At first glance, Father Neles Tebay isn’t the kind of man you would think is under military surveillance. He’s a “father” after all.
He’s not a vigilante, militant or “terrorist”. He’s a theologian and a writer – a good one. In Indonesia, this warrants being watched, constantly.
He doesn’t write about violence or retribution. Nor does he advocate these things.
Like many of his ilk, he writes about dialogue. Something people in the West often take for granted that everyone has an opportunity to share.
When did Fr Tebay first know he was “of interest” to the Indonesian government?
“In 1986, the Indonesian military went to a public market to ask about me. They asked: ‘Where is Neles?’,” he recalls.
“They already knew where I stayed – at that time I was a student.
Did it work?
“No”. He pauses. “No I think they failed in this.”
Fr Tebay’s mission, under military scrutiny or not, is to raise awareness in his own community, and around the world, about the struggle for autonomy in West Papua.
He has no qualms about saying what he means.
Maire Leadbeater, a spokesperson for the Auckland-based Indonesia Human Rights Committee (IHRC) and a tireless activist in her own right, who met Fr Tebay just this week, says: “He certainly doesn’t mince his words.”
“Fr Tebay is taken very seriously in his country. His role is important.”
Fr Tebay’s main concern in his homeland is the apparent failure of Law 21/2001. This is supposed to have granted Papua province special autonomy from the Indonesian state to oversee its own affairs.
Despite this law, there are proposals to divide West Papua into four smaller provinces, and in recent months the military presence in Papua has been increased visibly.
Fr Tebay has said the move to further split Papua will “only serve the needs of new bureaucrats and would do nothing to address the pressing problems of poverty, an inadequate education system, environmental destruction, poor health care and the spread of HIV/AIDS.”
He adds: “Militarisation is going on. More troops are being deployed in West Papua, more military security posts are established. There are three more battalions, around 700-1000 more troops.”
He criticises the actions of the military, calling them arrogant.
“They can hit anyone, anytime, anywhere, with or without reason,” he says.
“It’s enough to say ‘he is a separatist’ and…”
“That’s why the Papuans are traumatised when they see the military,” he says.
Fr Tebay is in New Zealand to take part in public discussion about environmental sustainability, as well as the issues close to his heart of peace and justice in West Papua.
Kevin McBride of the international Catholic peace organisation Pax Christi, which is hosting Father Tebay, is disappointed in media exposure about the issue in New Zealand.
“It’s virtually nil, but it’s hidden deliberately by the Indonesian government,” he says.
McBride says foreign journalists are banned from entering the province for “security reasons” – but that doesn’t mean they don’t try.
Four Dutch journalists travelled to the Papuan capital of Jayapura to report on an independence protest this week. They were arrested and detained at a police station for more than 12 hours.
One of the journalists has been released and has returned to Jakarta, but the other three still have not had their passports returned and are not allowed to leave Papua until police investigations into their reporting of a major Papuan demonstration calling for independence are completed.
They are also not allowed to report until the investigation is over, police say.
McBride says that on the Wellington leg of Fr Tebay’s tour of New Zealand, they will pay a brief courtesy visit to the Indonesian Embassy.
A search of the New Zealand Herald website for articles on West Papua yielded only one incorrect reference to plans for transmigration of peoples into West Papua.
Transmigration, a scheme by the Indonesian government to relocate poor people from over-populated areas of Indonesia to West Papua, was implemented in the 1960s and has now ceased – although there is still spontaneous migration into the area, according to Fr Tebay.
“When you want to raise your opinion, usually you are suspected of being a separatist,” says Fr Tebay.
He adds that the stigma of being a separatist is a risk factor for the Papuans, especially with the stepped up military presence in the region.
Over the years, Fr Tebay has written opinion pieces for the Jakarta Post, as well as news articles for some of his local newspapers.
Now he questions the impact of his writing.
“There is no guarantee. No guarantee that my articles would be read by the right people.
“I just wrote hoping that somebody would read it, or hoping that government people would read it, and that perhaps it would change their policy,” he says.
Maire Leadbeater says New Zealand should be able to play a role in independence negotiations because of our own colonial history.
“Historical grievances need to be faced,” she says.
“That’s why I get upset with our government sometimes,”
“We should be at the forefront in the push for justice in historical crime,” she says.
“They are immense crimes against humanity,” she says of West Papua’s history with Indonesia.
Sony Ambudi, also of the IHRC and the Mt Eden Islamic Information Centre, describes Father Tebay as an academic researcher and not only a priest.
“Being a researcher is fundamental in giving strong evidence on every human rights violation,” he says.
“He is a man in the field, a real campaigner.”
The Indonesian policy on West Papua since the end of World War Two has been focused on Papua being part of its claim over former Dutch Territories.
In 1962, the Netherlands brokered a deal with the Indonesian government and handed the territory over, with the promise that in five years time the people of West Papua would be given an act of self-determination overseen by the United Nations.
In 1969, Indonesia and the UN conducted a referendum called the Act of Free Choice, now widely criticised as a sham and labelled the “Act of No Choice”.
Less than 1 percent of the population voted under severe duress and violent threats. The unanimous result? Stay within Indonesia.
The Free Papua Movement (OPM) has waged a sporadic guerrilla struggle since the 1960s for independence.
Photo of Father Neles Tebay by Jessica Harkins. Jessica Harkins is a student journalist on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course at AUT University.