OBITUARY: By Yamin Kogoya
The sudden death of activist Leonie Tanggahma has shaken Papuan communities. Her loss last week has shocked West Papuans who regarded her as one of those who had stood strong for decades advocating independence for the Indonesian-ruled region.
She had lived for decades in the Netherlands among hundreds of exiled Papuans who had left West Papua after Indonesia annexed the territory 60 years ago. She died at the age of 48 on 7 October 2022.
Papuans continue to express messages of condolence and tribute on social media.
“Sister Leonie passed away due to a severe heart attack,” said Yan Ch Warinussy, a Papuan lawyer and human rights activist and director of the Legal Aid, Research, Investigation and Development Institute (LP3BH), reports Suarapapua.com.
A prominent young Papuan independence activist and West Papua diplomat of the Asia-Pacific region Ronny Kareni, wrote on his Facebook page:
“Sincere and heartfelt condolences for the sad loss of West Papua Woman Leader Leonie Tanggahma. Leonie Tanggahma is the daughter of the late Bernard Tanggahma, Minister for Foreign Affairs in the exile of the Republic of West Papua, which was unilaterally proclaimed by the Free Papua Movement (OPM) in the seventies.
“She was a liaison officer for the Papuan-based human rights NGO ELSHAM in Europe, for which she provided among others, the regular representation of the Papuan cause at United Nations forums, such as the working group on Indigenous populations, the Commission on Human Rights (now Human Rights Council) and its sub-commission.
“In July 2011, the Papua Peace Network (JDP) appointed her, along with four other Papuans living in exile, as a negotiator in the event that the Indonesian Government implements its apparent willingness to hold dialogue with Papuans.
“Following the need for a united political front in a regional and international forum in December 2014, she was appointed as the ULMWP executive member, along with four others to spearhead the national movement abroad, which she served diligently for three years.
“On a personal note, in October 2013 sister Leonie reached out upon receiving information of a political asylum mission that brother Airi and I undertook for 13 prominent Papuan activists who had fled across to PNG.
“She fully supported me in terms of advocating behind the scenes to make sure activists were given support and protection, prior to the UN refugee office closure in December of the same year.
“She followed and listened to The Voice of West Papua despite the time difference and often gave feedback on the radio program. She even shared strong support of the cultural and musical work through Rize of the Morning Star and engaged with the Merdeka West Papua Support Network, where she often sat through countless online discussions during the global pandemic.
“A memory that I will share with many Papuan youths is the screenshot [partially reproduced above], taken on the 18th of September 2022. It demonstrates sister Leonie’s commitment to strengthening capacity of the movement and how much she enjoyed listening and being present for ‘Para Para Diskusi’.
“We will miss you in our weekly discussion, sister Leonie.
Condolences to family and loved ones. May her soul rest in peace.”
An interview last year with Leonie Tanggahma. Video: Youngsolwara Pacific
A legacy hard to forget
Jeffrey Bomanak, a Papuan figure from Markas Victoria, the historic headquarters of the Free Papua Movement (OPM), wrote:
“On Friday, October 7, 2022, Mrs Leonie Tanggahma had a sudden heart attack and went to the hospital to seek help. She did not have time to seek assistance from a local doctor and was forced to leave her service in the Struggle of the Papuan Nation at exactly 10:00am, Netherlands time.
“Mr Bomanak said, the sacrifice, discipline, and loyalty she showed in Papua’s struggle is a legacy that is hard to forget for OPM TPNPB on this day and all the days to come”.
Octovianus Mote, a US-based Papuan independence figure who worked closely with Tanggahma, paid tribute to her as follows:
“Sister, we are saddened by your sudden passing at such a young age, as was your father. As believers, we believe that all this destruction appeals to you in heaven, and we will be praying there along with other Papuan warriors who have already gone ahead. We accept death as only a means of continuing a new life since life is eternal and only changes its form. Goodbye, Sister Leonie. We did it, my sister. We did it.”
Local West Papua news media website Jubi wrote:
“Hearing of the news of the passing of Mrs Tanggahma is like being struck by lightning, the Papuan nation lost a woman who cared about the struggles and rights of the West Papuan people. Papuans and activists in Papua feel bereaved by this news.”
Born into the heart of West Papuan struggle
Veronica Koman, the well-known Indonesian human rights activist and lawyer who advocates for the rights of Indigenous Papuans, wrote on her Facebook:
“Rest In Peace Leonie Tanggahma.
“Sister Leonie and I first met in Geneva, Switzerland, in 2017. I was astonished by her demeanour — intelligent, articulate, friendly, assertive, authoritative but not arrogant. She was one of the pioneers of the international human rights movement for West Papua. Sister Leonie is not only one of the greatest Papuan women but one of the greatest Papuans as well. It sometimes occurs to me that if society and movements were not sexist (meaning that men and women have equal value) how far would Kaka Leonie have succeeded? The people of West Papua have lost one of their brightest stars.”
Benny Wenda, the West Papuan independence icon paid tribute with the following words:
“Leonie Tanggahma was born into the heart of the West Papuan struggle. She was the daughter of Bernard Tanggahma, Minister for Foreign Affairs in exile of the Republic of West Papua which was unilaterally proclaimed by the Free Papua Movement (OPM) in the seventies. Leonie carried on her father’s legacy by working for the Papuan human rights body ELSHAM and representing her people’s cause at various United Nations forums. Later, she became an ULMWP executive member. In this role she was a dedicated servant of the West Papuan independence movement, helping to lead the struggle abroad.”
She was a member of a team of five representatives of the Papuan independence struggle (Jacob Rumbiak, Leonie Tanggahma, Octovianus Mote, Benny Wenda and Rex Rumakiek) elected in Jayapura in 2011 to promote a peaceful dialogue aimed at resolving the Indonesian conflict and Papuan independence.
Daughter of first West Papua ambassador to Senegal
According to Rex Rumakiek, one of the last surviving OPM leaders from Tanggahma’s father’s generation, who grew up and fought for West Papua’s independence:
Leonie Tanggahma was the second daughter of the late Ben Tanggahma and Sofie Komber. She had an older sister named Mbiko Tanggahma. Nicholas Tanggahma (brother of Leonie’s father) was a member of the New Guinea Council, formed with Dutch help to safeguard the new fledgling state of Papua.
In the early 1960s, Leonie Tanggahma’s father was sent to study in the Netherlands so that he would be trained and equipped to lead a newly emerging nation state. However, Ben Tanggahma did not return to West Papua and settled there and worked at the Post Office in The Hague, Netherlands. Her father finally stopped working in the Post Office and participated in the West Papua struggle with the political figures of that time, including Markus Kaisiepo and Womsiwor.
Rumaiek said Leonie Tanggahma’s father was the first West Papuan diplomat (ambassador level). He was the one who opened the first West Papuan foreign embassy in Senegal, Africa.
The President of Senegal at that time (1980s) was Léopold Sédar Senghor, a Catholic, as was Ben Tanggahma. Having this religious connection enabled both to develop a special relationship, which allowed West Papua to open an international office in Africa and allowed many African countries to support West Papua’s liberation efforts.
Ben Tanggahma was sent to Senegal as an ambassador by the Revolutionary Provisional Government of West Papua New Guinea (RPG), which received official fiscal and material support from African countries and stood behind Senegal. During that time, the government of Senegal provided Ben Tanggahma with a car, a building, and other resources as well as moral support.
These enabled him to lobby African countries for West Papua’s cause of self-determination.
Rumaiek said he got to know Leonie in 2011, when Benny Wenda, Octovianus Mote, Leonie and he were elected to lead peace dialogue teams in an attempt to resolve West Papua’s tragedies. No results were obtained from this effort.
Leonie Tanggahma was, according to Rex Rumakiek, a well-educated young West Papuan woman who carried her father’s legacy and came from a family who played a significant role in the liberation movement of the Papuan people.
Nicholas Tanggahma and West Papua political Manifesto 1961
Nicholas Tanggahma, brother of Leonie’s father (Ben Tanggahma), was a member of the Dutch New Guinea Council (Nieuw-Guinea Raad), which was installed on 5 April 1961 as the first step towards West Papua’s independence. As soon as the council was formed, Nicholas Tanggahma and his colleague realised that things were about to change dramatically against their newly imagined independent state.
After a few weeks, on 19 October 1961, Ben Tanggahma called a meeting at which 17 people were elected to form a national committee. The committee immediately issued the famous West Papua political manifesto, which requested of the Dutch:
- “our [Morning Star] flag be hoisted beside the Netherlands flag;
- “our national anthem (“Hai Tanahku Papua”) be sung and played alongside the Dutch national anthem;
- “our country be referred to as Papua Barat (West Papua); and
- “our people be called the Papuan people.”
Two months later, on 1 December 1961, the new state of West Papua was born, which Papuans around the world celebrate as their National Day.
Leonie Tanggahma died in the same month her uncle had first sown the seed for the new nation West Papua 60 years ago. This deep historical root of her family’s involvement in the struggle for a free and independent West Papua shocked people.
The following are excerpts from a lengthy series of interviews Leonie’s father, Ben Tanggahma had in Dakar, Senegal on February 16 1976. Tanggahma is famous for providing the following answer when asked about the connection between Black Oceania and Africa:
“Africa is our motherland. All the Black populations which settled in Asia over the hundreds of thousands of years came undoubtedly from the African continent. In fact, the entire world was populated from Africa. Hence, we the Blacks in Asia and the Pacific today descend from proto-African peoples. We were linked to Africa in the Past. We are linked to Africa in the future. We are what you might call the Black Asian Diaspora.”
Mbiko Tanggahma, older sister of Leonie Tanggahma, wrote on her Facebook:
“It is true that my little sister, Leonie Tanggahma, passed away on the 7th of October 2022. Although her departure was premature and unexpected, it gives us comfort to know that she was not in pain and that she passed away peacefully. Until her last moments, she continued to do what she loved. She continued to be her determined and fierce self. She fought for just causes, surrounded by her family, friends, activists, and loved ones.”
- Leonie’s family in The Netherlands has provided this donation link. (Cite “Leoni” and your full name and e-mail or home address).