By Rohan Radheya *
In 1975 when Tan Sen Thay fled his native land Indonesia he arrived in the Netherlands with just two gulden and a traditionally woven West Papuan noken bag.
The Chinese Indonesian claimed to Dutch immigration authorities that he was a senior representative of The West Papuan government, a predominantly black elite from a Melanesian province in Indonesiaʼs most Eastern federation.
Their government was on a critical stage waging a poorly equipped rebellion for independence.
“If we do not get Dutch assistance immediately, we will be wiped out,” he warned.
Tan Sen insisted that the Dutch had a moral obligation to help West Papua. After the infamous Trikora incident between the Netherlands and Indonesia in 1961, the Dutch were forced to relinquish Papua under international pressure.
In 1969, West Papua was annexed by Indonesia in a highly criticised referendum known as the Act of Free Choice.
Some 1025 tribal leaders were rounded up to vote for the political status of a population of nearly one million native Papuans while Indonesian soldiers allegedly held entire villages at gunpoint. The participants voted unanimously for Indonesian control.
Serious allegations of human rights violations would follow, including claims of war crimes and genocide committed against indigenous Papuans. Tan Sen and his comrades swore they would not accept the result of the referendum, but would continue battling Indonesia for the fate of the resource-rich island.
The Dutch government realised that by deporting Tan Sen, he would almost certainly be persecuted at return. He was granted political asylum in The Netherlands.
After first setting foot in The Netherlands, Tan Sen started working in an old garage in the Hague, just a few miles away from the Dutch Parliament.
“I then picked the Hague, the seat of the Dutch parliament because the Dutch government had a moral obligation to free my country,” he said.
The garage was a famous hotspot for producing golf cars that were nationally renowned in those days.
As a mechanic Tan Sen earned a minimum wage of 1000 gulden a month (about US$500 at the time) for working 80 hours a week. He would send the majority of his pay back to his comrades in West Papua who were launching sporadic hit and run attacks on Indonesian soldiers from the rugged forests of West Papua.
The remaining money he would wrap in a loin cloth and hide under his pillow while just surviving on simple instant noodles.
“A penny saved is a penny earned, that was my motto,” he said. After toiling for 12 years Tan Sen decided he had saved enough money to open his own gift-shop.
He named it after West Papuaʼs capital Hollandia (now named Jayapura).
His antique gift shop sold everything from imported porcelain statues and rare astrological gem stones to Confucian art paintings and cheap Chinese jewellery.
Money started to flow in and Tan Senʼs hard work began to pay off. He intensified his contributions to the Organisasi Papua Merdeka or OPM ( Free Papua Movement).
Tan Sen is still living in the Hague today, two blocks away from my home. In spring 2016 when I visited Tan Sen in the Hague he had closed his shop and converted it into his home.
Aged 92 and in perfect health, he had by then already made enough savings to secure his retirement. A wise Confucian who holds some of the best kept secrets to a lost history, Tan is still hoping one day to return to his beloved fatherland.
Warning me not to take photos and to leave my phone in the hall with my shoes, he shows me old documents that ”no one has ever seen”: old black and white photos of West Papuan guerrillas in the 1970’s, transaction data from high profile West Papuan sympathisers around the globe and testimonials from freshly joined recruits worldwide.
“Did you know that during the fall of Soeharto, one of his relatives came to us and offered us $500,000 to purchase arms?” Tan Sen asks.
I’m a little bit sceptical until he shows me records with numbers, dates, and figures relating to a foreign bank account.
He tells me that before he will die, he will send all documents to Leiden University in the Netherlands and sell them for a million euros. The profit will go to his West Papuan wife.
For years Tan Sen designed and weaved handmade uniforms, then smuggled them back to the OPM via refugee camps in areas near the border with PNG.
He would also arrange asylum for West Papuan refugees and finance their trips overseas to help them resettle in countries such as Sweden and Greece.
West Papuans who later took asylum in all corners of Europe had heard about him. In admiration at what he did for West Papua, they would address him as ‘Meneer Tan’ (Lord Tan) or ‘Bapak Tan’ (Father Tan) and send him homemade sago cakes with flowers and gifts.
If anyone wanted to join the independence movement abroad, Tan Sen was the only one mandated by the leadership of the OPM to take their oath of loyalty.
Recruits had to put their right hand on the bible, and smell the outlawed West Papuan morning star flag. If Tan Sen deemed them fit, they could join.
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