President Wenda: Oxford should say no to Indonesia’s cheque-book diplomacy

May 21, 2024

This weekend saw yet another display of Indonesian soft power in their battle to turn the city of Oxford against the Free West Papua campaign.

Near the Westgate shopping centre, right in the heart of Oxford town centre, a number of stalls were set up to promote Indonesian culture – coinciding with Oxford United’s historic promotion to the Championship. While this may seem like a benign cultural display, it is in fact the latest cynical attempt to undermine West Papuan presence in the city. This was proven by a leaked Indonesian intelligence report in 2019, which show that the Indonesian embassy have lobbied Oxford to withdraw my freedom of the city award.

Countering West Papua’s long-standing connection to Oxford is so important to Indonesia that they sent the ambassador, wearing an Oxford United scarf, to address the event. For eight years, this ambassador was Indonesia’s representative to Melanesia, the sub-region of which West Papua is a part. Because of the success of his “cheque-book diplomacy” and soft power approach, Indonesia has now deployed him to the UK to practice the same strategy.

Oxford has been my home since 2004. My children were born here, and we have always felt welcomed and safe in the city. The Free West Papua campaign was launched here in 2005, endorsed by the then-Lord Mayor of Oxford, Caroline Lucaas and Elise Benjamin, the Bishop of Oxford Lord Harries, the MP Andrew Smith. Every December 1st, West Papuan Independence Day, Oxford Town Hall proudly flies the Morning Star, the West Papua National flag. One of my proudest days was being awarded the Freedom of the City of Oxford in 2019 – a sign that this historic city continues to recognise the struggle of oppressed peoples, just as it did by presenting Nelson Mandela with the same award.

This “cultural event” is only the latest attempt Indonesia has made to destroy my ties to Oxford. In 2017, my family was suddenly informed that we were no longer allowed to display the Morning Star at the Cowley Road carnival. We have always marched in the procession, as a display of pride in both our indigenous culture and our local community. But the carnival had a new sponsor: the Indonesian embassy. So instead of the Morning Star, a special “Magnificent Indonesia” zone was created in the procession. Thankfully, the Oxford community came together to defeat this scheme, and West Papua presence in the procession is again safe.

But in 2022 Oxford United was taken over by Anindya Bakrie, the CEO of Bakrie & Brothers (formerly the Bakrie Group) and one of Indonesia’s richest men. The Bakrie Group have significant business interests in West Papua, meaning they are directly implicated in the ecocidal destruction of the world’s third largest rainforest. The Bakries are criminals in West Papua, stealing our resources, chopping down our forest, and poisoning our rivers. An old post on the Bakrie website makes very clear what they want from my land: “[West Papua is] one of the richest regions in natural resources… Indonesia cannot afford to lose Papua like it did Timor-Leste”.

Anindya’s father was also the chairman of the Golkar party, the party of former Indonesian dictator Suharto. During his reign of terror Suharto killed hundreds of thousands of my people, committed a genocide in East Timor, and killed thousands of Chinese Indonesians in the 1990s. The Bakries are aligned with genocide.

Oxford United is the people’s team. It is based in the working-class heart of the city and myself and my children have supported them since we arrived here. The club is full of good people who fight hard for their community. But I am sure they do not know who is funding their team.

It is beyond question that the Bakries chose Oxford United because of my presence in the city. Just as with this latest stunt in the city centre, or with the Cowley Road carnival, Indonesia is desperately trying to turn Oxford against the cause of West Papuan freedom. However, I have faith that the people of Oxford will not fall for this dirty trick. Oxford will continue to be my home and the base for our campaign. I am sure its people will continue to welcome us and support our struggle for liberation, as they have for 20 years.

Benny Wenda 

FWP counter-protestors