May 2003: West Paupans Oppressed by U.S. Multinational

An interview with John Rumbiak
May 1, 2003

John Rumbiak is a supervisor for West Papua Institute for Human Rights Study and Advocacy (ELSHAM) based in Jayapura, the capital of West Papua province in Indonesia. He toured Canada in November 2002 to promote awareness of the oppression and exploitation of the Papuan people by the U.S. multinational, Freeport McMoran, and the Indonesian military. His visit was sponsored by Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives (KAIROS).

1. What is the history of West Papuan-Indonesian relations?

A. Papua was forcibly integrated into Indonesia when Dutch colonial rule ended in 1963. Under pressure from the U.S. Kennedy Administration, the Dutch handed over Papua to Indonesia without consulting Papuans. The whole province is occupied by the Indonesian military which has killed 100,000 Papuans in the last forty years for resisting its rule. Most Papuans oppose this occupation and demand independence. The independence movement is composed of the Free Papua Organization (OPM) and its military arm, the National Liberation Army (TPN).

West Papua is a mineral-rich area with considerable reserves of gold, copper, uranium, nickel, oil and natural gas. Exploitative mining and logging enforced by Jakarta are taking over the land of Papuans, and destroying their environment and culture. Massive migration to Papua is having the same effect. There are now 2.5 million people in Papua, 1.5 million Papuans and one million Indonesian migrants. There is no law which protects the rights of Papuans. Such exploitation and migration are new forms of colonialism and imperialism in Papua supported by the international community.

2. Can you tell us about the main exploiter of West Papua's minerals, the Lousiana-based U.S. mining company Freeport McMoran?

A. Freeport is the largest foreign investor in Indonesia, and runs the largest gold and third largest copper mine in the world in Papua. In 2002, the company made a profit of U.S.$1.9 billion from the mine which is 47% of Papua's GDP. Freeport is the leading taxpayer in the country and the Indonesian government owns 10% of the mine. The company signed the original deal for the mine with General Suharto, the Indonesian dictator, in 1967, without consulting the indigenous Papuan people whose mountains and rivers it has destroyed, the Amungme and Komoro tribes in the highlands of Papua. There have been a lot of protests from the indigenous people against the mine because their land has been taken over and their environment totally devastated.

3. How has Freeport damaged local communities and the environment?

A. The mine is 5,000 metres above sea level. It's a combination of an open pit as well as an underground mine. Freeport dumps 200,000 tons of waste (mine tailings) into local rivers every day. This practice which is illegal in most countries, is devastating massive stretches of forest that the indigenous people depend on for survival. The dumping has contaminated local food sources resulting in sickness, poisoning, starvation and death among the local indigenous population. Freeport claims that destruction of coastal rainforest is part of its plan and has designated a 100 km "sacrifice zone." In 1995, reacting to the damage that Freeport's mining had inflicted on the environment and human health, the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) revoked Freeport's $100 million political risk insurance, concluding that the mine had "created and continues to pose unreasonable or major environmental, health or safety hazards with respect to the rivers that are being impacted by the tailings, the surrounding terrestrial ecosystem, and the local inhabitants."

4. What about the role of the Indonesian army in protecting Freeport?

A. When the West Papuan people protest Freeport's destructiveness, they face the special Indonesian army unit guarding the mine as well as the company's own security contingent. The army arrests protestors. Sometimes it shoots them, sometimes it detains and tortures them. Aside from the 100,000 people killed by the army since 1963, several times that number have been tortured, raped and intimidated. In 1994, the army killed 16 people, four were disappeared and dozens of people were arbitrarily arrested and tortured. This was verified by the Indonesian National Commission of Human Rights, (Komnas HAM), a government agency.

Komnas HAM and church groups have documented severe human rights violations in and around the Freeport mining area perpetrated by the military. In 1995, Komnas HAM publicly stated that these human rights abuses "are directly connected to [the Indonesian army]...acting as protection for the mining business of PT Freeport Indonesia." The Catholic Church reports that torture and sexual harassment were conducted in Freeport shipping containers, the Army Commander's Mess area, the police station and at Freeport Security Posts. Despite these well-documented reports, Freeport management continues to employ the services of the Indonesian armed forces and to fund the military's presence in Papua.

The special army unit guarding Freeport's mine numbers 550 soldiers. They build checkpoints from the coast where the port is upto the mining site, a distance of 200-300 kms. They have a checkpoint every one to two kms. Ordinary people travelling through these areas are searched; they have to have a pass or permit to be there so it is not easy for someone to go in to the area. Since there is a guerrilla movement based around the mining site, the army carries out military operations. When the army sees the guerrillas, it shoots them. The army also sends spies into the mine and company offices to monitor what is going on. The army commits a lot of crimes. In addition to committing human rights violations, they steal gold and copper, I'm talking about a lot of money. This causes problems for the company but Freeport never does anything to prosecute the army personnel responsible for these crimes.

In Papua we have no say in what happens to us. All decisions concerning us are made in Jakarta. Seventy five percent of the gold and copper revenues from the Freeport mine go to Jakarta and we do not benefit from our own resources. Meanwhile, our environment is polluted, our people are killed and our forests are destroyed for this mine that we don't get anything from.

5. You were recently in Washington D.C. The U.S. government is the Indonesian Army's main supporter. How do you see the U.S.' role?

A. You hit a brick wall in the U.S. when you try to do something about the environmental and human rights problems that Freeport is creating. This is because of the company's close ties to the U.S. political establishment. For many years, Freeport paid Senators from Louisiana to lobby for it; every year it pays one Senator $6 million for such lobbying. Freeport gives campaign contributions to both the Democratic and Republican parties and placed second in total financial contributions from the U.S. mining industry to U.S. elections during the 1999-2000 election cycle; the company gave $262,703, only $53 less than the top contributor. In 1996, OPIC temporarily reinstated Freeport's political risk insurance. According to a 1997 article in the Austin Chronicle, then OPIC President Ruth Harkin (married to Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat) stated that she had persuaded James Robert ("Jim Bob") Moffett, Freeport's CEO, to give $100,000 to the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger is an advisor to Freeport. Just to give you an example of how powerful Freeport is: A New York Times reporter did a very good article on human rights and Freeport, and I helped him with it. When the article was going to be published, Kissinger called the editor and stopped the publication.

Also, the security manager of Freeport in Papua is a former military attache at the U.S. embassy in Jakarta. So the U.S. government and Freeport are very close. The U.S. government protects multinational corporations. The new advisor to Freeport who replaced Kissinger is a former U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia, Stapleton Roy. Another former U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia, Ed Master, is now the Chair of the U.S.-Indonesia Association based in Washington and funded by Freeport. [The author adds: James Woolsey, former head of the CIA, represented Freeport in arbitration proceedings stemming from the OPIC insurance cancellation.]

6. It's no wonder that you cannot get much support in the U.S. The U.S. government has always been behind the Indonesian army; it helped the army to kill a million Indonesians in 1965 after Washington encouraged the military coup of the brutal dictator Suharto.

A. Absolutely.

7. How does Washington's so-called War on Terror affect the West Papuan struggle?

A. I think the U.S. really misleads the international community with this war. The Western media blamed Al Qaeda and radical Indonesian Islamic groups for the October 12, 2002, bombing in Bali which killed many Australians. But these radical groups, like the militias that butchered thousands of people in East Timor, were established by the Indonesian military. Radical Muslim groups such as the Lashkar-e-Jihad (Army of Struggle) which now operates in West Papua, were created by the Indonesian army to carry out the "dirty work" of killings and kidnappings in order to facilitate the army's control of the country. The purpose is to keep people terrified and justify military intervention so that the army looks like the only "stabilizing" force in the country. So the "War on Terror" is fake. These Islamic groups are not independent.

When the U.S. government asked the Indonesians for help in their "War on Terror," Jakarta conveniently labelled all groups seeking independence from Indonesia, "terrorist." In August 2002, two American Freeport employees and one Indonesian were killed in Papua for which the Indonesian military blamed the West Papuan rebels whom they called "terrorist." Twelve other people were injured in the same attack. This happened on a road heavily guarded by the military. I stated publicly that the military was responsible for this attack--I have the evidence. The Indonesian army wants to portray West Papuans as terrorists in order to get military aid from the U.S.

8. East Timor recently achieved independence from Indonesia. Are you optimistic about the West Papuan peoples'struggle for independence?

A. Yes. We will not accept wider autonomy which is being offered by Jakarta and supported by the international community. Forty years of Indonesian dominance is enough. There is growing international awareness about the Indonesian governments's suppression of the Papuan people; recently the Netherlands government has taken up the West Papuan case by doing a study on the annexation of West Papua by Indonesia. There is also a growing solidarity movement in the world for West Papua. Countries like Vanautu have raised the issue of West Papua in the U.N. and New Zealand has offered to mediate between Papua and Indonesia.

(Asad Ismi has written extensively on global economic and political issues. For more of his reports and articles, visit