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Oslo Journal, Part V

Benny Wenda

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Editor’s Note: The Oslo Freedom Forum, an annual human-rights conference, took place last week, in the Norwegian capital. The previous parts of Jay Nordlinger’s journal are at the following links: I, II, III, and IV.

The most fantastically dressed person here is Benny Wenda, a West Papuan tribal leader — feathery headdress and all. He escaped his homeland while on trial. He was granted asylum in the U.K., where he founded the Free West Papua Campaign.

West Papua is under the heel of the Indonesians. The struggle of this place, so little known in the world, reminds me of the struggle of East Timor — two of whose leaders won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996. East Timor subsequently won its independence from Indonesia.

Here in the Christiania Theatre, Wenda says, “Colonialism is supposed to be dead. Slavery is supposed to be dead. But both are alive and well in my country.”

As a child, Wenda saw terrible, terrible things: Most of his family was killed. He remembers his mother slapped and beaten, his aunts raped. He has dedicated himself to “raising my people’s voice.”

Toward the end of his talk, he brings out the West Papuan flag — a “mono-star flag,” as he says. It is illegal where Indonesia has control. He says, “I don’t think the Norwegian police will come arrest me.”

He vows, “I will never be silent until my people are free. Then I’ll give up. I want to see my people smile — like other people, who have freedom.” He says that “there are people in my homeland, many of them elders, who are hiding in the jungle. I want to have a reunion with them. I want to see them smile, while we have tea.”

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It’s hard to imagine that West Papua will ever be first on a human-rights agenda. They are remote, easily overlooked. But they are not remote to themselves, are they? No one is.

“Good day, friends of freedom.” That’s what Jestina Mukoko says as she takes the podium. She is from Zimbabwe, and she directs an organization called the Zimbabwe Peace Project. What they do is document the human-rights abuses of the Mugabe regime. Mukoko herself has suffered those abuses.

They came and got her in the middle of the night, as I understand it. “I was in my nightclothes. Barefoot. I did not have my prescription glasses.” It’s the little details that seem to get to you: a woman not having her prescription glasses.

Her testimony is unbearable, of course. They tortured her. They got drunk on beer as they did so. They were bragging that they had been given an important assignment — that’s why the boss had given them money to buy beer.

When I see Jestina Mukoko at the podium, and later in other places, I feel I am looking at a woman made of iron.

What are we to think of Singapore? I have long been “conflicted,” to use the modern word. (Ugh.) On one hand, Singapore is a shining example of economic freedom — a beacon unto the world, you could almost say. On the other hand, it’s not quite free, is it?

Speaking to us by video is Chee Soon Juan, leader of the Singapore Democratic Party. According to his bio, he has “been arrested and jailed more than a dozen times for his political activities, primarily for repeatedly challenging Singapore’s laws that require protest organizers to obtain a police permit before staging political demonstrations or making speeches on political issues.”

As a critic of the ruling party, Chee has been sued for defamation, “on multiple occasions” (as his bio says). A court ordered him to pay more than $1 million in damages. Unable to do so, Chee declared bankruptcy. One consequence is that he is forbidden to stand for election or to travel out of the country.

I’m going to have more to say about Singapore in a future piece for National Review. But I can tell you this right now: I completely agree with Chee when he says, “Democracy is not a Western concept” but “a human concept.”



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