Asia-Pacific Network logo

Asia Pacific Network: 11 October 1998

HUMAN RIGHTS: BEHIND THE BIAK MASSACRE

What really happened on the West Papua island of Biak in July? A revealing account of the conflicting reports of the death toll and circumstances of a massacre that deserves to be ranked with the Dili massacre in East Timor.

By ANDREW KILVERT, recently in Irian Jaya (West Papua)


IN JULY, a major massacre of unarmed protesters took place on the Indonesian-ruled island of Biak in Irian Jaya (West Papua). The massacre was similar in both style and in terms of numbers of dead to that which is now commonly referred to as the Dili massacre which took place in East Timor in 1991.

The difference being that the Biak massacre received almost no coverage in the Australian news media except for a few brief articles in major papers claiming that seven were killed and approximately 100 were wounded.

This gross understatement has been left to dissolve into the history of similar such newspaper stories, which despite being briefly important recede as quickly as they arrived.

In the days following the Biak massacre a tidal wave hit further down the coast in Papua New Guinea, killing 2000 people, this received saturation coverage and effectively swamped the small coverage of the Irian Jaya story despite the fact that the Indonesian military have been responsible for the deaths of an estimated 300,000 Melanesian West Papuans in their 30-year occupation of the territory.

The following is the story of Biak, a story which was not reported in the Sydney Morning Herald because there was a discrepancy in the reports of numbers of bodies washed up on the beaches.

An early report said 33, a later one from the Jayapura-based IHRSTAD accounted for 53 bodies and a later one from the Javanese-based human rights watchdog KOSOAIR, said that 70 bodies had washed up or been caught in fishing nets.

As Hamish McDonald, foreign editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, put it:

"In these circumstances we are going to hold off on publication for the time being."
Because the investigations which were carried out thoroughly, and which at times posed personal risk to those involved, did not correlate exactly, they were deemed "non-news".

Despite the fact that these accounts supported each other in many ways and that the difference in body count was due to the fact that the three different human rights organisations which looked into it were there at different times during the recovery of bodies, it was not printed in the Australian press.

In July 1998, the community of Biak Island joined in the independence demonstrations which were taking place around the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya in response to the noises about human rights coming out of the new president in Jakarta and spurred on by new dialog over East Timor.

They made flags and banners which were sown by the women and the boys and young men flew the flag from the top of the water tower. This went on for six days as people camped out around a campfire next to the market place.

On July 6, at 5.30 am, after bringing in an extra battalion from Ambon Island, the Indonesian army opened fire on the sleeping crowd.

As everybody was lying down asleep on the ground when the shooting started, they fired low and as the people stood up to run away they were shot in the legs.

Many of the people there were school children who were expressing the long felt outrage at the Indonesian occupation of their Pacific Island.

As they ran they were cut down and many crawled to the safety of nearby houses.

As the sun rose, the army formed themselves into small units which went from door to door looking for wounded people who had been at the rally. These people were arrested and many others who were identified as being involved were also forced down to the docks.

Others were simply gunned down in their houses in front of their families.

No one knows for sure but the common sentiment among the survivors was that about 24 people were killed during the initial shooting. After this, about 200 people were rounded up and taken down to the docks where they were made to lie face up in the tropical sun.

As they lay, groups of soldiers marched over their faces and stomachs. In the afternoon they were forced to crawl down the street to the police cells where the 200 people were crammed into the tiny cells in the searing heat.

For days they stood unable to sit and because of the conditions, forced to urinate and defecate whilst standing. Many of these people were school children.

When they began getting sick, several were released to act as spies for the military, to go out and track down the other "ringleaders". They reported every day and received beatings when their reports where not considered to be good enough.

Meanwhile, outside the cells there were people dying in their houses from untreated wounds. They couldn't go to the hospital because it was occupied by the army and was already overcrowded with wounded who were kept under guard and who weren't receiving medical treatment anyway.

The chemist shops in town were guarded by military intelligence spies. Occasionally in the streets a young person could be seen hopping around with bullet wounds however mostly the wounded who were well enough to recover were in hiding.

After being imprisoned for several days, 139 of those arrested were taken down to the docks and loaded onto two frigates, one of which had brought the army battalion from Ambon.

The frigates set off in opposite directions, one dumping the people in the ocean near Biak Island, the other dumping them offshore near Manokwari. There have been no reports of people surviving the ordeal and so there is no accurate information as to their last hours although it is fairly certain, judging by the bodies which were recovered , that they were dumped alive.

As the bodies began washing up on the beaches, there was silence in the Australian media, despite the fact that the information was readily available. So while the media reported on the withdrawal of troops from East Timor and the "discovery" of mass graves in Aceh - mass graves which were never lost in the first place, silence remained on the Biak story.

As families met their relatives off the planes from Jayapura and wept together covertly under the scrutiny and suspicion of the Indonesian military guards, the world and particularly Australians remained ignorant of what was going on so near to our shores.

When the first of the bodies began washing up on the beaches the military was quick to recover them, claiming they were the victims of the Papua New Guinea tsunami which occurred nearly 1000 km down the coast.

As others washed up this story became more ludicrous as many of them were bound at the wrists and ankles with ropes and one of them was wearing a Golkar T-shirt which is the shirt of the ruling Indonesian Government party.

Among the recovered bodies there was a woman still clutching a small child.

About two days after the initial killing and before the people had been dumped into the ocean, an Australian Army captain arrived in Biak to carry out an "official" investigation into the killings on behalf of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs.

This was only possible with the approval of the Indonesian high command. Despite this high level support, he complained that his investigations had been hindered at every turn by the local officials and that despite carrying out many such operations he had been subjected to an unusual level of obstruction in Biak.

This is interesting on a couple of levels: firstly it indicates the sensitivity of the Irian Jaya issue to the Indonesian officialdom, but it also suggests that there is a reservoir of accounts of similar events held by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs which has never been publicly released. And it certainly adds credence to the argument that the Australian Government has been involved in a cover up the events which resulted in the deaths of five Australian-based journalists in East Timor in 1975.

For me to write this story is a relief as I hope that others will know what has been happening to the people of Irian Jaya. It is also written in the knowledge that there are thousands of similar stories from this place which will never be heard, even by Australians who live so close and like to pride themselves on being members of the so called "information age".

Still now on Biak Island there are at least 20 people who are facing life imprisonment in Indonesian jails if found guilty of the charges of separatism and rebellion. They are:

Drs Filip Karma, Neles Sroyer, Thonci Wabiser, Melki Kmur, Celsius Raweyai, Agustinus Sada, Eduard Iwanggin, Demitrius Fainsenem, Andreas Marsyo, Hengky Wambrauw, Nehemia Ronsumbre, Marinus Ronsumbre, Klemens Rumsarwir, Bernadus Mansawan, Lamekh Dimara, Robert Iwanggin, Inseren S Karma, Joumunda C Karma, Adrianus Rumbewas and Nico Rumpaidus.

  • Andrew Kilvert is a graduate of the media course at Southern Cross University in Lismore and has an interest in Indonesian and Pacific human rights and environmental issues.
  • Copyright © 1998 Andrew Kilvert and Asia-Pacific Network. This document is for educational and personal use only.

    http://www.asiapac.org.fj/cafepacific/resources/aspac/biak.html


    Return to Asia-Pacific Network index