The Fight to Free West Papua Lives On
Speaking in the Hospital with Victor Yeimo
My cell phone rang at 4 a.m. On the other end was Victor Yeimo calling from his hospital bed in Jayapura, the capital of West Papua. Yeimo is the leader of the free West Papua movement. He is in the hospital being treated for tuberculosis, and the call had taken weeks of navigating. I was put in touch with his team of lawyers and human rights activists through Octo Mote, a longtime Papuan friend who lives in Connecticut. Quickly I scrambled for my notes of questions I had prepared days before.
Victor Yeimo has been charged with treason. His offical title is deputy general secretary of KNPB (Komite Nasional Papua Barat), the National Committee for West Papua. It’s the leading youth movement for a referendum regarding independence for Papua.
Yeimo was arrested May 9, 2021, without a warrant after falsely being accused of inciting violence during the 2019 West Papua uprising. He was imprisoned for speaking out against racism and put in solitary confinement for three months. His access to lawyers, family, and friends was limited.
Yeimo’s voice sounded strong as I asked him how he was doing. “Getting stronger,” he said as I delved into my questions.
West Papua occupies the Indonesian half of New Guinea, the second largest island in the world after Greenland.
Indonesia unilaterally annexed the former Dutch colony in 1969 with the United Nations referendum “Act of Free Choice.” What should have been a one-person one-vote consultation of the Papuan people about the future status of their nation became an Indonesian-controlled mockery of the United Nations policy on decolonization and self-determination.
The indigenous Papuans declared their jungle-clad province to be an independent state. Armed with bows, arrows, and spears, as well as a few guns — the obsolete booty of the Dutch — they founded the Organisi Papua Merdeka (OPM) or Free Papua movement.
Do you worry about your life, I asked. “All my life I have worried. Not only about me but my Papuan sisters and brothers who have been abused and tortured for over 50 years. As of now there is no future for Papuans. We must fight for our dignity for our survival. I have grown up with suffering all around me.”
Yeimo is a victim of racism, and now he’s a prisoner for calling it out. With little access to his legal team, health care, or visitations he is withering in a hospital/prison. It’s a plight all West Papuans suffer under the colonial clutches of Indonesia.
These same perpetrators of the Indonesian military and police have committed abhorrent violence and racism, all while being trained by the U.S. and Australia.
The UN has the moral and legal responsibility to bring to an end the root political problems in the nation of Papua, including marginalization, discrimination, and making indigenous Papuans a minority in their own land. This amounts to a slow-moving genocide against Papuans.
I asked Victor about Indonesia and its illegal dominance over Papua. “Indonesia’s goal is to suppress political support for Papuan aspirations for independence. Which has now reverberated in all corners of the world thanks to social media. Papuans have rejected all of Indonesia’s policies towards Papua to date, including Special Autonomy.”
Special Autonomy was meant to ensure affirmative action for indigenous Papuans in local politics, boost health care and education, and funnel more proceeds from oil and gas. The Parliament hopes this law will see the Papuans prosper. After 20 years of implementation, none of the above has happened.
Markus Haluk of the United Liberation Front for West Papua says his group strongly rejected the law describing it as an extension of “racist colonial rule.”
Why would Indonesia even be interested in this area 3,000 miles from the capital Jakarta? Simple, natural resources — the world’s largest gold and copper mine, vast amounts of timber and oil. Geologists call Papua “elephant country,” a term used for a region with an abundance of natural resources.
The president of Indonesia, Jokowi, believes economic development will trump Papuan nationalism. The UN has turned a blind eye.
When asked about racism, Yeimo replied, “The majority of Indonesians consider Papuans to be half monkey. How can one make progress when the other side has no respect for our culture or state of being.”
This really touches on some very deep, old wounds. For the people of Papua, who for more than 50 years have constantly struggled, their people being sacrificed again and again. They have lost thousands of lives, killed by both overt and covert means in their long struggle for freedom.
What first brought me to this faraway land was an article I had read in National Geographic. The Indonesian government, in trying to “modernize” this ancient culture, had an idea. With a population of roughly 2 million indigenous people wearing traditional attire consisting of penis gourds and grass skirts, the government decided to drop thousands of jogging shorts via small Cessna planes onto villagers in hopes they would replace their novel attire. When the same planes flew back a few weeks later the pilots saw the villagers were wearing the shorts on top of their heads to protect themselves from the rain. Papua averages 250-300 inches of rain annually.
Within months of reading the article I was on my way to Papua and have continued to return over the last 30 years. At first I led treks for a company out of Virginia, taking small groups of people who wanted a glimpse into this remote culture. I worked my way from the highlands to the coastal swamplands, exploring regions few outsiders have ever seen. Looking back, those were amazing times. I was fortunate to learn about a people firsthand, about a culture that grabbed my heart and continues to do so to this day.
When asked about the future generation of Papua, Victor replied, “No worries. They are strong and focused on independence and nothing else.”
I speak a fair amount of bahasa Indonesia, the government-instituted language of Indonesia, but Victor Yeimo’s English was perfect. As the conversation continued it was obvious the fight within him burns deep and the leader of the Free Papua movement sees an independent Papua in the near future. And a nation free to make its own decisions.