An Australian volunteer who was doing whatever volunteers do in PNG.
I was there for 2 years until Dec 2005 .. I hope I made the most of it.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Meeting The Colonel

It is not everyday you get to meet a colonel from the clandestine Free Papua Movement (or OPM), then again you don't expect a rotund man wearing a "No Worries" T-shirt and asking whether you want to go scuba-diving with him, to be paramilitary.

But this is exactly what happened when I ventured out for a walk while on Biak. Heading down side street to go and view the fish market I get hailed by "Roy". My initial response from this on the street meeting was to chat back.

Being in Indonesia, the language issue had been quite tiresome, so having a chat with someone with good English felt like a good way to find out a bit more about the place I was currently in - even if I did have to side-step the initial "want to go scuba-diving" question.

A few minutes into the conversation and the topic turns political. I ask him what he thinks about the Free Papua Movement and my surprised response is that he is well and truly amongst it. He then goes on to elucidate an event that I did not know had happened and certainly wasn't written about in the two guidebooks I had photocopied and brought along. The event was the "Bloody Biak" massacre.

Little tells the story well on her blog, but the general gist of it was in July 1998 a group of Papuan nationalists raised their Independence flag at the Biak city water tower and a few days later they were herded up and slaughtered by the Indonesian military (the TNI). All up, according to Roy, 300 people were killed.

Being floored with this little bit unexpected history about the island, which up until then I had thought a genial and overtly friendly place, made me ask the obvious questions to Roy. If he was a colonel, he would have been in the thick of things back then so were any of his friends killed? His response was a lackadaisical "sure some of my good friends were killed and I got shot myself, but survived", with this he points to his shoulder.

I had read bits about the OPM in the guidebooks I had photocopied. But the overall history of the on the ground conflict was a tad slim - especially now looking back in hindsight with it completely missing out on a massacre (although to be fair the Indonesian media certainly wouldn't have reported it and there would have been no other media in the area).

Based on what I read then and since, the OPM started action by force soon after the Dutch moved out of West Papua in '69 and the Indonesians moved in. Numerous skirmishes have occurred through the years between the TNI and the separatists, but of course without backing from anyone the Indonesians have always overwhelmed the nationalists.

The Indonesians have coupled their military muscle with the more silent transmigrasi program. Simply put, give incentives for residents of crowded Java and other areas to move across and establish themselves in Papua. They even went as far as building completely new towns in the jungle - clear felling a kilometre square patch, building houses and schools from the timber and giving the keys to grateful Jakarta slum dwellers. This program has been so successful now that it is virtually impossible for the OPM to claim a sovereign Papua state, due to half the population being non-Papuan.

This may not discourage them though. The last thing Roy told me was action was being planned for Biak, Jayapura and other areas in the next couple of months. It seems modern technology is helping coordination efforts. Roy pulled out his mobile phone and showed me a text message he had recently received detailing new plans (unfortunately I cannot read Indonesian so I can only take his word on this). Where these plans are coming from is another question - a General? But I am sure the TNI would like to know.

Shaking hands and walking away at this point felt like a good thing to do at the time. I thought it was probably wise not to delve too deep on the subject, less I find out too much. Now though looking back I wish I had tried to unearth more, there are more stories to be told here I am sure. Ones that need a wider audience - any audience.