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Benny Wend a of West Papua would like to visit Ghana

By John Amponsah

On Saturday (September 24th), I met a remarkable man at a function. He is the leader (in exile) of the indigenous peoples of West Papua.

It felt a bit like meeting someone like the Dalai Lama or perhaps not quite. Perhaps it was more like meeting a younger version of Nelson Mandela during the period of struggle to end apartheid. Yet the situation in West Papua is different from this.

Benny Wendy is not only a political leader but also Chairman of DeMMak, the Koteka Tribal Assembly. He is a spiritual man as well as a freedom fighter. Mr Wenda is now the leader of the West Papuan freedom movement after the Indonesian Special forces abducted and assassinated former leader Theys Hiyo Eluay in 2001. The Indonesian government also had Mr Wenda locked up in jail for 25 years (only two years shorter than the duration for which Nelson Mandela was incarcerated) during which time several attempts were made on his life. Eventually Mr Wenda managed to escape, cross the border and seek asylum in Europe. I personally heard him recount his escape story, he himself describes it as something from the American TV series ?rison Break?.

The story of the plight of West Papua is little known to the world. Many people do not even know about this country. When they hear it they sometimes think the name refers to a western part of the country Papua New Guinea. This is however not the case. West Papua covers an area that is almost twice the size of Ghana. If things had been different, this region could have been part of Papua New Guinea as one nation however that is not the case.

This is one of the legacies of colonization. Once the colonial power (Dutch) left Indonesia, the Indonesian government, acting as a proxy for capitalist-imperialist business interests went on to invade West Papua which had no prior cultural or historical ties to the Indonesians.

You might wonder exactly why Indonesia is willing to hold on to West Papua? The answer is simple: money! West Papua has significant copper, gold and oil resources. BP, Freeport/Rio Tinto all have major investments in the country, so the Indonesian government, first under Suharno and then under Suharto had tacit support from Canberra, London and Washington while genocide occurred. In fact, these countries supplied a great deal of military hardware to the oversized army of Indonesia which the latter then used to kill tens of thousands of those in East Timor and in West Papua.

British based Australian journalist John Pilger told the story brilliantly about two years ago in the following article (www.johnpilger.com/articles/free-the-forgotten-bird-of-paradise) however for those who want an academic treatment of the condition in West Papua, you can search on google for John Saltford's paper ?he United Nations, West Papua and the Act of Free Choice: de-colonization in action?? Basically Saltford's paper goes into some interesting detail, citing documents from the UN, British and the Australian national archives. There are a number of videos on West Papua however British film maker Dominic Brown made a fantastic (and daring) undercover documentary entitled ?orgotten Bird of Paradise?, going deep into the camp of the West Papuan resistance. For this, he earned the ire of the Indonesian authorities. Raids were carried out, people disappeared and he himself can likely no longer go into Indonesian territory without attracting significant trouble to his person. You certainly have to see this documentary to understand what I mean (www.youtube.com/watch?v=CaGou3vB3A0).

Benny Wenda is an unassuming man. When you meet and talk with him you may not have guessed that that you were talking to a man that could one day be president of West Papua. I was told that 90% of ethnic West Papuans who go to hospital end up dying because the medicines available have expired. These people are being oppressed. According to the West Papuans themselves, over 800,000 of their people have lost their lives over the last 45 years of conflict and we are talking about a very small population of people, less than 5 million. Amnesty international apparently puts the figure at 500,000. In fact, the West Papuans claim that their population numbers have remained close to those from decades ago while neighbouring Papua New Guinea shows a steady increase in population. This should tell you something.

As to whether West Papua would join Papua New Guinea proper once the former gain independence and self-rule, I was told that it was a possibility, however the first priority was to become free.

Last year, Benny was welcomed by the President of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, at the 3rd (annual) World Festival for Black Arts (www.youtube.com/watch?v=cJHPNg1BVqo&feature=related). At this event, Mr Wenda gave a speech which caused a standing ovation at the end where many were in tears. Mr Wenda told me that when news of his trip to Africa and of his reception by the Senegalese gathering reached West Papua, ?eople cried for two weeks!? This gives us an idea how strongly the West Papuans feel about being given a platform on which to share their story.

This story has to get out. Intelligent and concerned citizens of the globe (and of Africa in particular) need to know about what is happening in other parts of the world which receive scant mainstream media coverage (sometimes because of ?usiness and political interests?). Let all your philosophically, politically and socially conscious friends know about it if they do not already. Send them the links in this article. We live in an interconnected global world now where the happenings of one region can easily be known by all. I believe that the pen is mightier than the sword but human consciousness is mightier than both.

Today, East Timor is no longer under the thumb of Indonesia. It took a massive international effort for this to occur. The UN was instrumental in making this happen. The UN was however instrumental in preventing West Papua from gaining self rule (see Saltford's article). I believe this was ultimately due to external interest groups in America, Australia and Britain who have significant business interests in this region.

Benny Wenda hopes to visit Ghana in future. For him and his people, I was told it will be a great event when this happens. His elders back in West Papua urged him to visit our country which he said was a symbol of leadership and liberty for much of Africa and the black world. Back in 1969, Ghana led a delegation of 13 African countries who rejected Indonesia's execution of the spurrious ?ct of Free Choice? (?reedom? = voting with a gun pointed to your head) that led to legitimizing Indonesia's current presence in West Papua (see Saltford's article). These Africans were the only ones at the UN who stood up for West Papua and Ghana led this group! How many Ghanaians know about this? I myself only learnt of this over the weekend. This is why our country means so much to the West Papuans and this is why one day when Mr Wenda visits Ghana, it will boost the spirits of these black men and women fighting for their very survival from decades of oppression.

I imagine it will also be great for him to someday meet with some of our political leaders such as Rawlings, Kufuor, Mills, Akuffo Addo, Mahama, Nduom, Samia Nkrumah as well as other leaders, intellectuals, artists, activists and all kinds of well wishers, just as was the case in Senegal. If you are organizing an event in Ghana in which you think Benny Wenda can be a participant (as was the case in Senegal), you could contact his group at www.freewestpapua.org. This will be very good for the spirit of the West Papuan people.

Perhaps one day, Mr. Wenda or one of his people can give a speech at the UN for West Papuan statehood just as Mahmood Abbas did on Saturday, incidentally the same day on which I met Mr Wenda.

We Ghanaians are not always aware of what others think of us. When I was travelling in Senegal, I found out that some Senegalese people hold Ghana in high regard. Today, many blacks from other African countries, the Caribbean and the US are choosing to bring their businesses and skills to Ghana because they believe that Ghana is showing signs of progress among other African countries. Even if this is only an idealized perception, I think it should still tell us something about our nation.

Our current generation is enjoying a legacy that was left for us by our forefathers. What are we doing as a country and as a people to uphold and move forward this heritage? It is up to us to protect what has been given while nurturing what we can do to reach even higher heights. The powers of the world are watching. Can we dance with them in a way that is beneficial to us while keeping them away from our throats? I sincerely hope this will be the case.
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