OXFORD, UK — Benny Wenda has been many things in his 38 years.
Among them, student and activist, prisoner and wanted man, a child of indigenous farmers in the West Papua province of Indonesia and a father of six in this English university town.
From 2011 to 2012, he was the subject of an Interpol red notice, an international order for his immediate arrest and extradition to Indonesia, where he staged a daring prison break in 2002 before seeking asylum in Britain.
To the Indonesian government, he is at once a “non-issue,” a “criminal” and a headache.
For Wenda, it’s all been in the service of a single goal: independence for West Papua and an end to what he describes as decades of oppression at the hands of the Indonesian government and military.
“They look at West Papuans as subhuman,” he said over coffee near his office in Oxford. A man of compact stature and gentle demeanor, Wenda says Indonesia has never treated West Papua as an equal partner. “We are a different color. We are a different race. Self-determination is the goal.”
One of 16,000 islands in the Indonesian archipelago, West Papua covers an area just smaller than California and is located on the western half of New Guinea. (The eastern half of the island, Papua New Guinea, is an independent nation.)
Home to some 3 million people, most indigenous ethnic minorities, it is one of Indonesia’s poorest provinces.
Its forests and earth, however, contain some of the richest natural resource reserves in Indonesia, the targets of millions of dollars in foreign investment. That means Indonesia — and other governments with a financial stake in the region — won’t let it go quietly.
West Papuan independence is an extremely sensitive issue for Indonesia, as Britain found out in April, when Wenda prompted a diplomatic row by opening the Free West Papua Campaign’s small office.
Fearful of offending a country with which it’s hoping to build lucrative trade and diplomatic ties, the UK has been quick to distance itself from any challenges to Indonesia’s territorial sovereignty.
“It is vital that we do not allow the West Papua issue to damage our work with Indonesia,” a government source told the Telegraph newspaper in June.
The UK and the rest of the world has officially recognized West Papua as part of Indonesia since 1969, when residents voted unanimously to incorporate themselves into the archipelagic country in a UN-backed referendum.
Critics of the Act of Free Choice maintain that the select Papuans allowed to participate were forced to vote that way under threat of violence.
Wenda and fellow campaigners allege that Indonesia’s police and military have subjected West Papua to violent oppression since the country took de facto control of the province even earlier, in 1963.
Their claims are buttressed by research from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other independent organizations that have documented political intimidation, torture, rape, disappearance and extrajudicial killings of Papuans at the hands of state forces.
“There have been human rights abuses in West Papua actually since day one,” says Andreas Harsono, a Human Rights Watch researcher in Jakarta.
When the Indonesian government has been confronted with evidence of those offenses, “sometimes they responded. Sometimes they do arrest soldiers or police officers. But consistently, the punishment is only a slap on the wrist,” Harsono said. “There is a sense of impunity in West Papua.”
Wenda’s asylum claim in the UK — he is now a British citizen — stems from his arrest on suspicion of conspiracy in the murder of a police officer in West Papua in 2000, a charge he firmly denies.
Placing his foot on a café bench, he pushes down his sock and rolls up his jeans to reveal lash-like scars around his ankles from what he says were shackles put on him in jail.
On a windy night in 2002 that masked the sounds of his escape, he broke through the prison’s ventilation system, scaled a wall and made his way to Papua New Guinea, then to Britain, where supporters met him at Heathrow Airport. His palms bear scars from glass shards embedded in the prison gates.
Friends smuggled out his wife and infant daughter, who joined him in 2003. The couple now has six children.
Indonesia issued Interpol’s highest alert, the red notice, for Wenda in 2011, but was forced to remove it the following year after an investigation by the international police organization determined that the case against him was “predominantly political in nature.”
As far as Indonesia is concerned, however, he remains a criminal on the lam.
“I question Benny Wenda’s claim that he is a peaceful activist who would want the freedom of Papua. His hands are bloodied,” said Dino Kusnadi, spokesman for the Indonesian Embassy in London. “We do not negotiate with him, and we see him as someone who is hiding from the law.”
“The book hasn’t been closed yet,” he added, on whether Indonesia will continue to fight for his extradition.
Wenda praised Britain as a good host to him and his family. He’s adjusted to the cold and the food, and his initial shock at seeing a landscape relatively denuded of trees and forest has subsided.
However, he is adamant that his stay is only temporary.
“I’m not looking for a better life or a good house,” he said. “I’m on a mission, and one day I will go back.”
Wenda sees West Papua as similar to East Timor, the Indonesian province that broke away to become an independent state in 2002.
However, analysts say West Papua’s enormous oil and mineral resources make it different.
The American company Freeport-McMoRan runs the world’s largest gold mine and third-largest copper mine there, and BP struck a $12 billion liquid natural gas deal there in December. Observers say companies and the governments of investing countries have clear incentives to back Jakarta’s stance on Papua’s status.
“It’s unlikely the USA would play the same peace-broker role in Papua that it did in East Timor, where there was little American capital investment on the line,” wrote Gary Hogan, Australia’s former defense attaché to Indonesia.
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Real change may take another five or six years to begin, he predicts, but even the British Empire fell.
“My people will be free,” he says confidently. “No doubt. One hundred percent.”