Silencing West Papuan independence supporters overseas

Whilst abroad for a study exchange year in Melbourne, Connor Woodman discovered that Indonesia’s effort to thwart the independence movement of its troubled Papuan provinces spreads all the way to Australia’s urban heartlands.

Occupied by Indonesia since 1963, the Western half of the island of New Guinea – known to advocates of independence as West Papua – has been the subject of extensive military and intelligence operations for decades.

Since the Dutch left what was then called Western New Guinea in 1962, both peaceful and armed advocates of independence have been targeted for imprisonment, extrajudicial assassination and harassment by the Indonesian police and army. According to Papuans Behind Bars, a monitoring group, 38 West Papuan political prisoners remain in custody today. One recent study described torture as a “mode of governance” in the provinces, and despite efforts by the Indonesian Government to limit reporting, stories of killings of demonstrators still emerge.

But these abuses do not stop at Indonesia’s borders. So seriously does Indonesia take what it perceives as a threat to its territorial integrity, that its spies and diplomats target West Papuans and Australian citizens residing in Melbourne in a concerted attempt to undermine the overseas independence campaign.

“You can feel the presence of Indonesian intelligence,” says 24 year-old Ian Okoka, a native West Papuan who now lives in Melbourne.

“Every time we hold a rally, there’s always an Indonesian, usually a student, that comes and take pictures of us.”

Exactly that happened on April 29 last year at a rally outside the State Library of Victoria calling for international media to be allowed to enter West Papua. Two Indonesian men photographed the rally organisers until plain-clothed Victorian police officers told them to leave, according to the organisers.

Ronny Kareni, one of the organisers of the April 29 rally, received anonymous text messages last December threatening his then-pregnant wife. The messages warned him his wife would “pay” for his “activities”. He has since decreased his general profile within the Free West Papua movement. Victoria police, Ronny says, have been investigating the texts, although they refused my request for comment.

Professor Damien Kingsbury of Deakin University has published on Indonesia for years, and was involved in the peace negotiations that ended an insurgency in the Aceh region of the country in 2005. His Indonesian students confide in him that they are often “required to report to the consulate” in Melbourne about West Papuan activities.

“They report on activities, what individuals say publically or privately, their interpretation of the perspective of particular individuals in relation to Indonesia, whether they’re friendly or perceived to be hostile,” Kingsbury told me.

Melbourne Docklands. Photo by John Torcasio

Melbourne Docklands. Photo by John Torcasio

One tool used to control West Papuan dissent is financial. Some students come to Australia on a scholarship funded by the central Indonesian state or the provincial Papuan authorities, and the threat of cancellation of the scholarship can be used to keep them in line.

Ian Okoka studied at Deakin University on a scholarship from the nominally autonomous Papuan government, which in reality is heavily under the influence of Jakarta. After he became involved in the independence movement in 2010, he noticed he was being followed by an Indonesian man when travelling on public transport in Melbourne.

“I had to change trams a couple of times to get away from him,” he recalls.

Following this event, funding for his studies was abruptly stopped.

“Because of my involvement with the Free West Papua campaign, they just cut my scholarship,” explains Ian. He was informed via email that his return flight had been booked, and was offered no official explanation.

The latent threat of financial retribution appears to be gaining success in silencing those West Papuan students in Melbourne who support independence for their homeland.

I interviewed three other West Papuan students studying in Melbourne for this story, all of whom requested anonymity for fear of Indonesian retribution. All three students confirmed that they have tempered their activism around the question of independence, fearful of payback from the Indonesian authorities. Two are on scholarships from the Indonesian government, and both voiced concern that their scholarships would be cut if they became involved in campaigning for a free West Papua.

Jayapura. Photo by Axel Drainville via Flickr

Jayapura. Photo by Axel Drainville via Flickr

A more sinister consequence of these operations is how they impact on those living in West Papua itself.

“Living in Australia at least we have freedom to express ourselves,” says Ian. “Once you get your picture taken they’re not targeting you. What they do is they go to West Papua and target your family; by that method they shut you down.” His father, who lives with the rest of the family in Jayapura, the provincial capital of Papua, received calls from the Indonesian government after Ian’s scholarship was cut.

“When they cut my scholarship… my father had to take my family to live in a remote village to escape.” His family hid in rural West Papua for six months until they felt the threat had receded.

Another target of the Indonesian operations is Jacob Rumbiak, a native West Papuan and naturalised Australian citizen. He works in Melbourne at the office of the Department for Foreign Affairs, Immigration and Trade of the Federal Republic of West Papua.

The Federal Republic of West Papua operates as a ‘government-in-waiting’ in the event of West Papuan independence, and Jacob Rumbiak is the Foreign Minister in-waiting.

“When I use the telephone […] Jakarta knows in advance what I’m doing,” says Rumbiak. “Every time when I fly overseas, they’ve already put intelligence to follow me: Holland, Canada, Japan.”

Academic institutions targeted

Outspoken academics and educational institutions across Australia have been targeted by Indonesia. Professor Kingsbury himself has been on the receiving end of such attention.

When he asked the Indonesian consulate in Melbourne why his request for a visa to Indonesia had been constantly rebuffed, the consulate made it clear that the problem resided with his academic work and political views.

“I’ve been banned from Indonesia for over ten years”

“The consulate did say that if I was prepared to be more sympathetic to Indonesia, to write more sympathetic articles and so on, that they would look at having the ban lifted.”

Confidential internal documents leaked from the Indonesian army list overseas figures and intellectuals that the army perceives to be supporters of West Papuan independence. These documents have been made available by the West Papua Project, part of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney.

One PowerPoint illustrating the army’s their analysis, ‘Anatomy of Papuan Separatists’, has an entire slide dedicated to a profile of Jacob Rumbiak – clear evidence that the Indonesian authorities are monitoring him. The powerpoint also puts University of Sydney researcher Peter King at the top of a list of Australian “FOREIGN NGO NETWORKS/FOREIGN LEADERS IN SUPPORT OF FREE PAPUA”.

“I got to the top of their hate list,” Dr King explains.

He is co-convener of the West Papua Project and co-author of a number of papers on Indonesia’s rule in West Papua.

Camellia Webb-Gannon, coordinator of the West Papua Project, confirms that Indonesia similarly monitors West Papua protests in Sydney.

“Whenever the West Papua Project put on a public event then [Indonesia] send along someone from the embassy or consulate,” she says.

Pressuring academic institutions is not a new tactic for Indonesia.

In 2003, the Globalism Institute at RMIT University in Melbourne received “significant pressure” from the Indonesian embassy in the run up to a forum on West Papua, hosted by the Institute, according to Professor Paul James, who was head of the Institute at the time.

Indonesia pressured Canberra to refuse visas to forum speakers coming from overseas, and the Indonesian Charge d’Affaires at the time, Imron Cotan, made personal representations to RMIT regarding the forum, says Professor James. RMIT eventually requested the forum be moved from University premises.

Australian government complicity

It’s not just critical academics that irk Indonesia – any moves by the Australian government to protect West Papuans are met with a vocal response.

In January 2006, the Australian government granted 42 West Papuans protection visas as they fled Indonesian persecution in the territory. The refugees were settled in Melbourne, which Jakarta considered a challenge to its sovereignty over West Papua.

Hoping to rebuild bilateral relations, in November 2006 Canberra and Jakarta signed the “Lombok Treaty”, an agreement between the two nations on security cooperation.

Article 2, section 3 of the treaty states that each party:

Shall not in any manner support or participate in activities by any person or entity which constitutes a threat to the stability, sovereignty or territorial integrity of the other Party, including by those who seek to use its territory for encouraging or committing such activities, including separatism, in the territory of the other Party.

Concerns have been raised that this clause could infringe on the right of activists to peacefully express their desire for West Papuan independence, given that such advocacy could be construed by Indonesia as “separatism”.

“The Lombok Treaty has given great access to Indonesian intelligence to operate here and to monitor any activism or what they call ‘separatist’ movements,” explains Ronny, the West Papuan activist who helped organise the April 29 rally. “This is what they use to pressure Canberra.”

He says instances of harassment and surveillance by Indonesia increased after the signing of the treaty.

Human rights groups such as the Melbourne-based Human Rights Law Centre have also sounded the alarm over the Lombok Treaty. Their warnings now seem prescient.

In a Joint Press Statement during a 2013 visit to Jakarta then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott said that, “the Government of Australia takes a very dim view, a very dim view indeed, of anyone seeking to use our country as a platform for grand standing against Indonesia. We will do everything that we possibly can to discourage this and to prevent this.”

Echoing the language of the Lombok Treaty, he pledged to the then-President of Indonesia, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, “Australia’s total respect for Indonesia’s sovereignty, total respect for Indonesia’s territorial integrity”. This was widely regarded as signalling support for Indonesia’s claims over West Papua.

Abbott was quoted in The Australian that same year as claiming that the “situation in West Papua is getting better not worse”.

Nonetheless, in 2014, Human Rights Watch wrote that in the past three years there had been:

Dozens of cases in which police, military, intelligence officers, and prison guards have used unnecessary or excessive force when dealing with Papuans exercising their rights to peaceful assembly and association. The government also frequently arrests and prosecutes Papuan protesters for peacefully advocating independence or other political change.

Since leaving office, Abbott has boasted how he “had West Papuan activists, who’d arrived in the Torres Strait claiming asylum, quietly returned to Papua New Guinea” during his premiership.

Economic interests, intimidation and resistance

Ultimately, Indonesia fears it will lose control over its West Papuan provinces, haunted by memories of the role played by the Australian movement for a free East Timor in ending the genocidal Indonesian occupation there at the turn of the millennium.

Rally for West Papua in London (Thom Chandler via Flickr)

Rally for West Papua in London. Photo by Thom Chandler via Flickr

The Indonesian army reaps great economic rewards from its iron grip over Papua, and Western capitals are reluctant to pressure Jakarta on the issue. The largest open-pit gold mine in the world, Grasberg, operates in the territory. The Australian-British company Rio Tinto will have a 40% stake in the mine by 2021.

Misty opencut pit at Grasberg, Papua province, Indonesia. Photo by Michael Thirnbeck via Flickr

Misty opencut pit at Grasberg, Papua province, Indonesia. Photo by Michael Thirnbeck via Flickr

“The whole reason for all this is that Indonesia is becoming quite concerned at the international focus that is being put on West Papua,” says Joe Collins of the West Papua Association in Sydney, which assists West Papuans campaigning for self-determination. “That’s the main reason; they’ve begun to realise that the activists overseas are actually beginning to make headway in bringing attention to the human rights abuses so they are becoming quite concerned.”

The reason why Indonesia spends so much time intimidating campaigners is clear: putting pressure and keeping tabs on overseas activists keeps them afraid, and deters others from joining their efforts.

Jacob Rumbiak Speaks at a rally outside the State Library of Victoria. Connor Woodman

Jacob Rumbiak Speaks at a rally outside the State Library of Victoria. Photo by Connor Woodman

“There’s an implied threat, or a sense of threat, when people who are behaving lawfully within this country are being spied on by people from another country because of their activities here,” says Professor Kingsbury.

“If you were a pro-democracy Russian activist here in Australia […] you would be obviously concerned if you felt you were being spied on by people acting on behalf of the Russian Embassy. It’s much the same.”

Jacob Rumbiak is undeterred. After a life that has taken him from a guerrilla army in West Papua through several Indonesian prisons to his current role as Foreign Minister in exile, he will continue to fight for his homeland’s freedom despite Indonesia’s best efforts.

“Intelligence operations outside can’t solve the problem, but will create new problems […] They [Indonesians] show that they are colonial. They follow someone they should not follow. We do not create problems in Indonesian territory, we struggle in our own home.”

The Indonesian Embassy in London, the consulate in Melbourne, and the Embassy in Canberra were all contacted but failed to reply to a request for comment.