'Free Papua movement' intensifies amid escalating violence

Activists attend a protest in Surabaya on Dec 1, to mark the Free Papua Organization's anniversary. PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK (NYTIMES) - It has been 59 years since separatists in the Indonesian territory of West Papua raised their red, white and blue flag and declared independence. The region has been in conflict ever since.

This month, the United Nations Human Rights Office called on all sides to reduce escalating violence in the territory, which has included the recent killings of activists, church workers and members of Indonesian security forces.

At the same time, a rebel leader living overseas announced that he had been elected interim president of the embattled region in hopes of unifying the movement seeking independence from Indonesia, known as the Free Papua Movement.

Mr Benny Wenda, who escaped from an Indonesian jail 18 years ago and later received political asylum in Britain, declared himself head of West Papua's first government-in-exile on Dec 1, the anniversary of the independence declaration.

Already, one armed group in West Papua has said it doesn't recognise his authority.

Mr Wenda claimed he was elected by a clandestine congress that met in secret.

He said Papuans are victims of a slow-moving genocide that will not end until the territory gains its freedom from Indonesia.

"Our independent nation was stolen in 1963 by the Indonesian government," he said by phone from Oxford.

"We are taking another step toward reclaiming our legal and moral rights."

Indonesia has no intention of granting independence to the two provinces that make up West Papua.

The country's Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs, Dr Mohammad Mahfud MD, rejected the idea that Mr Wenda could ever represent the Papuan people.

"He's a rebel. He's an outsider," the minister told reporters.

"He is stateless. In England, he is a guest. In Indonesia, his citizenship has been revoked. So how does he lead a country?"

Papua's independence movement has long been fragmented and it is unclear how much support Mr Wenda has for his claim to be president.

Six years ago, three factions united behind Mr Wenda to form the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, and Mr Wenda says he has their backing.

But one armed group, the National Liberation Army of West Papua-Free Papua Organisation, issued a statement rejecting his claim, saying he is a resident of Britain who does not have the majority support of Papuans.

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