Muffled cry of freedom falls on deaf ears

The tighter the gag on Papua's people, the more desperate they are to be heard, writes John Martinkus.
12 April 2006

I WAS last in Papua early in 2003, reporting on the rise of Islamic militia groups aligned with the Indonesian Army on the PNG-Papua border, the intimidation and attacks on human rights workers by the Indonesian military and the outrage of Papuan leaders at the insincerity of the government in Jakarta in honouring the 2001 autonomy law.

In the intervening three years these issues have remained the main concerns for Papuans. The only difference now is that the Indonesian authorities have got better at keeping the information out of the Western media and the people of Papua are more desperate to be heard.

The Jakarta Foreign Correspondents Club confirmed in February that in the previous 18 months not one foreign correspondent had received permission to travel to Papua. As for visiting journalists, I had direct experience of the new restrictions in May 2003 when I received my temporary press card in Jakarta. Stamped across the front of the card was: "Not for visits to Aceh Papua or Maluku." That was then introduced as the standard for visiting journalists. In an odd twist, the man who authorised my restricted accreditation back then, M. Wahid Supriyadi, is now consul-general for Indonesia in Melbourne and penned an opinion piece published by both The Age and the Herald Sun this week in which he stated that we were in an age of global communications, when not a single untoward death in Papua could possibly go unnoticed in the world's media. An interesting comment from a man who had the job of keeping foreign journalists out of Papua for the past three years.

But journalists are only one of many groups and organisations being kept out of Papua. The ban has extended to academics, church groups, non-government organisations, human rights monitors and even an ambassadorial-level European Union delegation last year. Human rights organisations in Papua have come under very real and direct threat from the Indonesian military and are very restricted in what information they can gather and what they dare report publicly. One of the most chilling interviews I had in Papua on my last visit was with Johannes Bonay, the director of Papua's only functioning human rights organisation, ELSHAM. He told me how his wife and daughter were seriously wounded on December 28, 2002, when unidentified gunmen ambushed the car in which they were travelling between the border posts of Papua and PNG.

The police investigation identified Indonesian military as being present when the shooting occurred. If we analyse the reports made by the people and the investigation made by the police we can divine that Kopassus was behind this, Bonay told me at the time. Back then he was receiving none-too-subtle threats with recordings of someone being tortured being repeatedly left on his answering machine. He has since left Papua.

It is in this information-poor environment that Papuan protests against the division of Papua and rejection of the 2001 autonomy law have taken place largely unnoticed by the press in Australia. Last year, on August 12, 10,000 people marched for 20 kilometres into the capital, Jayapura, to protest against what they called the total failure of the autonomy law. This law had as its centrepiece the formation of a Papuan People's Assembly as a representative body for Papuan leaders.

Concerned that the proposed assembly would become a vehicle for independence support, the former president, Megawati Soekarnoputri, ordered a restructuring of the administration of Papua into three provinces, basically rendering the autonomy law unworkable. The current President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, has endorsed this with last month's elections for the new province of West Irian Jaya going ahead, to the dismay of Papuan leaders.

Canberra and Jakarta can talk all they like about implementing autonomy, but the people of Papua have firmly rejected it. Whether that rejection is reported or not, that is what is driving events on the ground, not, as our Prime Minister implies, the encouragement of supporters of independence in Australia. Maybe Canberra doesn't know what is happening. As a US State Department official told me in Papua in 2002, Australian embassy officials in Jakarta showed no interest in events there, and they didn't want to be caught out by knowing too much, as they had been in East Timor.

John Martinkus is the author of Quarterly Essay 7, Paradise Betrayed: West Papua's Struggle for Independence. He also wrote Indonesia's Secret War in Aceh (Random House, 2004) and A Dirty Little War: An Eyewitness Account of East Timor's Descent into Hell 1997-2000 (Random House, 2001).


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