enabling tomorrow's human rights leaders, today
The following post is written by Talitha Calder. Talitha studies Political Science and International Development at McGill University in Montreal. She is one of McGill’s first Oslo Scholars and is interning with West Papuan tribal leader Benny Wenda this summer.
My first glance of Benny Wenda was at a press conference at the Oslo Freedom Forum. Among the dizzying array of politicians, diplomats, and journalists, stood a small man with a colourful headdress and a wooden cane. Benny is a tribal leader from West Papua. The headdress he proudly dons is a powerful symbol of the influence Benny wields in West Papuan society and he walks with a wooden cane, because as a young man Benny and his family were attacked by Indonesian authorities which left him with a badly injured and untreated leg.
Indonesia has illegally occupied West Papua since 1969. In 1969, an unmonitored vote with hand-picked West Papuans voted in favour of integration into Indonesia. This “Act of Free Choice” is disputed in international legal circles and remains unrecognized by West Papua. Since the Act of Free Choice, thousands of West Papuans have been killed or injured, and political activity has been suppressed, with Papuans who raise West Papua’s morning star flag subject to fifteen years of imprisonment. The atrocious human rights violations in Indonesia have not been brought to the forefront of a global human rights agenda, because foreign journalists and humanitarian organizations are banned entry.
It has been four weeks since I began my internship with Benny in London, U.K. and I am continuously touched by his compassionate spirit. On the first day of my internship, I followed Benny to a presentation he gave at Oxford University to a room full of undergraduate students. At the beginning of every presentation, Benny starts with a song he wrote while he was unlawfully imprisoned by Indonesian authorities. Before Benny begins signing he turns to me and laughs as he jokingly compares his escape to an episode of the American television show “Prison Break”. Benny’s own “prison break” involved him squeezing himself into the prison’s narrow ventilation system with his sweat helping him to slide through the tubing. After his miraculous escape, Benny received help from other West Papuan independence activists who safely smuggled him across Papua New Guinea’s borders. Benny later contacted a European NGO group and flew on his first airplane to seek refuge in the UK. His hands shook nervously, as he showed the agents at the UK border his passport who then took him in for questioning. He was eventually released and granted political asylum in the UK. Benny told me that the first English word he learnt was “asylum”, after hearing another political refugee mutter that same word.
Benny and his wife Maria have since raised their family in Norfolk and Oxford. They educate their children on the beautiful culture and language of West Papua and also the violent politics that have led to their refuge. They tell their children that they are not here in the UK to seek out a better life than what they had in West Papua, but that they are “here on a mission”. Since Benny’s arrival in the UK he has spoken at some of the best universities in the world and has traveled far distances, including, visiting the government in Senegal and launching the International Lawyers for West Papua in Guyana. His message that West Papua was denied a right to self-determination has drawn the support of nearly 100 lawyers and parliamentarians from every corner of the globe. He has achieved this over a short span of ten years.
As the event comes to a close, Benny and I pack up the numerous advocacy materials we have brought with us to the event. It’s a cold, rainy night, the usual in the United Kingdom, and as we walk along the winding, cobblestone paths and through the historic buildings of Oxford, I turn to Benny and ask if he would have ever imagined his life to have turned out this way. He lets out his trademark jovial laugh.
Benny’s optimism has not been stifled. He is confident that West Papuans will soon be able to enjoy a freedom that most of us have — independence. Benny’s remarkable escape from prison, and the growing support rallied around West Papua across our globe is a testament to his inner strength and determination. He lives out the Chinese proverb “it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness” everyday of his life, for he has shone a light on West Papua, an area of the world that could have gone unrecognized, had it not been for courageous people like him.