Dutch Journalist Goes Undercover in West Papua

Dutch Journalist Rohan Radheya photographs senior West Papuan OPM commanders at their headquarters inside the jungles of West Papua.
Dutch Journalist Rohan Radheya photographs senior West Papuan OPM commanders at their headquarters inside the jungles of West Papua. (Image: via Rohan Radheya)

This Q&A was originally published on November 30, 2015.

Dutch journalist and filmmaker Rohan Radheya spent five months undercover to document West Papua’s ongoing struggle for independence from Indonesia’s brutal rule.

During Radheya’s time there, the Indonesian president, Joko Widodo, lifted a ban on foreign journalists in the province. That occurred in May, but Radheya says it won’t change anything because the press still has strict conditions, most notably that foreign journalists are not allowed to report critically on the Indonesian government.

Because of press restrictions — past and present — any reporting on West Papua’s struggle for independence is rare.

From his time working undercover, Radheya has compiled an hour-long documentary, Melanesian Dreams, which has its first screening at the European Parliament in Brussels under the guidance of the UNPO (Unrepresented Nations and People Organization) at a member meeting in December.

See the trailer to Melanesian Dreams here:

Radheya is currently editing two further documentaries about the plight of the West Papuans.

The following is a Q&A that Radheya did with Nspirement:

Would you explain the plight of the Papuans in Indonesia’s Papua region?

“In 1945, Indonesia got independence from the Dutch after Japan was defeated. The Japanese had then returned all power into the hands of previous colonialists. Indonesia’s agreed borders were from Sabang to Maluku, which is the last archipelago before reaching West Papuan borders to the east. Maluku also has an independence struggle. The first Indonesian vice president had then acknowledged that West Papuans should get their own state, because West Papua is Melanesian and not Asian.

“West Papua was a Dutch colony, as was Indonesia, and the Dutch had promised West Papuans an independent state. Just before their departure, the Dutch gathered tribal leaders and representatives from all corners of West Papua, and created a committee which would be in charge for a transition of power back to West Papuans. This committee was called “The Nieuw Guinea Raad.” In collaboration with the Dutch, the West Papuans proclaimed a constitution, national anthem, a national flag, and a plan for transition of power.

“At that time, the Americans had discovered huge deposits of gold and copper reserves in Timika, West Papua. They realized that these were probably the largest and finest gold and copper reserves in the world. Around that time, Indonesia changed presidents. President Suharto came to power and made a secret agreement with the then American president Nixon. The U.S. had already threatened the Dutch with war if they would oppose an Indonesian invasion. The Dutch were not capable of fighting both sides, so they were silenced.

“At that time, Indonesia invaded West Papua, and the U.S. started their mining operations. The Indonesian government promised the representatives of “The Nieuw Guinea Raad” that they would help develop their land, and not stay permanently. They would leave within five years. The Indonesian government then launched secret crackdowns on their leaders, and the Papuan independence movement was systematically targeted. Assassinations and mass killings began on a large scale.

“In 1969, the now Indonesian Papua province was officially ousted from the Dutch in the so-called act of free choice under the New York Agreement. There were 1,025 handpicked tribal leaders, out of a population of around a million Papuan natives, who were forced to vote on behalf of Indonesia, while back home the Indonesian army held entire villages at gunpoint, and thus Indonesia won that referendum, and West Papua became a part of Indonesia.

“Ironically, President Suharto was later trialed on high profiled corruption, and even accused of committing war crimes and other offenses throughout Indonesia. Despite this, the replacing of the Indonesian government still did not acknowledge West Papua as an independent state, despite the fact that Suharto was a key figure and mastermind behind the colonization of the area. So West Papua remains part of Indonesia till today.”

Could you explain who the West Papua people are (in contrast to the Indonesians, i.e., religion, society, etc.)

“West Papuans are Melanesians, and everything about Papuans [is] different to that of an Indonesian or an Asian. Their languages, culture, religion, customs, traditions, etc., etc. The Indonesian colonization has drastically influenced the way of life in Papua in ways of dress, language, and traditions.

“Many Papuan leaders, including Papua’s governor, Lukas Enembe, have warned that the cultural identity of the Papuan may disappear within 20 to 50 years due to the transmigration program from rural Indonesia. West Papuans are already no longer the majority on their own land. West Papua had 275 different languages, and as [many] tribes. This has changed now, and almost everything is critically on the brink of extinction now through Indonesian colonization.”

Dutch Journalist Rohan Radheya with West Papua's most senior militant commander, Richard Joweni.
Dutch Journalist Rohan Radheya with West Papua’s most senior militant commander, Richard Joweni. (Image: via Rohan Radheya)

What is the general feeling of the Papuans toward being ruled by Jakarta?

Today, many Papuans are on the payroll of the Indonesian government. For instance, the highest police commissioner and the governor inside West Papua are native Papuans. The Indonesian army has also recruited many natives as senior commanders inside their ranks. Of course, they all report back to Jakarta, but there is no choice today. It’s very hard to make a good and honest living in Papua as a Papuan nationalist opposing Indonesian colonization. It doesn’t matter if you are a journalist, a soldier, a politician, or a community leader, and so on. At the end of the day, every Papuan wants freedom.

“When I was in Papua, I had talked to some very high-profiled Papuan politicians and church leaders who all preached Papua as a legal part of Indonesia. At the end of the day, they always ended up telling me that they wanted independence, but they couldn’t say so openly because it is very dangerous for them to speak out. During my time in Papua, I never met a single Papuan who openly cheered for Indonesian colonization.”

Do they [the Papuans] get much support from the international community?

“Many foreign countries have huge investments in West Papua, especially the U.S., Australia, and Japan. For instance, the U.S. mining giant Freeport-McMoRan owns much of the world’s largest gold-copper mine, Grasberg, in Papua. After the closure of the Panguna mine in Bougainville, Grasberg is officially the biggest gold-copper mine in the world on daily production and estimated reserves alongside the Lihir mine in neighboring Papua New Guinea.

“Freeport-McMoRan commissions the Indonesian army a heck of security money for protection of the mine, including the area around it, which is a hotspot for human rights violations inside West Papua. For the generals and elites in Papua, it’s a big business. The Indonesian army has repeatedly been accused of even staging incidents to extract more protection money from foreign mining companies in the name of unrest created by West Papuan freedom fighters from the Free Papua Movement (Indonesian: Organisasi Papua Merdeka [OPM]).

“The Indonesian army is the major reason for the human rights violations in West Papua. Furthermore, the lack of interest from foreign media outlets to engage in West Papua has also led to the demise of West Papuan identity and its history today. But if foreign outlets are truly sincere in covering West Papua, they can collaborate with local journalists, which can also be a milestone for local social development, and shed light on the human rights situation inside West Papua.

“Today, there remain only two or three foreign news outlets regularly publishing about West Papua. It’s a total lack of willingness that stops foreign editors from engaging in West Papua. The foreign media restriction is an ultimate excuse. It’s certainly possible to cover West Papua if they truly want to.”

Rohan Radheya posing with former political prisoner and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Filep Karma at the Abepura prison in Jayapura.
Rohan Radheya posing with former political prisoner and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Filep Karma at the Abepura prison in Jayapura. Filep Karma was one of the estimated 100 political prisoners inside West Papua. He was jailed and tortured for raising the West Papua independence flag. Filep Karma has reasonedly been released after spending more than 10 years in prison. (Image: via Rohan Radheya)

Jakarta says it is opening up the region — is this true?

“The Indonesian government claims it has relaxed some policies for foreign journalists in West Papua, but it’s not the first time they have said that, and I don’t believe it. There have been some foreign outlets who were granted access to West Papua, but with a lot of restrictions. I was still in Papua at that time. The journalists were forbidden to visit militant independence movements, such as the TPN-OPM, who are the biggest opposition of the Indonesian government inside West Papua.”

How much of a presence does the Indonesian military have in Papua?

“I tried to do detailed research about this during my time in West Papua, and I was shocked to learn that nobody knew the exact answer on the basis of credible paperwork. Even local journalists or political representatives within the government didn’t know how big the military’s presence is. I think the real figures are carefully guarded by the elites in Jakarta, but I estimate that the Indonesians have around 45,000 armed personnel there. This number may drastically increase with the construction of new bases in Manokwari and Biak in the coming years. Not to forget that there are numerous separate groups of volunteers and nationalists.

“They are very feared by locals, and they are very extreme in their approaches. They often intimidate, stalk, and even use violence in the name of Indonesian nationalismThey are often government-backed groups with [their] own agendas, and often participate in riots. They are in the thousands, and are ruthless even against Indonesian human rights activists in Papua. This issue is very similar to the situation back in the days of Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor.”

Musician Arnold Clemens is one of West Papua's most prominent independence icons.
Musician Arnold Clemens is one of West Papua’s most prominent independence icons. He was assassinated by the Indonesian army for his participation in the West Papuan independence struggle. (Image: via Rohan Radheya)

Are any forms of peaceful protest or dissent allowed by the Indonesian authorities?

“Conflict is lucrative in West Papua. It may be the only place in the world where conflict is profitable on a day-to-day basis. When there are demonstrations, these are allowed and welcomed by security officials except on critical political momentums. These allowances come with a huge security presence, with up to 100 heavily guarded military police per demo, and of course with a lot of restrictions. If the conditions are breached, the circumstances are often exaggerated and exploited, and thus more security money is hooked in. I feel that these things are chronicles of a very successful colonization.”

Is there much armed resistance against Indonesian rule?

“As said, conflict is lucrative in West Papua. The Indonesian army is paid a lot of security money from foreign mining companies and from Jakarta for separate, escalating incidents such as the recent Tolikara incident. It’s totally to the advantage for the Indonesian army to create an image of panic, chaos, and danger in the eyes of local and foreign audiences, and by even creating incidents.

“There are three major armed OPM factions inside West Papua. They have factions and men in all corners of West Papua, but two of the biggest factions in 2011 signed a secret ceasefire with the Indonesian government, which still stands. The factions were very afraid that fighting could displace local villagers and create another exodus to Papua New Guinea, such as in 1984. Papua New Guinea already has around 10,000 West Papuan refugees.

“There is currently only one fighting OPM faction in West Papua, Puncak Jaya, that still offers armed resistance against the Indonesian army. Indonesia also has one of the most sophisticated air force capabilities in the entire region. If the rebels would pose a true problem, they could easily use this capability and end it in no time. Furthermore, the Indonesian government has created numerous fake OPM rebel factions to impose an image of fear and intimidation, often through censored media. It’s very complex, and not easily understandable.”

The West Papuan OPM has not been visited by foreign or local journalists for more than six years.
The West Papuan OPM has not been visited by foreign or local journalists for more than six years. (Image: via Rohan Radheya)

What is the human rights situation like in Papua and how will/can it improve?

“There was a dialogue program between Papuan leaders and the Indonesian government almost 15 years back, at the initiation of the Special autonomy law for West Papua. Many prominent Papuan church leaders and other Papuans are participating in this program today. Many general Papuans, however, have lost all hope in this. The program has costs millions and millions of dollars.

“Now, 15 years later, the Papua governor, who was part of the dialogue program, came out complaining and sent out a press release about how another transmigration program from rural Indonesia is going on, and how these people will overwhelm Papuans. Dialogue has completely failed in West Papua, and it became something that further disadvantaged Papuans even more than before. At the same time, the human rights situation is becoming worse by the day, and so West Papuans are asking: ‘What’s next?’”

How difficult was it for you to film there?

“West Papua is as good as off-limits to foreign journalists. Many shelters of activists and independence movements in West Papua are tightly monitored. These areas are surrounded by plainclothes intelligence informants who could be a betel nut seller or a cab driver. I requested my subjects to come up with a plan of approach. I was often smuggled in at night when the informants already left, or during local holidays when everyone was on leave.

“I improved my Bahasa, and that helped tremendously. It was only myself, so I did not have access to a team. So I had to take care of the interview, camera, video, sound, light, and still photographs myself. I also had to watch my back at the same time. It was also very hot! I used very small DSLR cameras, GoPROs, and minimal equipment. Papuans knew who I was, and they were very eager to speak to me. They watched over me, and this was the main reason why I could stick around for so long.”

Are any of the people you interviewed and/or filmed in your documentary now in a risky situation because they have helped you?

“I was terrified to death that the people around me could face arrest and punishment. The Indonesian government systematically targets the friends and sympathizers of undercover journalists. An example is Areki Wanimbo, a West Papuan tribal leader from Wamena, who volunteered to be the fixer of the two French journos. The Indonesians sentenced him to 20 years jail time on treason charges. The thought that my friends would be in trouble because of me was constant torture for me, and still is now.

“I worked a lot with the local people. They always insisted that it was the right thing to do to help me. They were very eager to get the news out for the sake of their country and people no matter what the consequences. They never asked me anything in return for this. I felt very little by their kindness, and without them, I couldn’t achieve this film. There were also many times I wanted to give up and leave, but their commitment to me, and the thought of letting them down, is what kept me going.

“I had simply asked all Papuans and Indonesians appearing in the documentary whether they wanted to feature in this film. All of them said yes, but I still cut most of them out if I found that their circumstances were too sensitive to exposure. They were willingly filmed, and they knew I was an undercover journo.”

Do you have any hope that things could change for the better?

“Of course, West Papua should be free and independent! Merdeka!”

Dutch Journalist Rohan Radheya photographs West Papuan OPM rebels at their headquarters inside the jungles of West Papua.
Dutch Journalist Rohan Radheya photographs West Papuan OPM rebels at their headquarters inside the jungles of West Papua. (Image: via Rohan Radheya)

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  • James Burke

    What keeps the world ticking? James is always looking for the answer and the latest news from around the globe. When he's not behind his computer, he's basking in the Thailand sun, or dreaming of the southern hemisphere, where he grew up in rural Australia.