This article was published more than 8 years ago

Illusions of Grandeur

John Anari is a West Papuan independence activist. Tom Bleming is a retired American gunrunner. Together, they want to win the South Pacific's next great freedom struggle.

By Alexander Zaitchik
Photographs by Charles Ommanney

In the summer of 2009, John Anari, a young political activist from the Indonesian region of West Papua, created a Facebook page. He did it using an old desktop computer with a dial-up Internet connection, in a one-room apartment in Manokwari, the provincial capital situated on West Papua’s northeastern coast. The page wasn’t a personal profile. Anari, who prides himself on being tech savvy, had created one of those the year before. The page was the first of what would become several online outposts for the West Papua Liberation Organization (WPLO), a group that Anari had founded to agitate for his homeland’s independence.

“Most freedom groups in Papua cannot access the Internet or don’t know how to use it,” Anari, now 35, said recently. “I wanted to show the world Indonesia’s crimes.”

On the WPLO page, Anari posted unclassified diplomatic cables related to West Papua’s colonial past, updates from exiled independence activists, and videos of defiant rebel leaders training for armed struggle in remote highland camps. He also shared gruesome photos of West Papuans who reportedly had been beaten, shot, or tortured by the Indonesian security forces that have controlled the western half of New Guinea, the world’s largest tropical island, since 1962. Because foreign journalists and NGOs are rarely granted entry to West Papua and are closely monitored when they are, the page opened a rare, real-time window into one of the bloodiest and best-kept secrets of the South Pacific.

As social media does, this window also functioned as a global drive-thru. Anari, who had never traveled outside Indonesia, began cultivating friendships with a motley mix of international sympathizers. To educate them about West Papua, he posted comments about international treaties and resolutions that he described as evidence of the region’s right to independence. Most people who reached out to him pledged moral support or promised to write letters to world leaders on West Papua’s behalf. But a minority of Anari’s new contacts—quixotic adventure seekers, soldiers of fortune, and crackpots claiming to represent foreign armies and intelligence agencies—volunteered a deeper commitment to the WPLO’s mission. To them, Anari emphasized his ambition to build an army from West Papua’s fractious rebel cells. Although he had no formal military training (by day he worked as an IT contractor), Anari presented himself as a man capable of leading a full-blown insurrection.

One of Anari’s first online friends credulous of his revolutionary potential was Tom Bleming, a longtime mercenary living in Wyoming. Unlike Anari, Bleming had been everywhere: After serving in Vietnam, the American became a free agent, aiding independence movements and coup plots around the globe. In 1979, he landed in a Panamanian military jail for attempting to blow up Manuel Noriega’s entourage with dynamite and diesel. When Anari contacted him for the first time, via a Facebook message in 2009, Bleming had just returned from a pro bono stint advising and supplying nonmilitary aid to the Karen National Liberation Army, a rebel group in eastern Myanmar. Then 63 and living on veteran disability payments, Bleming was considering retiring. But the West Papuan cause fired the boiler of his moral and military imagination; he later described it to me as his “last hurrah.” Over several years’ worth of messages and phone calls, Bleming offered to help Anari however he could, from making introductions to arms dealers to providing room and board in the United States.

As social media does, this window also functioned as a global drive-thru. Anari, who had never traveled outside Indonesia, began cultivating friendships with a motley mix of international sympathizers.

By 2014, a room was exactly what Anari needed: He was planning a trip to New York to meet with contacts at the United Nations and with NGOs lobbying the international body. He wanted a base of operations anywhere in the United States, and Bleming offered one with benefits. “The rebel groups in West Papua do not understand modern unconventional warfare,” Anari later told me. “Tom and his friends offered to educate me.”

Thanks to Bleming’s financial help, Anari landed in Casper, Wyoming, on an unseasonably warm afternoon in October 2014. Bleming was waiting near the airport, leaning against his beater Oldsmobile that’s plastered with bumper stickers; one bears the silhouette of an AK-47, while another sports Che Guevara’s face. He greeted his guest with military formality: “General Anari, welcome.”

Bleming lives in Lusk, an old ranching town about 100 miles southeast of Casper, best known these days for its stagecoach museum, a women’s prison, and an annual pioneer-days re-enactment called the “Legend of Rawhide.” On the drive to Bleming’s house, the pair stopped for lunch at the Ghost Town Fuel Stop & Restaurant. Over bowls of chili, they agreed that the old mercenary would serve as Anari’s unofficial military advisor, as well as his “chief protocol officer,” handling the West Papuan’s security, travel, and scheduling. Bleming invited Anari to stay in Lusk as long as he liked.

When I visited Wyoming this January, Anari was in the middle of what became a four-month stay. Our first meeting took place around a flaming oil drum on the rolling prairie; every Sunday, on 80 acres that the former gunrunner owns just beyond Lusk’s town limits, Anari and Bleming burned the trash they’d generated the previous week. Wearing his leather jacket, sunglasses, and military beret, Anari, who also carried a compact pistol, evoked a paunchy Black Panther leader circa 1965, mysteriously transported to the emptiest county in America’s emptiest state. Only the shiny emblem on his beret betrayed his even more unlikely origin. It featured the mascot of the West Papuan rebels, the cassowary: a flightless bird that can grow to 6 feet tall and that has been known to fatally attack humans with its knife-like middle claw.

The men’s fireside talk of war and independence was by then familiar to many of Lusk’s townsfolk. Since Anari’s arrival, the pair had discussed martial and diplomatic strategy in the town’s bars, in meet-and-greets with Bleming’s friends—mostly fellow ex-military and mercenary types—and with local journalists. “We’re lining up people to handle everything from refineries to civil aviation, grid, radar,” Bleming proclaimed as the trash blackened.

For Bleming, West Papua is more than an injustice. It is a screen for projecting long-held fantasies of winning a good fight on behalf of an oppressed underdog. Outraged by what he sees as the plundering violence of Indonesian rule, Bleming spoke in Patton-esque bursts of bravado. “We’re going to win in Papua. Win faster than anyone thinks,” he insisted.

Anari more than tolerated his friend’s theatrical self-assurance; he gently encouraged it. And why not? In Lusk, nothing could stop Anari from role-playing a general on the cusp of certain victory. It was a tempting indulgence, given murky and tragic truths in West Papua. Indonesia’s military is more powerful by magnitudes than the likes of Anari’s planned army could ever become. The country’s strongest allies include the United States, which sees Indonesia as a key economic and military partner in Asia. And far from the commander he aspires to be, Anari is just one self-styled player among many in the disarray of activists and organizations pushing for West Papua’s freedom.

“Anari represents a long tradition of the fragmentation and organizational weakness of the independence movement,” said Richard Chauvel, a historian of West Papuan nationalism at the University of Melbourne’s Asia Institute. “These activists that pop up hither and thither—and they’re ‘presidents,’ ‘ministers,’ or ‘generals’—know that West Papua hasn’t had the capacity to threaten Indonesian control at any time since 1963. The more modestly titled activists often have a stronger basis of support in West Papua.”

Whatever his true influence, it’s possible that Anari’s winter journey to the United States could place him in danger back home. According to Ed McWilliams, a former political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesian intelligence regularly monitors critics of the state’s iron grip on West Papua. “[Anari’s] seeming support for armed struggle would make him especially vulnerable to legal or extra-legal retaliation,” McWilliams wrote in an email.

But in Wyoming, Anari and Bleming told a very different story, one of an impending, triumphant return. “We can’t tell you the details because they’re classified, but the general has a devastating strategy he’s going to unleash on the Indonesian forces,” Bleming said as the fire died down that January evening. “It’ll be a historic rout. Right, John?”

The question caught Anari entranced with a dome of starry sky. He straightened himself and assumed a stern look. “If the world abandons us again, then, yes, we will fight,” he said. “We will kick the Indos out.”

“That’s right,” Bleming said. “They won’t know what hit ’em.”

John Anari (left) and Tom Bleming (right) discuss West Papuan independence with R.D. Saathoff (middle), a former U.S. Special Forces training officer.

The modern history of West Papua is one of uninterrupted foreign domination. In 1824, the British and Dutch East India companies split the island of New Guinea down the middle. Its rich soils and cloud forests provided industrializing Europe with coffee, rubber, spices, and cocoa; its natives offered the enduring tropical “savage” tropes of grass skirts, phallic gourd-sheaths, headhunting, and cannibalism found in Western ethnographies and newspapers of the day.

After World War II, the island’s colonial masters began preparing to transfer control to New Guinea’s native Melanesian population, who share physical features and origins with Australia’s Aborigines. On the island’s eastern half, this culminated in the establishment of Papua New Guinea, a free country, in 1975. Meanwhile, on the western half, Indonesia brought the process to a halt when it invaded in 1962. (Jakarta knew that the fledgling state was weak and that it was rich with natural resources.) The Soviet Union made a play for Indonesian allegiance by backing the country’s claim on West Papua. In true Cold War fashion, U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s administration decided to compete for President Sukarno’s loyalty, and America brokered a deal that put West Papua under de facto Indonesian control. In 1965, a military coup placed General Suharto in power. In addition to deepening military ties with Washington, Suharto signed lucrative, long-term development deals with American mining and oil companies. Some of the largest of these projects were in West Papua.

In anticipation of statehood, West Papua had begun building a national army. Following the Indonesian invasion, many troops went underground. They established bases under the banner of the Free Papua Movement, or OPM (the acronym for the group’s Indonesian name), including training camps and parade grounds in the mountains. They drilled with spears and arrows, colonial Dutch bolt-actions, and M16s stripped from dead Indonesian soldiers (and some purchased from living ones). Organized into “cassowary battalions,” OPM fighters carried out wildcat strikes on Indonesian troops. Suharto responded by brutally suppressing all independence activity, using assassination campaigns and village-wide revenge sweeps. In 1969, the Indonesian government organized an independence referendum, and the army forced about 1,000 hand-selected West Papuans to cast ballots at gunpoint. The locals voted unanimously against freedom.

The History of West Papua’s Independence Movement

  • 1949
    The Netherlands, which had colonized modern-day Indonesia, recognizes the archipelago nation’s independence, but the status of West Papua is left unresolved.
  • 1963
    Based on a U.N.-brokered agreement, Indonesia becomes the temporary administrator.
  • Mid-1960s
    The Free Papua Movement (OPM) is formed to resist Indonesian control.
  • 1969
    Authorities handpick just over 1,000 people to vote in an independence referendum. The vote fails, and West Papua formally becomes part of Indonesia.
  • 1981
    Indonesia launches Operation Clean Sweep in a reported effort to displace West Papuans from their land. According to Human Rights Watch, similar campaigns lead to “large-scale civilian deaths” during the 1970s and 1980s.
  • 1998-2000
    In a period known as the Papuan Spring, independence activists form an increasingly organized movement and lead a series of peaceful demonstrations.
  • 2001
    Indonesia passes a special autonomy law that grants new political and economic rights to West Papuan administrative bodies. Today, parts of the law remain unimplemented.
  • 2003
    To undermine the independence movement, Indonesia splits West Papua into two provinces.

By the 1970s, many independence leaders were in exile, and thousands of West Papuans had fled to neighboring Papua New Guinea. During the more than three decades that Suharto ruled Indonesia, the OPM maintained a ragtag resistance amid a permanent crackdown. But the violence was largely invisible to the world due to tight travel and media restrictions in West Papua. “Because of the long effort to draw a curtain around Papua, not much is known about the blood bath that has been underway since the early 1960s,” said McWilliams, formerly of the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta.

Anari was born behind this curtain in 1979 and raised in Manokwari. Despite family ties to the OPM—he says his father and maternal uncle are both veterans—he was shielded as a child from the dangerous world of rebel activity. “They stopped talking politics when I walked into the room,” he recalled. “I heard only pieces. But I put the pieces together. My uncle could not hide the bullet scar on his stomach.”

Anari’s activism began as a teenager, when Internet cafes popped up in local cities. His research into his homeland’s past allowed him to understand the violence around which he’d grown up. “The OPM fighters in the mountains did not know the global politics of why New Guinea got decolonization, and we got recolonization,” he said. “The schools teach only official Indonesian history.”

When the Asian financial crisis walloped Indonesia, triggering a wave of violent unrest that forced Suharto from power in May 1998, Anari was a 19-year-old student activist studying computers at a university in Central Java province. He joined the tumult by linking up with other young West Papuans who saw opportunity in the chaos. Anari says he organized protests at the Dutch and U.S. embassies in Jakarta. “The army always attacked us,” he told me. In 1999, he helped found a Papuan student group, the Independent Network for Kejora Action. Its name was a reference to West Papua’s red, white, and blue national flag, known as Bintang Kejora (Morning Star).

Simultaneously, the wider independence movement stirred with new life in what became known as the Papuan Spring. On Dec. 1, 1999, two generations of West Papuan activists and fighters, many fresh back from exile, gathered in Jayapura, a provincial capital, to raise the Morning Star in an event that had all the trappings of a state ceremony. OPM soldiers in tribal headdresses and ragged fatigues stood in formation next to black-uniformed members of a new 5,000-member, student-based militia called Satgas Papua (Papuan Task Force). By 2001, pro-independence groups had unified under the leadership of the new Papuan Presidium Council.

But even without Suharto in power, the army kept tight control of West Papua, and raisings of the Morning Star often resulted in bloodshed. (In July 1998, in response to a protest involving the flag, Indonesian troops killed scores of West Papuans and dumped their bodies into the sea.) In 2001, Jakarta unleashed units from Kopassus, the country’s special forces command, in a campaign of targeted assassinations and arrests. The clampdown was in full swing by November of that year, when Papuan Presidium Council Chairman Theys Eluay attended a dinner at Kopassus headquarters. Days later, his decapitated corpse was found with its heart carved out. The chief of the Indonesian army publicly hailed the soldiers who committed the murder as “heroes.”

“Eluay’s assassination effectively ended the Papuan Spring,” said Chauvel, the historian at the University of Melbourne’s Asia Institute. “The detention of his colleagues further dispersed the reasonably cohesive independence movement.”

In the vacuum that emerged, rebels continued to carry out occasional, small-scale attacks on Indonesian forces, while activists fractured into dozens of pro-independence organizations and coalitions. In July 2002, according to Anari, he founded a new group, more radical and militant than his first one, that sought to unite student activists: the Association of West Papua Indigenous Students and Youth. Six years later, he expanded it to include representatives from armed groups and renamed it the WPLO. Anari had big ambitions for his organization. Abroad, he would use it to build awareness of and international solidarity with West Papua. At home, he would unify rebel factions into a national liberation army. Today, according to its organizers, the WPLO has about 500 members in leadership roles and many thousands in its broader membership. (Its Facebook group had just over 1,600 members as of press time.)

But it is no easy task to understand the network of West Papua’s pro-independence groups. The region, which Indonesia split into two legal provinces in 2003 in an effort to dampen rebellious sentiment, contains numerous tribes and dialects. There are also constantly shifting alliances among liberation forces. “The key problem with movement mapping is that membership is fluid,” Nick Chesterfield of West Papua Media, an online news source, noted in an email. “We have been trying to map them accurately for years, but every time we are almost there, it changes.”

All this complicates attempts to differentiate influential leaders from poseurs. Anari is no exception to this rule.

Anari spent four months in Lusk, Wyoming.

Anari and Bleming had a regular routine at the old mercenary’s modest, single-story home, which smells of stale cigarettes and whose closets are stuffed with AK-47s, Uzis, and M16s. (A storage room abutting the kitchen is lined with metal ammo boxes stacked four high, the way a retired baker might keep sugar stock.) Anari woke daily around 4 p.m., as Wyoming’s winter light faded and dawn broke over West Papua. He ambled from his sparse guest room to a dining table crowded with maps, printouts, and back issues of magazines such as Working Ranch, Cowboys & Indians, and Guns & Ammo. A Morning Star blocked a nearby window.

Bleming served coffee, toast, peanut butter, and bananas. After breakfast, Anari booted up his old Toshiba laptop and spent hours writing and Skyping with activists in the diaspora, as well as comrades in West Papua. His most frequent contact was Ben Kaisiepo, the leader of Kobe Oser (“United”), a Netherlands-based exile group. Anari calls Kaisiepo “Father.”

“The general talks to Kaisiepo for hours,” Bleming said one day. “It’s a job just keeping him stocked with Skype gift cards. Man, does he go through those things like butter.” (I reached out to Kaisiepo for this article, but he declined to comment unless I transferred a minimum of 1,000 euros to Kobe Oser’s Dutch bank account. In an email, he wrote that the money would be used for “our important U.N.-lobby work.”)

When Anari ventured out to meet with reporters or Bleming’s friends, some of whom opened their checkbooks in support, he wore his fatigues and beret and presented himself as a military chief. “I feel that we will have to resort to armed struggle to win our freedom,” he told the Lusk Herald. Most locals seemed bemused, if not charmed. A woman at the desk of Lusk’s visitors office said, “He seems like a very sweet man, and it’s just awful what’s happening to his people over there.” Others took Anari’s presence less kindly. A red-faced retiree at the Silver Dollar Bar told me the West Papuan had no business in Lusk. “The whole thing is some kind of—frankly, it’s just communist horseshit,” he sputtered.

At Bleming’s house one evening, Anari elaborated on his military efforts. The army he is building will eventually have 10,000 rebels, managed through a complex hierarchy down to the village level. Its tactics will combine ancient West Papuan fighting techniques, such as bamboo-arrow archery assaults, with modern guerrilla warfare. “I am preparing them to attack,” he told me bluntly.

Ten thousand men, however, is a far cry from any credible estimate of current rebel strength. Leaked Indonesian intelligence reports from the 2000s put the number of active fighters at around 1,000, most still armed with stone-tipped spears, bamboo arrows, and antiquated rifles. “Papua’s rebel forces are tiny,” Chauvel said, “maybe a couple thousand.”

Benny Wenda, a prominent, Oxford-based West Papuan exile, similarly downplayed Anari’s talk of a military solution. Wenda’s Free West Papua Campaign advocates an independence referendum to end the crisis in his homeland. He is also the spokesman of the recently formed United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP), a coordinating body for several of the larger pro-independence groups. Anari’s organization is not one of them. “The WPLO is just an affiliation group, a small group,” Wenda told me. He noted, “All leaders [of independence factions] have a full mandate to advance the freedom cause. We are very weak at the moment, and it is important that we speak in one voice to demand the right of self-determination, the same as any nation.” In a separate conversation, though, Wenda seemed to reserve the final voice of authority for himself. “If Anari tells you anything,” he said, “call me and I will clarify.”

“The situation of ‘who speaks for whom’ has been highly fraught for years,” wrote Chesterfield of West Papua Media. “[M]any people have claimed leadership of the movement, and many groups claim supremacy, such as Anari’s. We call it the ‘I’m the President of the World!’ complex.”

In Lusk, there was little talk of competition among West Papua’s pro-independence forces. Rather, Bleming and Anari welcomed company who shared the conviction that a WPLO-led revolution in West Papua is a foregone conclusion. One evening, a wiry man with a bushy gray beard and camo cap pulled low came to the house. His name was R.D. Saathoff. A former Special Forces training officer, he was visiting from his underground bunker in Wyoming’s Red Desert, where he lives six miles from the nearest neighbor. “My specialty is tactical assault,” he said, his words slurred by the absence of several front teeth lost during what he called a “rough weekend” long ago in the jungles of southern Colombia.

Bleming served coffee as his friend lectured Anari. “Guerrilla groups often forget key steps and concepts, ya’ see,” Saathoff said. “You have to spend time on target analysis; you don’t want to destroy the house you’re going to have to live in. You don’t blow up the oil tanker—you take out the driver, ya’ see. You don’t take out the bridge—you blow a hole in front of it, so the local people can still use it and you don’t have to rebuild it.”

Later, Bleming and Saathoff debated the timetable for Anari’s victory. “I’ll be there for the official surrender this summer,” Bleming said. Anari, in turn, reasserted his commitment to struggle. “Our tactics will surprise the Indonesians,” he said. “We are fierce people.”

Neither ferocity nor dining-table strategy sessions, however, can diminish the long odds faced by advocates for West Papua’s freedom. Unlike East Timor and Aceh, two provinces that struggled, to some success, against Indonesian control—the former gained independence, the latter partial autonomy—West Papua has enormous economic value. It is larger than Japan and holds a third of Indonesia’s forest area, including some of Asia’s deepest remaining tracts of virgin rain forest. In the south, a mine owned by the U.S. company Freeport-McMoRan controls some of the Earth’s largest deposits of gold and copper. The region’s waters contain gigantic offshore stores of natural gas. According to McWilliams, “Papua is an important source of income for the military, providing a large portion of its budget… They’d be very reluctant to let it slip away.”

Geopolitics are no more favorable to West Papua’s independence prospects. In 2010, the United States and Indonesia signed a “comprehensive partnership” agreement that ended restrictions on weapons sales and included the transfer of F-16s and Maverick missiles. The deal reflected an alignment of strategic interests over Indonesian power projection in the Pacific. “Relations with Indonesia are increasingly regarded as an important component of the U.S. ‘pivot’ or ‘rebalance’ to Asia,” said Lynn Kyuk, a Southeast Asia specialist at the Brookings Institution. “Indonesia has a strong tradition of nonalignment, but it shares growing concerns about China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea.”

In 2013, a coalition of nearly 100 international NGOs urged Washington to block Indonesia’s pending purchase of eight Apache helicopters. The signees had history on their side when they warned, “Providing these helicopters would pose a direct threat to Papuan civilians.” Nonetheless, the deal went through without a hitch.

Against this bleak picture, some activists are focused on raising West Papua’s profile as a human rights emergency in hopes of at least mitigating bloodshed. The past several years have seen ongoing political arrests and state violence against indigenous people, intensifying a half-century pattern estimated to have caused 500,000 deaths. Papuans Behind Bars, a civil society monitoring collective in London, estimates that Indonesian police made 369 political arrests in West Papua in 2014, most at peaceful demonstrations. The group recorded 212 cases of reported torture and ill treatment; nearly a third involved members of the West Papua National Committee, a pro-independence group. (Martinus Yohame, a leader of one of the organization’s branches, was abducted and murdered in 2014.)

Wenda, of the ULMWP, is on the international front lines of the human rights approach. He has persuaded almost 100 politicians in a dozen countries to join an international parliamentary campaign for West Papuan independence. His personal story is an asset: As a child, Wenda survived numerous Indonesian air raids and witnessed state soldiers kill his aunts and infant cousins. He was arrested during the crackdown on the Papuan Spring, escaped prison, and in 2002 found asylum in Britain. Today, he shares a lawyer with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. In early February, Wenda organized the ULMWP’s application for West Papua to join the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG), an organization based in Vanuatu that promotes the shared interests of small, ethnically bound nations in the South Pacific. Wenda hopes MSG membership would give West Papua an institutional foothold that might allow it to join larger cooperative groups. “We must convince the world we’re united to end Indonesian colonization,” Wenda told me. “For decades, Indonesia has treated us as subhumans.”

It may not sound like much, but from solidarity saplings, trees do grow. Jakarta remembers well the explosion of global support for East Timor in the 1990s, which hastened independence. In February, around the same time the MSG application was filed, Indonesia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that it is establishing a task force to shape global opinion of the situation in West Papua. “We have to engage … all instruments involved in the spread of information, including politicians, media, and groups affiliated with separatist organizations,” an Indonesian official told the Chinese news agency Xinhua.

Anari sits on a bench in Lusk, Wyoming.

Despite his talk of military assaults, Anari is also enamored with diplomacy, and he shifts his tone based on his audience. In 2010, he began communicating with U.N. offices focused on indigenous issues and self-rule. He sent them human rights reports written in broken English, typed on WPLO letterhead featuring elaborate fonts, including one that dripped like the title on a 1950s horror movie poster. The reports began and ended with a request to include West Papua on the agenda of a U.N. General Assembly meeting.

A series of events encouraged his efforts. In 2011, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told a reporter that he supported the idea of West Papua being discussed by the U.N. Special Committee on Decolonization, which was created in 1961 to oversee and assist the post-World War II wave of independence movements. In 2012, a U.N. team studying Pacific decolonization also recommended that West Papua be included on the committee’s agenda. (No official decision on the recommendation has been made.)

Anari was eager to get to New York. Spurring him on was a new coalition of indigenous movements called the Decolonization Alliance, which in the spring of 2014 opened a small office on the eighth floor of a building at the U.N. Plaza, with support from the World Council of Churches. Ringing the walls are the desks of five members, situated under the flags of each: the Hawaiian Kingdom, the Republic of the South Moluccas, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), the Alaskan Eskimos, and West Papua.

Anari had to see with his own eyes this glorious site—a Morning Star hanging a long stone’s throw from the famous First Avenue display of the world’s sovereign flags. (Although the alliance has no formal standing at the United Nations, Anari calls it “the representative office of the Transitional Government of West Papua.”) So in late October 2014, he shed the pseudo-military pomp and circumstance he’d adopted in Lusk and flew to New York. During a three-week trip, he donned civilian clothes, including a white polo shirt with a U.N. logo that he wore with pride. He stayed at a no-frills midtown hotel with funds Bleming had raised.

When Anari arrived and sat at West Papua’s desk, he wept. “I felt something must happen now,” he said. “To be at the U.N. was a 52-year struggle for us.”

During his visit, Anari was able to speak to Alfred de Zayas, the U.N. independent expert on the right of self-determination. In an email, de Zayas’s spokesperson described the details of the conversation as “not information the Independent Expert would be in a position to share with you.” (In an interview with the online journal Current Concerns, published in December 2014, de Zayas described West Papua as an example of why putting “the right to self-determination into practice” is important; the “fundamental norm of international law constitutes a preventive strategy to avoid armed conflicts.”)

In arguably the perfect encapsulation of fact and fiction, of his earnest but limited activism and his superficially militant aesthetic, Anari produced a short documentary about his New York trip in order to share its triumphs with people back home. The film begins with a staged, slow-motion explosion behind a Morning Star, setting the tone of a revolutionary recruitment video. Then it segues lovingly into shots of the West Papuan coast and banal details of the Decolonization Alliance’s office, from a shared kitchen to a bathroom down the hall. Anari is seen on screen happily chatting with de Zayas, and at one point he pans the camera across the General Assembly building and the East River behind it, sparkling in the sun.

After layering in a soundtrack, including West Papuan tribal music, Anari posted the video on Facebook and YouTube. As of this writing, it had more than 1,000 YouTube views.

Following his New York excursion, Anari returned to his high-plains idyll in Wyoming. Bleming resumed cooking his meals, more guests cycled through to talk shop about insurgencies, and Anari spent time on his Toshiba designing special forces logos for his future liberation army.

On my last night in Lusk, I stopped by Bleming’s around midnight to say goodbye. He was sitting in the dark with a cigar, watching a videotape of Fidel, a B-grade Showtime biopic about young Castro. “I watch this movie a lot for inspiration,” Bleming said. “I started off years ago on the far right, but I’ve seen enough poverty around the world to believe people run over by greed should be given their just place in the sun. Fidel was a patriot, just like John over there.” (According to the U.N. Development Programme, the poverty rate in Anari’s homeland is more than double Indonesia’s national average of roughly 11 percent.)

Anari, who had been on yet another Skype call with Kaisiepo of Kobe Oser, eventually joined us in front of the television. “I was talking with Father,” he said. “Father will be interim president until we hold elections.”

Bleming interjected, “I’m signed on to handle palace security. But you guys better get to work; I’m not going to live to a thousand. I’m not Methuselah.”

As I prepared to leave, Bleming handed me copies of his self-published memoirs, Panama: Echoes From a Revolution and War in Karen Country. On the title page of the latter he had written, “I certainly enjoyed meeting with you in Wyoming. One day you and I shall meet again, in a free and independent West Papua.”

Anari too had prepared a parting gift: a stack of OPM combat-seal stickers, on which two crossed machetes frame a cassowary above the Latin slogan “Persevero.” He also offered me a job in the transitional government, a proposition he sweetened by throwing in a private beach. “You can help us explain West Papua’s positions to the world and live in a house on the water,” he said. “The Raja Ampat islands”—located off the region’s northern coast—“are very beautiful.”

To illustrate the point, Anari grabbed his laptop and opened a folder of photos. In stark contrast to the bloody pictures on the WPLO’s Facebook page, these looked like touched-up images from a travel brochure: palm-lined cays outlined by white sand and surrounded by emerald sea.

A month later, I received a Facebook message from Anari saying that he had not yet returned to West Papua. The promised revolution, it seemed, would have to wait. After leaving Wyoming in March, Anari had traveled to Los Angeles to visit distant relatives who emigrated from West Papua to escape persecution in the 1970s. He told me he was making plans to return to New York and address an April session of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. “I am going to push [the U.N.] about their responsibility for not overseeing independence for West Papua,” he told me over the phone. “I will tell them, ‘If you do not take seriously your responsibility, then the responsibility will be left on our shoulders, to foment action and to fight.’”

“One way or the other,” he concluded, “we will get the world’s attention.”

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