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A One-Man Campaign Against Indonesia From A Small Attic Office Could Cost Britain Billions


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Benny Wenda, a 38-year-old exile from the Pacific territory of West Papua, has recently opened an office on the Cowley Road for his campaign seeking independence for the Indonesian-run half of the island of New Guinea.

Mr Wenda has lived and worked in the university city since 2005, but since opening the office in April has quickly expanded his following in Britain and overseas, and become a major diplomatic thorn in ties with Indonesia.

With a presidential election looming next year, street protests have erupted in Jakarta, parliamentary rows have broken out and even the country's army has called for action following internet reports about his Oxford operation.

Leading candidates have demanded President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono review a £7.5 billion natural gas investment deal struck by BP in the waters off Papua, as well as other British investments.

Yudhoyono-cameron_2588687c.jpgSusilo Bambang Yudhoyono, right, David Cameron (AP)

Mark Canning, the British ambassador to Jakarta, was hauled in by Indonesia's foreign ministry for a dressing down. He tried to calm tensions by reiterating that Britain remained committed to Indonesia's territorial integrity.

But the complaints from the burgeoning southeast Asian state, which is a major priority for British trade and diplomacy, triggered a formal appeal to the Indonesians from Whitehall not to "allow" the row to derail the relationship, a source close to the matter said.

"It is vital that we do not allow the West Papua issue to damage our work with Indonesia," the Telegraph was told.

Despite the modesty of his accommodation, a 10ft by 10ft bureau, Mr Wenda exerts a powerful presence as he relays a compelling personal story of his journey from persecuted child to British citizenship.

As a boy he says he watched Indonesian troops rape his aunt at the bottom of the family garden. Later he was slapped in the face by an Indonesian schoolmate merely for trying to engage her in conversation. After arrest for his political activities, he escaped his homeland by plane from a jungle landing strip after a daring prison break.

"For the last 50 years we have struggled for freedom but nobody knows that West Papua is a prison, that we are slaves to the Indonesian military and that at least 500,000 men and women have been killed in a genocide," he told the Daily Telegraph.

"Since I came here to Oxford I have had a simple message and tell my own story. I have travelled around the world to tell people this is a 21st century struggle."

Unlike the rest of the Dutch East Indies, West Papua was not automatically included in the new Indonesian republic that emerged after the Second World War. But Jakarta has asserted its sovereignty over the oil and mineral rich territory after a United Nations-approved referendum in 1969.

west-papua_2588686c.jpg A traditional water village, Yapen, West Papua (Alamy)

West Papuans activists rejected the outcome of the vote, claiming that just a few thousand people voted at gunpoint out of a population of just over a million.

The territory is now Indonesia's richest in terms of resources but poorest in terms of income. Nevertheless it has become a magnet for mainland Indonesians who are flocking to the island for jobs, encouraged by a government policy that campaigners have condemned as a deliberate attempt to settle a loyal majority.

"Indonesia is plainly worried that someone will force them to hold vote and they will lose," said Charles Foster, an Oxford academic who has known Mr Wenda since he arrived as a refugee. "That's why they have a policy of bringing in people who will vote for unification."

While Indonesia continues to imprison Papuan activists on the island, it has failed to contain the groundswell of support abroad.

According to Mr Foster, the attempts to muzzle Mr Wenda are an extension of the repression Jakarta metes out at home.

Jennifer Robinson, an Australian lawyer who represents Mr Wenda, said: "The complaints from Indonesia to the British government demonstrate a complete lack of understanding of the rights of freedom of association and freedom of speech.

"Benny is a peaceful advocate who is seeking rights for his people that they are entitled to under international law.

"That the Indonesians are asking for his office to be shut down demonstrates a lack of understanding of British tradition of human rights."

However a spokesman for the Indonesian embassy in London said the country was determined to ensure that the British stance on Papuan independence did not change.

"We want to make sure that the British government is more wary of the separatists who are willing to twist the position of officials to make it appear that their cause is gaining support," he said.

While the Government has acknowledged the prospect of worsening ties, diplomats are hopeful that they can avoid retaliation in trade or other spheres.

Indonesia is not only oil-rich, it is also the world's largest Muslim nation and boasts a robust economy that is attracting British investors.

As a UK citizen, Mr Wenda no longer fears repatriation. His tireless efforts to spread the cause of West Papuan freedom led him to travel to perform at music festivals, give speeches to university students and seek the support of international leaders.

His growing fame led to an appearance in front of 2,500 people at the Sydney Opera House. Within hours the Indonesian government was protesting to Australia.

"Indonesia is still trying to hunt me down," he said. "My focus is self-determination for my people and I know I will achieve freedom for my homeland."


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