military support. This has helped enable many terrible atrocities of which British people are largely ignorant.

After decades of campaigning alongside Labour MPs and activists, and a commitment to uphold the rights of Papuans in the 2019 manifesto, we launched Labour Friends of West Papua (LFWP) in April this year. LFWP will become the home of every British person who cares about peace, climate justice, and democracy, and wants to see these ideals realised in West Papua.

Previously under Dutch rule, indigenous West Papuans made preparations for independence during the period of decolonisation following the second world war. On December 1st 1961, we celebrated our Independence Day by raising our national flag, the Morning Star. But our dream of an independent nation was cruelly snatched away when Indonesia invaded, and the Dutch came under American pressure to hand West Papua over to a new colonial master. Under Indonesian rule, raising the Morning Star is now punishable by 15 years, or even longer, in prison.

The 1962 New York Agreement, which was signed without a single West Papuan in the room, transferred control of West Papua to Indonesia. However, this colonial agreement contained a condition that Indonesia hold a free and fair vote on independence. That vote never happened. Instead, Indonesia bribed and intimidated 1,026 hand-picked Papuan elders into voting against independence on behalf of a population of over 800,000. Elders considering dissent were threatened with harsh punishment, including having their tongues cut out, with at least one allegedly murdered. This fraudulent procedure, which was approved by the United Nations, is the sole legal basis of Indonesia’s claim to West Papua.

Though I am the president of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP), I have lived in the UK for over 20 years. I did not want to leave West Papua, but my life was gravely endangered because I fought for my people’s freedom. Indeed, experts at Yale and Sydney Universities have described the situation in West Papua as genocidal. Over 500,000 of us have been killed in the past 60 years, though it is impossible to obtain an exact figure due to a strict blackout imposed on foreign media and NGOs. Massacres, such as the killing of 10 Papuans by Indonesian security forces in February, are a regular occurrence. The history of Indonesian rule is written in the blood of my people.

West Papua is on the frontline of the global climate crisis. We are home to half of the world’s third-largest rainforest, containing birds-of-paradise and the tree kangaroo. But we are also home to the world’s largest gold and second-largest copper mine, and an oil palm plantation the size of London. Indonesia is slicing down our forest, with an area the size of Oxford disappearing every month. And despite our land’s natural wealth, Papuans are the poorest people in Indonesia.

The UK is implicated in this ongoing crime against my people. By allocating funds to Indonesia to fight deforestation, they inadvertently put money in the pockets of very same Jakarta elite who are cutting down our forests and poisoning our rivers. Once this funding is given, there is no effective way of monitoring how it is spent. The terrible effects of Indonesian development are seen across West Papua. In the Merauke region, a massive network of plantations has ruined the landscape, as well as the culture of the local Marind tribe, whose staple crop Sago has been replaced by oil palm. On the Bird’s Head Peninsula, the Moi tribe are fighting huge new palm oil concessions that will demolish their traditional hunting grounds.

The Indonesian military is deeply involved in this ecocidal devastation. Yet a recent investigation by the journalist Rory James suggests that the current UK government is trying to further expand its military links with Indonesia. The Metropolitan Police already provides training Indonesian Special Forces, including the bloodthirsty BRIMOB unit, who were responsible for the February massacre of 10 Papuans.

Because LFWP is a grassroots group, we rely on people power. We need ordinary Labour members to heed the call if we are going to ensure that a future Labour government stands on the side of justice in West Papua. There are lots of things you can do to help. Most importantly, you can table our model motion in your local Labour party, and invite someone from the Free West Papua campaign to speak in favour. You can also write to your MP and ask them to join the West Papua APPG and the International Parliamentarians for West Papua (IPWP).

My people have been betrayed by the international community for sixty years. Through Labour Friends of West Papua, you can help change that.


Image credit: Richard Jones, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Image credit (pinned N&I): David Cook via Flickr

Benny Wenda

Benny Wenda is president of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP). Email to find out more


Fabian membership

Join the Fabian Society today and help shape the future of the left

You’ll receive the quarterly Fabian Review and at least four reports or pamphlets each year sent to your door

Be a part of the debate at Fabian conferences and events and join one of our network of local Fabian societies

Join the Fabian Society
Fabian Society

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.