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“We have the right to be independent…”: Exclusive Interview with the West Papua National Liberation Army
Militant Wire’s Uday Bakhshi speaks to the spokesperson of the West Papua National Liberation Army
The second largest island in the world, after Greenland, sits in the southwestern Pacific Ocean. It is a place that has unique geography; it contains several different ecosystems, from glacial and alpine tundra to wetlands and savannas. Some of the (bountiful) flora and fauna found there are unique to it; it also has some of the most beautiful diving spots in the world. The indigenous people living on the island have also had a unique history over tens of thousands of years; it is very diverse culturally, ethnically, and socially.
A (nearly) straight border (approximately Longitude: 141 Degrees East on the image above) divides the island into two halves: on the right, is Papua New Guinea, while on the left, are the Indonesian Papuan provinces (also known as West Papua). On the western side of this border, Indonesia took control of West Papua through occupation and a controversial annexation, in the 1960s. Indonesia has always taken a security-based approach to West Papua. According to some perspectives, Indonesia has perpetrated genocide and crimes against humanity in West Papua. This, and the occupation, has sparked a decades-long insurgency, that is escalating today. There is a high degree of racism in Indonesia towards Papuans; just recently, Megawati Sukarnoputri, one of the most powerful people in Indonesia, said that she wants Papuans to be like “milk coffee” – in reference to West Papuans’ skin color: they are Melanesian and darker than milk coffee. There are many West Papuan groups that oppose Indonesia’s rule; however, the only current armed non-state actor fighting Indonesian rule is the West Papua National Liberation Army (WPNLA, or the Tentara Pembebasan Nasional Papua Barat – TPNPB). The WPNLA wants independence from Indonesia.
Militant Wire published a profile of the WPNLA in February this year. Today, we present an interview with the official spokesperson of the WPNLA, Sebby Sambom. Sebby is from the Yali tribe, one of the hundreds of tribes in West Papua. Sebby has been a Papuan independence activist for decades. He was arrested by Indonesian forces at least six times between 2004-2013. He is a human rights activist too and was arrested for organizing peaceful protests in West Papua. He says he was tortured in Indonesian custody, and his family received death threats. Sebby is educated and has taught WPNLA fighters and Papuan independence activists how to use computers and the internet. He also taught them political theory. He says that this is one of the reasons that he has always been targeted by the Indonesian government.
Sebby said that the WPNLA was born on March 26, 1973, but was reformed on May 5, 2012, to its current iteration. It is made up of a younger generation of West Papuans, who fight for Papuan independence from Indonesia. In 2012, the WPNLA established central and regional military commands and streamlined the organization so that it was no longer a disparate group of fighters, but rather, an army. General Goliath Tabuni is the High Commander of the TPNPB, and Major General Terranius Sotto is the General Chief of Staff. Major General Lekagak Telenggen is the Central Headquarters Operations Commander.
U: Why are you fighting, and what are the ultimate goals of your fight against the Indonesian government?
SS: We are fighting because it is our political right to be independent. This is according to the United Nations charter and international law. This has been usurped by the colonial government of the Republic of Indonesia, with support from the United States of America (USA) and the United Nations (UN). The goal of our struggle is very clear: namely to establish our own country and be sovereign, as are other nations on Earth. And we have the right to be independent and live in peace on our ancestral lands. And we understand very well that the political right of self-determination is a human right. So, that is what we are fighting for.
U: For our readers who do not know the situation in West Papua, can you tell us a little about how your conflict with the Indonesian government began? What is the conflict about today?
SS: The conflict has started since the Indonesian military invasion on the ancestral lands of the Papuan people, on May 1, 1963. The Indonesian military invasion was carried out with support from the USA and UN. The UN and the Netherlands (which had colonized West Papua before Indonesia) sold us Papuan natives to Indonesia like animals at that time. That's why, we, the young generation of Papuans, rose up and fought back. For more details, you can study the history of Papua with other articles. And you need to know that USA supported Indonesia at that time because America was interested in the gold mine on Mount Grasberg, in Tembagapura, Papua. The USA and Indonesia are still stealing our natural wealth until today. And today's conflict is led by the young generation of the Papuan Nation, and our demands are the same, namely demanding the political rights of the Papuan Nation to be independent and sovereign. And we will increase armed resistance in the years to come until our demands are met.
U: Where are your fighters based in West Papua? How many fighters does the WPNLA have?
SS: The WPNLA has 34 Defense Regional Commands throughout the lands of Papua, and each Defense Regional Command has 2,500 personnel who are permanent members of the WPNLA. The WPNLA has 85,000 permanent members and WPNLA also has non-permanent members, namely all indigenous Papuans who are ready to fight against the occupation of terrorist forces. They will fight if the WPNLA declares a TOTAL Revolutionary War for Independence. The terrorist forces are the Indonesian military and police. So, we are ready to carry out a TOTAL Revolution at any time if our war logistics are ready. The military bases of the West Papua National Liberation Army are all located in the jungle forests throughout the lands of Papua.
U: What are the challenges facing TPNPB fighters on the ground? What do fighters need?
SS: The challenge faced by the WPNLA Troops in the field is the lack of military logistics and equipment, namely weapons and ammunition. So, we only rely on guerrilla warfare using limited weapons. WPNLA fighters need weapons and ammunition, and communication tools such as satellite phones, WiFi systems, and others.
U: How is the TPNPB’s strength against Indonesian security forces?
SS: Even though Indonesia has trained troops and has weapons, WPNLA leaders and troops are ready to fight always. Our principle is that we are the owners of the country. And Indonesian terrorist forces, namely the military and police, are thieves or robbers who come to our customary lands. They thieve and rob all our resources while killing the owners of the lands. Thus, we WPNLA troops are responsible for saving the West Papuan people and the West Papuan country. So, we stand and fight against the oppressor colonial government of the Republic of Indonesia, which is arrogant and brutal. And we believe that the terrorist forces, namely the Indonesian military and police, have no legal basis for war against the Truth Forces, the WPNLA. We also believe that the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Nature, and the Ancestral Spirits of the Papuan nation will protect and give strength to the people of Papua. WPNLA troops will continue to exist and kill the terrorist troops at any time.
U: Does the TPNPB-OPM have a political counterpart?
SS: Yes, all political organizations that are fighting for an independent Papua are one unit, with only one goal: a fully independent Papua from the illegal occupation of the colonial government of the Republic of Indonesia on Papuans lands. The peace struggle by young fighters in the city is an affiliated unit, for example, the West Papua National Committee (KNPB), the Papuan Student Alliance (AMP). More specifically, the WPNLA has a political partner with the New Guinea RAAD Political Agency (NGR). The New Guinea RAAD is the official political body of the Papuan Nation, which was formed on April 5, 1961, before the Indonesian military invasion in West Papua. This body announced the embryo of the state of West Papua by the indigenous Papuans together with the government of the Netherlands on December 1, 1961. So, we can sue Indonesia at any time. Because although politically and administratively West Papua has been integrated into Indonesia, the legal status of West Papua has not been integrated into Indonesia. So, we have the right to sue Indonesia at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). We believe that if we fight, we will surely win. And that is our steadfast faith, according to our principles in the struggle.
U: What is the present state of the conflict? Is violence on either side common?
SS: Yes, Papua is one of the areas that have been in conflict for the last 59 years due to the illegal occupation by the colonial government of the Republic of Indonesia. And this armed conflict happens every day, every week, and every month in every year. But Indonesia prohibits journalists from international media organizations, so the issue of armed conflict is hidden. This is because Indonesia does not want the outside world to know about the conflict. And violence is natural because Papua is a conflict area and indigenous Papuans are still fighting for their right to self-determination. And in the struggle, there must be conflict, and this is normal because all nations that have fought for independence have done the same thing; India was also against the British occupation, we understand history clearly. Also, South Africa, and Timor Leste, Bougainville, and Aceh once.
U: Indonesia just approved the creation of three new provinces in Papua. The WPNLA has threatened the Indonesian government and Papuans who support this. Why did the WPNLA make threats over this?
SS: Yes, we had issued a strong warning to all indigenous Papuans who support the New Autonomous Region throughout Papua, because we see that the new provinces have elements of dirty politics by Jakarta. Jakarta has evil intentions against the Indigenous Papuans through the expansion of new provinces in Papua, and it will send Indonesian immigrants on a massive scale to West Papua. And this endangers the existence of the Indigenous Papuans on our own customary lands, and we know that Indonesia has an evil plan to seize our customary lands. Therefore, we are firm and will continue to oppose the Indonesian occupation of our ancestral lands. And we stand on defending our lands and save our people. It is our duty.
Interviewer’s note: Over the decades, Indonesia had a policy of “transmigrasi” – a policy to send mainly ethnic Javanese, Muslim, Indonesians to the Papuan provinces. This led to a dilution of the ethnic Melanesian, Christian, identity of West Papua.
U: The Indonesian government (in 2001, and 2021), granted Papua and West Papua special autonomy. What have the problems been with this?
SS: The special autonomy by Indonesia is not the desire of the Papuan people; it is just like a parent giving a candy to a child when they cry. This means that special autonomy in the style of Indonesia is very funny and embarrassing. Why? Because we never made an agreement with Indonesia for the Special Autonomy of Papua in 2001, because we also never signed an agreement to implement special autonomy in Papua. It was forced by the Indonesian government in Jakarta, and we WPNLA never recognized the Special Autonomy. So, we are still fighting for a fully independent Papua from the illegal occupation by the colonial government of the Republic of Indonesia.
U: There are arguments that West Papua should be a part of Indonesia because it should not become like Papua New Guinea, where there is lots of violence. Indonesians say that it is better for West Papua to be a part of Indonesia because it will add stability. What do you say to this?
SS: This is the language of the capitalists and colonialists’ that shows their character. We can’t neither admit to nor believe the sweet words of the colonial government of the Republic of Indonesia as you convey in this question. Since 1963, we Papuans have never believed in any tricks by the colonial government of the Republic of Indonesia. And Papua New Guinea are our brothers and sisters, we are one land and one island and one ancestor: that we believe for generations. Indonesia is evil, and Indonesia must not despise our people in Papua New Guinea because we are all one soul and one nation. Our motto is "ONE PEOPLE-ONE SOUL". Ethnic conflict in Papua New Guinea is normal, because in every community there can be internal conflict. But we and Indonesia have a political conflict on the right of self-determination based on the ideology of an independent Papua. That is the difference.
U: West Papua has a tremendous wealth of valuable natural resources. What role has this played in the conflict?
SS: We defend our rights and defend our customary rights, and Indonesia has come as robbers and thieves. So, we are against it, and we believe that after independence we can manage mineral wealth from our natural resources. And we are ready to develop our own country, therefore we are still fighting. Because Papua is rich in mineral resources, Indonesia comes to terrorize and kill us, so that they can freely steal or rob our mineral wealth from nature.
U: Have foreign or international corporations played any role in the conflict?
SS: Yes, USA is one of the countries that played a role in the conflict because Freeport-McMoran mining company is from there. Freeport funds Indonesian security Forces and military operations to hunt WPNLA troops. That is clear. And Australia also supplied firearms to Indonesia for to kill West Papuans. Australia also trained Indonesian soldiers and police, to kill West Papuans. This is a fact. The British are also involved: British Petroleum (BP) is also involved in a project in West Papua.
U: What is the TPNPB-OPM’s relationship with other Papuan independence organizations, like the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULWMP)?
SS: We are not part of ULMWP, and we are not interested in the ULMWP under Benny Wenda’s leadership. Because he is ambitious and the self-proclaimed President of West Papua. He is useless man; we are allergic to someone like him. The WPNLA has rejected Benny Wenda on many occasions. But we do cooperate with other organizations like West Papua National Committee (KNPB), West Papua Alliance Students (AMP) and other organizations that are affiliated.
U: There are Papuans who do not support the TPNPB. What do you think of them?
SS: We believe that majority of Indigenous people of West Papua support the WPNLA. Those that do not support us are mainly infiltrated or influenced by Indonesian intelligence operations in West Papua. And nearly all West Papuans support our fight against Indonesian occupation and the new colonialism on our ancestral lands.
U: The TPNPB recently killed a Papuan brigadier and took two weapons from him. How do you justify killing Papuans, in your fight against Indonesia?
SS: He is an Indonesian Police personnel, it’s normal that we killed him. Because he was a part of Indonesian security forces, and he took up firearms against Papuans. Our people understand this situation, it is a risk.
Interviewer’s note: The WPNLA had released a statement on the killing, claiming it was a necessary sacrifice, for the greater good. According to one WPNLA source, the victim was “a hero, who handed weapons over to the WPNLA… and that the lives of three million West Papuans take priority over one.”
U: Have you received any support from outside of Papua? Are there any governments or groups that support your movement and your side of the armed conflict?
SS: Political support and the Free West Papua campaign is everywhere on the Earth, but no one is supporting the WPNLA financially or logistically (through sending weapons and war equipment). A majority of Australian citizens support our struggle for independence, and they are happy that the WPNLA troops fight against terrorist forces, namely the Indonesia military and police.
U: The conflict has received surprisingly little media attention, even within neighboring countries such as Australia. Why is this? What are the reasons why countries are not talking about West Papua?
SS: This is because the Indonesian government prohibited international journalists from going to visit West Papua. International humanitarian aid organizations are also prohibited from entering West Papua. The Indonesian government is arrogant: it does not even allow the International Committee of the Red Cross into West Papua for humanitarian missions, even though there is a humanitarian crisis. The Indonesian government did not even allow the head of the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights to visit West Papua, this is really crazy. Try to imagine Indonesia's attitude.
U: What message do you have for Indonesia? And what message to the rest of the world?
SS: We, the WPNLA, on behalf of the Papuan people, urge to the Government of Indonesia under the leadership of President Jokowi to open up and sit at the negotiating table with the Negotiating Team led directly by the Delegation under WPNLA to find a solution to the long-standing armed conflict in West Papua. And the negotiations in question must be mediated by the UN, so that we can discuss the future of the Papuan Nation under UN supervision (as a referee or mediator).
We also call on the member states of the United Nations and the international community to take part and stand with us the Papuan people to free our country from genocide by the Indonesian government. Now is the time to free the Papuan people from crimes by the colonial government of the Republic of Indonesia, who are arrogant and brutal towards indigenous Papuans. We ask the support of the international community and the governments of UN Member States. Thus, thank you for your attention.
U: Hormat (It means ‘respect’, and is used by Papuans)