Life as a Freedom Fighter in the Country that Once Colonized You



The struggle for West Papuan liberation is fought not only within the country, but also in the diaspora, applying international pressure. Here, Raki Ap describes the efforts of the Free West Papua Campaign in the Netherlands—the former colonizer of West Papua and, in many ways, one of the states most responsible for the ongoing occupation of the country by Indonesia.

My name is Raki Ap, I am 37 years old, and it is with great honor and responsibility that I represent the Free West Papua Campaign as its international spokesperson.

Before reaching this point, I lived a life of mourning and outrage. I am the youngest son of Arnold Ap, West Papuan anthropologist and well-known musician, who celebrated indigenous Papuan culture through his work. He kept our heritage, traditions, and community alive through music at a time when they were being erased by Indonesia, our colonizer.

My family’s lives took a turn when my father was murdered by the Indonesian military, in April 1984, four months before I was born in a refugee camp across the border in Papua New Guinea.

Naturally, this had a traumatic effect on our family. We grew up without a father. My mother sought refuge in the West, wanting to fulfill his wish that his children receive an education, which would later allow them to stand up for their people too. This is why, one year later, we arrived in the Netherlands, West Papua’s former colonizer.

Dutch rule over West Papua, as part of the Dutch East Indies, started in the late 19th century. When Indonesia won its independence in 1949, West Papua was kept under Dutch control. Preparations towards the country’s independence began in those years, with the Dutch facilitating the elections of a West Papua Council, as well as the creation of an anthem and of the Morningstar flag. However, amidst international pressure in 1962 (mainly from the United States in the context of the Cold War), the Netherlands transferred colonial power over West Papua to the Indonesian state. The devastating consequences of this engineered transition of power were felt by all Papuans, especially those who dared oppose it, including my father.

As a child I was not aware of why we were actually living in the Netherlands, or why I did not have a father. That was until I turned 16, when my mother took me aside to tell me the story of how my father’s life had been taken from him for his outspoken pride in West Papuan culture. She described her journey across the border, with me in her belly. She showed me the photos of my father, Arnold Ap, in a coffin, with bullet wounds and torture marks on his body. I was overcome with anger and emotions. But over time, I tried to channel this pain and resentment into something generative, a new perspective for myself, my family, and West Papua.

However, I realized that I actually did not know much about West Papua, its history, and its current situation. Although I was living in the country of our former colonizers, I realized that many Dutch people knew little to nothing of our ‘shared’ history either. Since the transfer of West Papua’s sovereignty to Indonesia in 1962, the Netherlands had silenced our history in all its institutions. There was no trace of us in the Dutch education system, the media, or politics. In my history classes at school, there was not a single mention of West Papua, even when we were learning about the time of Dutch rule in Indonesia. I found it strange, but I was too afraid to say anything. In fact, I was even ashamed to say that I came from West Papua. I was scared the kids would make fun of my people, label them as primitives who wear penis sheaths. I did not know how to proudly express where I came from since our identity had quite literally been erased.

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The Free West Papua Campaign in front of the International Court of Justice in The Hague on August 15, 2021.

Because so little was being made known, it became a personal life mission of mine to learn as much as possible about West Papua. I dove into the national archives, I entered into conversation with my uncles, aunts, and old veterans—anyone that would bring me new perspectives on West Papua. Step by step, I learned how the story of freedom promised to us by the Netherlands had turned into a new era of colonization, this time by Indonesia. I learned how through systematic genocide coupled with Indonesian programs of transmigration, West Papuans have now become a minority in their own country, marginalized and racially abused. I also learned how the Dutch institutional silence on this topic perpetuates this unlawful and exploitative continuous colonization. My search for truth about my father, about the thousands of Papuans who share the same pain and sadness as I do, but also the same drive and eagerness for change, have shaped me to be the person I am today: an expert through lived experience in (de)colonization, Indigenous oppression, and institutional racism.

Meeting independence leader Benny Wenda 20 years ago was a turning point in my and my brothers’ lives. Wenda founded the Free West Papua Campaign in 2004, and my brothers and I would later create the Dutch branch. We had a clear mission: breaking the silence that exists around West Papua in the Netherlands, and to get West Papuan independence back on the international agenda. Benny’s vision and conviction for change gave us bountiful hope and courage.

This is how the Free West Papua Campaign NL started its mission of re-educating the former colonizers, protest by protest, school by school, event by event, interview by interview.

20 years later, we can look back at an unprecedentedly successful campaign, from which awareness in the Netherlands and in the international arena has grown significantly. I have encountered history professors, overwhelmed by our presentation, and university students lost for words after listening to our story.

Through our shared history, I try to explain to them that the Dutch government consciously tries to silence our past, that the Netherlands still play a part in creating the human rights crisis in West Papua today. In my audience, this often triggers feelings of shame, uneasiness, and disbelief. The Dutch struggle to cope with this reality. So, during all my lectures on West Papua, I must be careful with my narrative, or else I risk alienating my white audience—an audience who can all too quickly feel like they are being labeled as racist, and feel personally attacked by my story of suffering. Over time I have learned how fragile the Dutch are. After all, it is their own institutions that have convinced them of their national goodwill, openness, and tolerance. Then suddenly, they come across a Papuan man who completely shatters this image with his story. I hold a mirror up for them to see reality. I show them that behind every innovation and modern development of the Netherlands, just like any other country in the Global North, people in the Global South have paid the highest price. The Papuans are no different: their freedoms,the richness of their culture, the health of their environment have all been obliterated to make way for the world’s largest goldmine, the world’s second largest copper mine, endless palm oil plantations and BP’s exploitative natural gas projects.

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Action gathering activists from Aceh, Maluku and West Papua (all under Indonesian control), organized by the Free West Papua Campaign Netherlands in front of the Peace Palace in The Hague, also known as the International Court of Justice. / Courtesy of the Free West Papua Campaign.

This is why my storytelling must be careful and considerate. We show understanding for our audience, and are not oblivious to their responses. Even though we are the victims of their silence, we are the ones adapting to their fragility. Because only when they can listen to our story with an open mind can they begin to understand the weight that we carry as West Papuans, how it is to be treated as third-class citizens on our own land. Only then is there a chance for a spark of empathy, and a recognition of responsibility. Only then might this empathy transform into a will to strive for change alongside us. This is why I cannot and do not place blame: it is not the students’ fault for not being taught what those in power do not want them to learn.

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Indigenous liberation day: Raki Ap, speaking at the 2021 Indigenous Liberation Day in the Nelson Mandela park in Amsterdam. Other flags include the Maluku and Mapuche ones. / Courtesy of the Free West Papua Campaign.

This tactic has bore fruits, both in the Netherlands and internationally. These past two years, the Free West Papua campaign has reached new heights. Dozens of universities throughout the Netherlands have invited us to guest lecture for their students, cultural institutions have approached us to integrate our story into new exhibitions, news channels have created impactful stories about our cause, and the Dutch climate movement now recognizes the significance of New Guinea as our planet’s largest tropical island, showing their solidarity and support with our Indigenous populations. In light of this public attention, Dutch politicians could no longer stay silent. In early 2022, a motion was submitted for the Dutch government to support the deployment of a UN Human Rights mission to West Papua (which Indonesia has long opposed). This motion was accepted by nearly all political parties in our House of Representatives (Tweede Kamer). By now, 84 other countries and the European Commission have also urged the deployment of this mission. These are signs that white fragility, post-colonial guilt, and institutional erasure—all forces working against us—are not here to stay. They may hamper progress but will never halt it.

We also find ourselves in the middle of a global climate and biodiversity crisis, of which, as stated in the latest IPCC report, colonialism is one of the root causes.

Since New Guinea is the world’s largest tropical island, with one of the most unique ecosystems, protected for centuries by the Indigenous Papuan population’s way of life, freedom for West Papua also means a chance for humanity to tackle the climate crisis.

I am also proudly the spokesperson for a plan towards an independent West Papuan, advocating an Indigenous-led governance in balance with both humans and nature as outlined in our “Green State Vision,” presented at the 2021 Global Climate Summit (COP26) in Glasgow.

In 2015, the Free West Papua Campaign collected 1.8 million signatures in West Papua (of which 70% came from Indigenous peoples) demanding a free and fair vote on independence. This vote has not taken place yet, but we see that the momentum of our struggle has only grown since then. Even though West Papua still has a long road to freedom, as one of the most heavily militarized zones in the world, and the little resources its people have to fight their oppression, the recent years have shown that change is indeed possible. The growing global support for our cause, especially in the Netherlands, gives me hope and confidence that we will one day see the decolonization of West Papua and the liberation of its people.