Features | Security | Southeast Asia

We have unity now

At 66 years of age, Commander Richard Yoweni doesn’t think he is getting too old to keep battling Indonesia.

By Ben Bohane for

At 66 years of age, Commander Richard Yoweni doesn’t think he is getting too old to keep battling Indonesia. “It doesn’t matter how old I am,” he laughs, “I will fight to the end of my life or until we get independence. I have no regrets because I have dedicated my life to fighting for my people.”

Speaking at a secret location outside his West Papuan home, Commander Yoweni has emerged from the shadows to speak in his capacity as the newly elected Chairman of both wings of West Papua’s resistance: the political wing OPM (Free Papua Organisation) and its military wing TPN (West Papuan National Liberation Army).

He was elected following a historic conference in Vanuatu in April this year that brought delegates and factions from around the world, ending an eight year consultation period. Leaders formed an umbrella group, the West Papua National Coalition for Liberation (WPNCL), which they say has finally brought unity to a struggle that began in 1963 as UN troops pulled out and Indonesian troops moved in.

As one delegate said on the sidelines: “This is the most significant meeting of West Papuans since the OPM was formed in 1964. We are creating the pyramid structure with one leader who can be recognised by our people inside and also by the international community.”

For decades, political factionalism and geography (West Papua is home to the second largest wilderness area in the world after the Amazon) combined to prevent any unified command structure and coordination among a number of guerrilla leaders who claimed the mantle of “Supreme Commander”.

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Yoweni is recognised as the oldest and longest serving OPM Commander in the bush and his election is an attempt to bring all groups back under the OPM banner.

“Actually the military wing TPN unified some time ago,” says Yoweni. “But we needed the conference in Vanuatu for the political factions to reconcile and unify. Now that that has happened, we can remove the power vacuum in West Papua that has existed since the assassination of Chief Theys.”

Chief Theys Eluay was the last recognised leader of the resistance movement. He led the Papuan Presidium Council, which was established when Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid allowed a rare chance for the Papuans to organise themselves at a summit in Jayapura in 2000. The following year, Eluay was assassinated by Kopassus troops and no Papuan leader since then has been willing to step forward.

It remains to be seen whether Yoweni can elude Indonesian forces and be a popular public figurehead for the resistance. Yet as an OPM Commander who has spent his life in the bush, he might have a better chance of survival than Chief Theys, a public figure who moved around openly in the capital Jayapura until he was killed. Yoweni says he will remain operating in the heart of West Papua with a guerrilla force that takes its orders from the political leadership.

When asked why he joined the struggle, Yoweni says: “When Indonesia began to take over my country in 1963, I was in Jakarta studying to be a mechanic. I went to a technical college for three years until returning home to Manokowari in 1966. When I returned, I saw that what the Indonesians were doing in West Papua was not humane, so I decided to join the struggle for justice and freedom.”

“The Indonesians had promised us that if we joined together to fight the Dutch, they would give us independence also, but they lied. They took control of our lands, denied us education and today they continue to take our resources and kill our people. That’s why our struggle will not stop,” says Yoweni.

When asked why they don’t settle for the autonomy package being slowly implemented by Jakarta, Yoweni scoffs: “There is no autonomy; it is meaningless. Indonesia continues to divide us and send in more troops. We need Indonesia to withdraw all of their military before we can begin a proper dialogue.”

Yoweni affirms that since 2006, the OPM/TPN has adopted a “defensive posture only” and there has been no substantial fighting since then. He claims there are around 60,000 TPN guerrillas operating under 19 different command areas throughout the country, with a hardcore group of 1000 well-armed and active fighters.

He had hoped that a ceasefire would create space for dialogue and diplomacy. However, Indonesia has so far rejected any international mediation (the most recent offer came from New Zealand), as happened with Aceh.

Yoweni warns: “Our strategy is always evolving. In recent years we have been defensive rather than attacking. But that can change. Now that we are united we can be more coordinated to put pressure on Indonesia to resolve this issue.”