5 Jul 2013

Former US official recalls Biak Massacre in West Papua

5:57 pm on 5 July 2013

A citizens' tribunal is being held at the University of Sydney tomorrow to mark the 15th anniversary of the Biak massacre in West Papua.

On July 6, 1998, in Biak Island's main town, Indonesian soldiers launched an attack on Papuans who had staged a peaceful demonstration over several days calling for independence.

The atrocities which followed are the subject of this weekend's tribunal hosted by the University's Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies which involves survivors and a team of international jurists.

A political counsellor at the US Embassy in Jakarta at the time, Ed McWilliams, visited Biak a few days after the massacre and found an entire town traumatised.

ED MCWILLIAMS: Several people did approach me, but it was clear to me that they were very, very frightened. I was able to pick up some information, but it was not a normal visit to a town in West Papua.

JOHNNY BLADES: Do we know how many died? It's always been a little bit vague.

EM: No. We know that some died right at the site, but then a lot of other people, survivors, were put into trucks and taken down to the naval base and then put on ships and brought out to sea. They were then thrown into the sea, frequently being stabbed before they were thrown into the sea or having their hands tied so they wouldn't be able to swim. And we don't know the number of people, but we estimate certainly in the hundreds. The effort was made to determine how many were killed by counting the bodies that were floating up over the next week or so. But Indonesian military authorities would not allow the people to collect the bodies as they came in on the shore. So there was never really a good count made of how many people were killed.

JB: It's a terrible thing that happened. Why is it so important that Indonesia and the world remember this 15 years on?

EM: Well, I think the dimensions... Obviously, the people of West Papua have suffered under Indonesian military oppression for decades. And there have been many instances of cruelty, killing of Papuans. The number of people that were killed was very significant, but also the manner in which they were killed. They weren't simply gunned down. They were put on to ships and brought out to sea, as I said, and thrown overboard to drown. This was quite a unique instance in West Papuan history. It reminds me very much of the Dili Massacre in 1991 when Indonesian troops fired on students, mostly students, marching peacefully in Dili, killing several hundred students. Now, in that instance, there were international media on hand who were able to tell the world about what had happened. Unfortunately, with Biak, there was no international observers present to report what had happened. Obviously, also, it became very difficult for anyone to get in there. As you know, there are tremendous travel restrictions imposed on anybody trying to travel into West Papua. So the dimension of the attack [makes it significant], the number of people killed and the fact that Indonesia has for 15 years now sought to cover up that tragedy, and, of course, there's been no accountability among the Indonesian naval elements that were involved in the attack.