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Biak Massacre

The Biak Massacre 1998: Warships from Germany and military transport planes from the US/Australia support the killing and torture of West Papuans

In the 1980s the Government of what was then East Germany sold at least one naval warship to the Government of Indonesia, a Frosch I Class type boat. That boat, the KRI 811, was photographed by Eben Kirksey on July 6th 1998, the day of the Biak Massacre. The same day witnesses identified another warship, with the registration number 108 painted on its bow, opening fire on unarmed civilians.  

KRI 811 photographed by Eben Kirksey on July 6th, 1998

Indonesian troops involved in the massacre – the Hassanuddin Company from Sulawesi and Pattimura Company from Ambon, two Indonesian islands a few hours flight from West Papua – were transported to Biak using C130 Hercules aircraft. Despite knowing that the C130 military aircraft were used to transport combat troops employed against unarmed civilians in Biak, the Australian government decided to gift five C130 Hercules aircraft to the Indonesian government, the last of which was delivered in July 2013.  Since then the C130 Hercules military transport planes have been used to transport Indonesian troops fighting the war against West Papuans in Nduga, Intan Jaya, Puncak, Yahukimo, the Star Mountains and Maybrat.

Lockheed Martin C130 transport planes landing troops in the West Papuan highlands in February 2021

The harm caused by these ships and planes is immeasurable. In 2013 survivors from the 1998 Biak Massacre testified at the Biak Tribunal about the violence inflicted by the Indonesian military and its ongoing effects. One of those witnesses was Ms. Tineke Rumkabu.

In the pre-dawn hours of July 6, 1998, Rumkabu made a pot of coffee and took newly baked cakes out to scores of Papuan protesters who had been camping out at a water tower — a prominent land mark in the centre of Biak. After passing out cakes and serving coffee, Rumkabu stayed at the water tower chatting, singing and praying with the protesters. “We were empty handed,” she recalled. “We had no weapons. All we wanted was independence; to separate from Indonesia.”

Suharto, the former Indonesian dictator, had just been overthrown by tens of thousands of unarmed civilians in Jakarta. Democracy was in the air around the archipelago but, in West Papua, it was independence the people wanted, not reform. This was a view the Indonesian military were not prepared to tolerate.

For days, troops had been gathering in Biak City. Indonesian navy warships and C130 Hercules planes brought in heavily armed troops. Local villagers from the surrounding hamlets were press ganged into militias and told to arm themselves with sharp implements. Captain Andrew Plunkett, a former intelligence officer who worked at the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, called it “a dress rehearsal” for the militia-backed military-led bloodletting and destruction that occurred post-referendum in East Timor in 1999.

At approximately 4:30am on July 6, 1998, the troops opened fire. Yudha Korwa, who was 17 years old at the time, was under the water tower when the Indonesian military came. At the 2013 Citizens Tribunal into the 1998 Biak Massacre Korwa gave evidence.

A soldier used a big gun and hit me hard on the head. I saw them kick my friend. I saw Filep Karma [a prominent independence activist] shot. He was shot in the legs. He fell down and said ‘Help me! Help me!’ He was also yelling out ‘Free West Papua! Free West Papua!’ A soldier stabbed me in the chest. I ran …pulled the knife out and threw it away. I was bleeding and just fell down pretending to be dead. The army kept shooting, the bullets came from every direction like rain. People were dying everywhere.

The killings did not end with the shooting at the water tower. Rumkabu describes how she was imprisoned by police in what can only be described as a rape camp. “I saw women abused and killed in the most horrific ways. A young girl was raped then had her breasts cut off in front of me,” Rumkabu said. According to Papuan human rights group ELSHAM and eye witnesses, the dead and dying were thrown into trucks and taken to the wharf where they were loaded on to the waiting warships — the KRI Kapap and the KRI Telek Berau. Those still alive were killed, the bodies mutilated and then thrown overboard.

In the days following July 6, corpses, many missing body parts washed up on the beaches of Biak or were pulled out of the water by fishermen. Irene Dimara told me fisherman found her brother, Dance Korwa. “His penis had been cut off, he had no eyes, his teeth had been pulled out, and he had more than five stab wounds in his belly.”

Shooting nonviolent protesters dead at the tower is one thing, but the level of cruelty and intentionality involved in loading people on boats, killing them, mutilating their bodies and dumping them overboard takes this state crime to a whole new level. The fact this happened in a supposedly democratic Indonesia, several months after former Indonesian dictator President Suharto had been overthrown and a new democratic government installed, and the fact that what happened has been covered up since, compounds the Indonesian government’s complicity.

Memorials are held for the victims of the Biak massacre on July 6 around the world

The Indonesian government is not the only state complicit in this crime. The US and Australian governments knew what was happening. A week after the massacre, Edmund McWilliams, who at the time was a Political Counsellor in the US Embassy in Jakarta, visited Biak. He saw the bullet holes, chest high; pock marks over the water tower. Days later, Australian Military Attaché and Intelligence Officer Dan Weadon arrived in Biak. Weadon’s official report was submitted on 17 July 1998. A copy of Weadon’s report in its entirety was obtained in an appeal, after the Government tried to suppress the information. In his report Weadon states that it was “highly likely” that the military “acted in a very heavy-handed manner during and after their assault on demonstrators”.

Survivors entrusted Weadon with photographic evidence. Those photos have since gone missing. The Guardian reports that they were destroyed by the Australian Government’s Department of Defence around 2014. Lawyer Mark Davis described the destruction of the photos - evidence of crimes against humanity - as “disturbing” and sickening. “The photos were not created by Australian intelligence, they were entrusted to them by the families of the injured and the dead who trusted that Australia would act upon those photos or at least safeguard the evidence,” Davis said.

Commemorative artwork for Biak Berdarah or the Biak Massacre

It is not known how many were killed at the Biak massacre but survivors and human rights investigators from the West Papuan led human rights organisation, ELSHAM Papua, believe hundreds were slain. Instead of punishing the perpetrators the Government of Indonesia jailed the victims.

Two decades later people in Biak are still scared of talking about what happened. It is remarkable that some of the survivors have managed to embark on their own healing journey. They continue to speak out and take action. They pray, sing, and dance. Some of them have become anti-militarists and nonviolent activists. All of them, in different ways, long for justice, not only for themselves, but for all Papuans: the dead, living and future generations.