Jun 14, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

The life and death of Theys Eluay

At Ipenburg

There was always something ambiguous about Theys Hiyo Eluay. He became a focal point in the struggle for Papuan independence. But he was also seen as close to top army and police commanders, and the Kopassus special forces were his friends. Theys did not have much support in his home area of Sentani, outside Jayapura, where memories were still vivid of the large number of people killed through him by the Indonesian army.

Theys Eluay was educated in the 'advanced primary school' (Jongensvervolgschool) in Yoka, Sentani, in the Dutch colonial period. He studied meteorology and later worked as an assistant meteorologist. He came from a family of traditional heads (ondoafi) in Sere village. Although not entitled to the responsibility, he became ondoafi himself because of his relatively advanced education.

After the Dutch relinquished power in 1963, Indonesia tried to eliminate Papuan protest against its integration into Indonesia. Theys assisted the army by pointing out people who were pro-Dutch and anti-Indonesian. This action caused many victims in the small Sentani community of about 15,000. Some are still in hiding in PNG. Theys was one of about 1,000 Papuans selected to vote for integration with Indonesia in 1969. He campaigned in favour of a positive vote. In 1971 Theys became a member of the provincial parliament.

However, by 1980 his influence had declined. This made him feel frustrated. He joined the officially sponsored Papuan Customary Council Assembly (Lembaga Musyawarah Adat Papua), first for the Sentani area and then for the province of Irian Jaya. In 1990 he became chairman of the provincial council. After 1996 this council became more politicised.

Morning Star

In October 1998 Theys Eluay, Don Flassy, and two students were arrested for holding meetings to discuss the raising of the Morning Star flag on 1 December 1998. When Theys was freed after a week, he appeared on the front page of the Cendrawasih Pos, stating that West Papua did not need to ask for independence as it had already been independent ever since 1 December 1961. The Papuans, he said, only wanted their sovereignty back. This interview highlighting Theys was a strong contrast with previous editorial policy, which had ignored independence demands.

The focus on Theys continued, and certainly increased the circulation of Cendrawasih Pos, the only province-wide daily. Other leaders in the struggle, like Tom Beanal or Herman Awom, were rarely featured. There were weeks when Theys was pictured almost every day on the front page. 'Theys is weeping', 'Theys is angry', the headlines said. 'Theys is sick and has to go to Singapore', and 'Friends at once' (after fetching the new military commander from the Sentani airport). All this increased Theys' popularity enormously. He had the courage to say things other people were afraid to say in the open. Yet all the time Theys remained very close to the top of the army and police. He was the customary (adat) leader, and now also the Great Leader of the Papuans. As such he was accepted into the select group of the most powerful in the province.

The rise of Theys Eluay started soon after the Team of One Hundred had gone to Jakarta to meet President Habibie, in January 1999. Afterwards the team announced, without a single dissenting voice, that the result of the dialogue initiated by Habibie was that Papuans wanted independence. The mobilisation in favour of independence had been done by Foreri, the Forum Rekonsiliasi Rakyat Irian Jaya (Forum for the Reconciliation of the Papuan People). This was an initiative of church leaders, joined by adat leaders, students and women's organisations. Theys Eluay, Tom Beanal and Gaspar Sibi were the adat leaders.

Theys was a self-appointed leader. He began to call himself Great Leader of the Papuan People some time in 1998. He proposed the Morning Star flag be raised after his birthday celebration on 12 November 1998. In reaction, the army said they would create a bloodbath if the forbidden flag should be raised. Theys then cancelled the event, saying that December was the month when the Prince of Peace was born and no violence should take place.

In 1999 Theys again announced a flag raising for 1 December, but then again wanted to cancel it. This time, however, his followers strongly resisted the cancellation. So Theys supported the flag raising. The army and police, after a visit to Irian Jaya by the national police chief, insisted it was illegal. Nevertheless, on 1 December 1999 people throughout the province raised the forbidden flag. This was a major achievement. Order was maintained by the pro-independence militia known as Satgas Papua. Papuans saw that independence was possible, and that they were still a majority in their own land. Most migrants preferred to stay at home, so on that one day Papuans dominated the streets, an unusual experience.

In September 1999 Theys proposed to hold a Great Meeting (Rapat Akbar) to give voice to 'M' (merdeka, independence). The idea spread, and in February 2000 a Great Debate (Musyawarah Besar, Mubes) was held to discuss the future of West Papua and to determine a strategy for the independence struggle. The Free Papua Movement (OPM) was also present. However, Theys had by then a large force of young people at his own disposal - the Papua Task Force (Satgas Papua). They were responsible for security at the Mubes.

Actually the majority wanted Tom Beanal to chair the Mubes, but with such a large number of satgas close by, Theys could not be ignored. A compromise was struck, and both became 'Great Leaders of the Papuan People'.

The Mubes decided to organise a congress with a wider representation than the Mubes. The Second Papuan Congress took place in May-June 2000. Theys stood up at the beginning of the meeting and said: 'I am the chairman, while you are the vice chairman, right?' Tom tacitly agreed, as he did not want a quarrel at the beginning of such an important congress. Unity was crucial.

The Presidium of the Council of Papuans (Presidium Dewan Papua, PDP) got a mandate to act on behalf of all Papuans. It was asked to report on progress towards independence by 1 December 2000. The provincial and national governments accepted the PDP as representing Papuan opinion. However, as PDP chairman Theys usually did not consult his fellow members. They often knew what Theys was doing only by reading the papers. For one of them, Benny Giay from Paniai, it became too much when Theys in October 2000 honoured the departing army commander by elevating him to the rank of 'Great Warrior of the Papuans'. Papuans from the highlands said they would not raise funds and pigs for somebody who had been ordering the killing of Papuans. Benny Giay then left the PDP.


Theys had many achievements. He had the flair and courage to make statements the people understood. He raised an awareness of being Papuan. He supported the formation of 'command posts' (pos komando, posko) to guard villages and even cities. This came in response to the situation in the Moluccas, where outside provocateurs stirred up a religious conflict. These posko were very popular. They were built all over the province, and effectively took over control from the army and police. The police later dismantled them.

The Satgas Papua was also immensely popular. Theys Eluay controlled a small army of about 5,000 young men and women, led by his son Boy Eluay. They got some training, and were easily recognised by their black T-shirts and trousers. The satgas gave a purpose to marginalised young Papuans who had fallen victim to alcoholism and petty crime. He also from the beginning spoke out for peaceful means. Appealing to the Papuan religious heritage, he said prayer was to be their weapon. All over the province continuous prayer sessions were held. Through Theys the Papuans became more united.

At the same time, Papuans distrusted his good relationships with those they saw as their oppressors. Was Theys a spy, a provocateur? Or was he double spy, also cheating the army, Kopassus and the police? In either case, Theys was playing with fire. Radical highland Papuans twice threatened Theys with death if he should back down over the flag raising issue - in 1999 and 2000.

Theys may have underestimated the danger of any double play. Or he may have allowed the army and the police to use him, just like he accepted the support of Yorris Raweyai, head of the pro-Suharto Pemuda Pancasila youth organisation. Yorris was in turn supported by Tomy Winata, a businessman with Kopassus connections. Tomy also had business interests in Irian Jaya. In return, Theys possibly thought of getting immunity for his political activity of mobilising Papuan awareness. His natural skill in public relations made him popular with the press. Soon every man and woman in the streets of Java knew about the Papuan struggle. His dramatic and unexpected death on 10 November 2001 fascinated a lot of people in Indonesia and abroad. Theys, it seems, died at the hands of the very people who just before had honoured him publicly as the Great Leader and Hero of the Papuan Struggle. He and his driver considered these people their personal friends.

In the theology in which Theys believed, to die for a cause is nothing strange. It was what Jesus did. He had intimated to close friends that he was prepared to die for the cause. In the end Theys meant more for the struggle because of his death. In his death he united all the factions. He became a symbol for the absence of law that threatens every Papuan. He became a hero in the line of Arnold Ap, executed in 1984, and Thomas Wainggai, reputedly killed in 1996.

At Ipenburg (ipen@jayapura.wasantara.net.id) is graduate program director at the I S Kijne theological college in Jayapura.

Inside Indonesia 70: Apr - Jun 2002

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