Opening the doors to West Papua

Exploring the complexities of Indonesia’s easternmost province is long overdue, says Michael Bachelard

Nowhere is so close to Australia as West Papua, and no conflict in our region is as complex and long-running. But it has been so difficult for foreign journalists to access and report on this remote province of Indonesia, that outside of a small and devoted group of academics and lobbyists, the Australian people know very little about it.

As the Indonesia correspondent for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, I have a staypermit, a work permit and a visa that allow meto live and work in Indonesia and travel to anyof its 17,000 islands and dozens of provinces, but for one exception – West Papua. For that, I need a special permission letter, a ‘surat jalan’. If I wentthere without such a letter, I’d jeopardise all my other permits, and possibly Fairfax’s permission to maintain a bureau in Jakarta at all.

This is frustrating because West Papua is complex, fascinating and full of contradictions, and it would reward a deep understanding. Reporting on it remotely is fraught with difficulties – not the least of which are language and phone lines – and prone to inaccuracy. Much of the information that emerges through blogs and websites, or local media, is highly coloured, from both the pro- and anti-Indonesian angles. The pro-Indonesian version is that economic improvements will fix everything, and that the West Papuan people’s longstanding concerns about political and cultural rights are irrelevant. On the other hand, some Western activists sheet home every problem in West Papua to the Indonesian military or foreign resource extraction companies, and insist self-government is the only answer.

Both, in my view, are cartoon versions of reality, which ultimately do both West Papua and Indonesia a disservice.

But in January last year, I had a story that I could not properly complete without travelling to Indonesia’s easternmost province. For several months at the end of 2012, I had been researching allegations that children were being taken from West Papua, which is Christian majority, to be indoctrinated into Islam at boarding schools in Indonesia.

The Papuan activists I spoke to in Jakarta had anecdotes, a few photographs, but little hard evidence. With painstaking work I tracked down a number of cases, including several versions of the awful death of one young student. But I could find no eyewitnesses, family members or victims. At the official level it was denied, and goes unreported in the Indonesian media, partly because of the extreme religious and cultural sensitivities involved.

I did not want this to be just another cartoon story, and I knew I could not tell it without verifying the facts in West Papua itself. Fairfax ruled out sending a local freelancer, deeming it too dangerous. So in January 2013, I applied for permission – a ‘surat jalan’. I knew that I would never be approved to do the stolen children story, so I came up with something else that I thought would get me through the door – exploring the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the province. I made the argument that Australian aid for campaigns against HIV/AIDS had just swelled to $25 million, and it was my job as a correspondent toscrutinise my own government’s spending.

The procedure involved writing to the Foreign Affairs department, supplying details of all the interviews I had planned, and who my interviewees were. Those organisations had to confirm my request on their letterhead. My proposal was then vetted by the ‘Clearing House’ committee, which meets weekly and has representatives from major Indonesian government departments, including the army and national police.

Until recently, applications from foreign journalists were almost universally rejected at this stage. To my surprise, my pitch was accepted, on the condition that I agree to take a member of the Indonesian secret services on the trip with me.

Papuan boys at the Daarur Rasul Islamic boarding school, outside Jakarta, February 2013. Photo: Michael Bachelard

Papuan boys at the Daarur Rasul Islamic boarding school, outside Jakarta, February 2013. Photo: Michael Bachelard

I was the first foreign reporter (excluding travel writers) to be given entry for about 12 months, and the first Australian for significantly longer. Soon afterwards, I travelled to West Papua’s capital, Jayapura, then Wamena – in the stunningly beautiful central highlands, and Timika – the ugly town closest to the phenomenally wealthy Freeport gold mine.

I interviewed a dozen or more people living with AIDS, met a small child who died a couple of weeks later from AIDS-related TB, visited health clinics and quizzed NGOs.

Meanwhile, at night and in secret, I located and interviewed the father of the boy who had died in a lonely student boarding house after being taken to Jakarta by intermediaries. I met a mother who had resisted her children being taken, and tracked down a young man who himself had been trafficked.

Back in Jakarta, I started seeking comments on the story, and received threats of death and deportation, prompting a significant security upgrade to my office.

After publication, the story was quickly translated into Bahasa Indonesia and prompted an electric response in West Papua and from activists around the world. In Jakarta, the president was asked about, and denied, government involvement, and the national human rights organisation Komnas HAM launched a preliminary investigation – since abandoned due to internal political pressure.

But there have been no ongoing ramifications of my trip for either my subjects or me.

Since I went, though, AAP’s Karlis Salna and SBS’s Mark Davis – who has previously reported from the region by stealth over a long period, and not in terms flattering to the Indonesian government – have also gained permission, and both have explored the controversial separatist movement. This suggests the Indonesian government finally may be living up to its repeated promises to ease restrictions.

I hope the Indonesian government sees that these stories have not caused the sky to fall in, because only then will they open up West Papua. Then perhaps, reporting there can become just like any other part of my job.

Michael Bachelard is Indonesia correspondent for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. Follow Michael on Twitter.