As a supporter of West Papuan independence from Indonesia, Fr Neles Tebay is on a black list and everywhere he goes in his homeland, West Papua, he is under constant surveillance by the Indonesian authorities who rule the western half of the island of New Guinea and at risk of imprisonment, torture and even death.
Speaking in Dunedin on April 3, Fr Tebay traced the history of West Papua from the days when it was a Dutch colony, through its annexation by Indonesia in the 1960s to the present struggle of the indigenous people to gain independence.
‘Under Dutch rule, there was no killing, no torture … the culture was respected,’ Fr Tebay said.
That had changed when Indonesia took over, a huge blow to Papuans, not only because of atrocities committed but also because the Dutch had been preparing the area for independence.
‘The Dutch gave the territory to the United Nations, which gave it to Indonesia,’ Fr Tebay said, blaming the United States for what happened.
‘The United States said to Indonesia, “We will support you [at the UN]. You take the land and we will take the gold.”
A referendum, ‘conducted in an undemocratic way’, did not reflect the people’s wishes and should be reviewed, Fr Tebay said.
Indonesia’s policy of transmigration had brought in many people from other parts of the archipelago, mainly Java, so West Papua’s population of 3.7 million was now 48 per cent migrants, two-thirds of whom were Muslim.
‘In less than four years, we West Papuans will be in the minority,’ Fr Tebay said.
The US-based mining giant Freeport McMoRan had destroyed the environment as it mined gold and copper in West Papua, the site of the world’s largest gold and copper reserves. The company paid thousands of Indonesian troops to protect its huge mine in Papua.
Agence France Presse reported in March that McMoRan admitted paying $US1.6 million ($NZ2.7 million) in 2008 to provide a ‘monthly allowance’ to police and soldiers at and around the mine.
The disclosure, made in response to questions from AFP, means the company continues to pay soldiers in contravention of a series of legal measures aimed at stopping military units working as paid protection.
‘The earth is our mother,’ Fr Tebay said.
Mining has destroyed a mountain, ‘the brain of our mother’ and rivers, ‘the breast milk of our mother’, while timber milling—mainly by Indonesian companies—was devastating centuries-old forests.
‘There are illegal timber companies, too, mostly Malaysian, who bribe officials,’ Fr Tebay said.
The Indonesian Human Rights Organisation advised New Zealanders not to buy kwila (or merbau) timber, popular for decking, because it came from the rainforests which are threatened with extinction if logging continues.
‘We see the forest like our supermarket,’ Fr Tebay said.
‘It gives us meat and vegetables and, if we get sick, we go to the forest, as it is our chemist. We believe the spirits of our ancestors live in the forest so, if they destroy the forest, they have destroyed our supermarket, chemist and place of worship.’
Although it was ‘better to resist than say nothing’, protesters faced huge risks.
‘Every Papuan family has personal experience of this—one because a daughter has been raped by military, one because the mother has been raped, one because a son has been killed, one because the father has been tortured. Fear dominates life.’
Getting information out was difficult because foreign journalists were not generally allowed into West Papua.
Despite this, there were some signs of hope.
‘Religious leaders—Islamic, Buddhist, Catholic, Protestant and Hindu—are united in a determination to work for peace. The bishops are in a most difficult position because a lot of the bishops are Indonesian, not indigenous Papuans. There are some very committed Indonesian priests.’
In New Zealand, Fr Tebay met with Foreign Affairs select committee chair John Hayes, a former diplomat, and with Green MPs. These meetings were very encouraging, he said.
Since 2003, February 5 has been Papuan Day of Peace and Fr Tebay asked New Zealanders to pray for his country on that day. This article was first published in The Tablet, Dunedin.