Glimpse at Papuan experience under Indonesian rule
For the first time, Radio New Zealand International journalists have been able to enter Indonesia's eastern region of Papua, offering us a glimpse at a Melanesian society long closed off from outside access.
For the first time, Radio New Zealand International journalists have been able to enter Indonesia's eastern region of Papua.
Papua has long been restricted to outside access, but during a visit to the region in May Indonesia's president Joko Widodo announced that foreign journalists were now free to enter.
RNZI's Johnny Blades and Koroi Hawkins took up the opportunity.
Johnny spoke to Don Wiseman who asked how easy it was to get a visa to enter Papua as a journalist.
JOHNNY BLADES: It was pretty difficult and a lengthy process. There's a lot of endorsements from local officials that were required in order to advance the application. It took months. So many hoops to jump through. It's still not clear that various wings of government understand the role that journalists are supposed to fill. I detected a kind of suspision among various officials that foreign journalists are agents tasked with destabilising Papua region.
DON WISEMAN: Did you experience any restrictions while doing your work in Papua?
JB: Not directly. Although access to officials is hard to secure. But I think the main thing, coming in, is knowledge of the threats and attacks that local journalists in Papua have faced. That's restrictive enough, in a way.
DW: So, you got there, what was it like? How do Papuans fare as part of Indonesia, which is a huge country that has undergone significant democratic reforms in the last decade or so, and with an economy that has made big strides in recent years?
JB: It was just a glimpse of course and we didn't look at the whole region, but it seems like the Papuans are just sort of by-standers to, for instance, economic activity, which we hear so much about. In the capital Jayapura, and as is typical of the urban areas, the vast majority of the businesses are run by Javanese and other non-Papuan Indonesians. Papuans appear to have very few jobs, they struggle that much more for educational opportunities. These were things that were supposed to be created under the Special Autonomy package that Jakarta granted Papua some fourteen, fifteen years ago. Papua region's two provinces have, I understand, the biggest budgets of all the Indonesian provinces, but it's said that for years a lot of this money has been misdirected, hasn't made it through to grassroots communities. People I spoke to explained that often the money is diverted to business interests of personnel with Indonesia's military and security forces, who have quite a presence in Papua, and their various family and friends who have migrated to Papua at a steady rate for years.
DW: The Papuans have been stressing their identity as Melanesians. So culturally, how does this Melanesian identity stand in this wider Indonesian context?
JB: It's just been overwhelmed, it seems, by the greater Indonesian culture. Papuans you speak to - as you say - identify as being Melanesian before Indonesian. That's generally the case. But Papua culture is not very visible. This has a lot to do with the ongoing policy of transmigration. Transmigration is a state-sponsored programme whereby people from over-populated parts of the republic are resettled in less crowded regions, particularly Papua. And it's just meant this rapid change in the demographic fabric of Papua society. The estimate is that Papuans are no longer the majority of the population. So it's been overwhelming: as I said the jobs and business activities are dominated by non-Papuans. Subsequently, I think the Papuans culture has sort of been pushed to the side. It's possibly a little stronger in the rural areas and the Highlands, but these are also the parts where we're hearing more of the alleged abuses by security forces, crack-downs on any form of expression of self-determination aspirations or complaints about (lack of) access to basic services. But in recent times, interestingly the government has made recent moves to showcase Melanesian culture, and has also has been pushing a formal co-operation between this new bloc of five provinces that Jakarta says have clear traces of Melanesian ethnic stock. That is: East Nusa Tenggara, Maluku, North Maluku, Papua and West Papua. Now, this move can be seen in relation to the decision by the Melanesian Spearhead Group to recently consider having the five provinces formally involved at the MSG with associate membership status. That of course, follows on from the MSG's decision to grant observer status to the United Liberation Movement for West Papua.
DW: Now, if Indonesia's Jokowi government is persisting with transmigration, this is really a regression, isn't it?
JB: Government figures say transmigration is actually helping Papuans to become more competitive in trade and learn more skills. On another note, the Jokowi government is doing things which it seems previous government haven't often done, and there's a lot of hope around this: freeing political prisoners, opening up Papua to foreign media, and it seems to be taking a new hands-on approach to fostering grassroots development among Papuans. we went and saw a big new market that the government is building for the Mamamamas in Sentani, supposedly to help their trade become more efficient, to make the most of their talents, to diversify their products and so forth. So, Jakarta is trying something.
DW: So, a recognition of their Papuaness?
JB: Yes. Yet the government figures explain it in such a way that it's almost trying to modernise the Papuans (their traditional ways). They talk about how the Mamas sit on the floor to sell their produce, as is typical of Melanesian markets. They want them to gradually learn to sit up in a chair. Is this being imposed on the Papuans? Are they trying to change their culture? It's still unclear.
DW: We continue to hear of this dissatisfaction among Papuans with life under Indonesian rule, particularly about not benefiting from exploitation of the vast natural resources which we know exist there. Were there signs of this?
JB: Definitely. It's a subject which the Papuans talk about a lot. The Papua provincial Governor Lukas Enembe was criticising the operations of Freeport McMoran, that US company which operates a huge mine in Papua province that is the single largest corporate tax payer. Enembe and others say Papuans have had practically no benefits from the mine since it began operations in the 1960s, and that there's been no real compensation to the landowners while the whole mountain ecosystem where the mine is located has been ruined. Interestingly, the landowners from the Freeport mine area are suing Freeport for something like 15 billion US dollars, and Enembe says he wants a divestment system put in place whereby a greater share of this mining operation is given directly to Papua province so that they can get some control over the mining resource and over their land.
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