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6 Jul 2010

Cursed by plenty


Paying a covert visit to Papua's fighters in the forest

Day one
FINISHING its night flight from Jakarta, the aeroplane descends alongside the green Cyclops Mountains, which divide Papua’s shoreline from the island's interior. Lake Sentani reflects the warm light of the early morning through the plane’s starboard windows while the pilot keeps the ridge to our left. The airport of Papua’s capital, Jayapura, lies between the lake and the mountains. It was near this place in western New Guinea, what is today Indonesia’s easternmost region, that General Douglas MacArthur made his headquarters in 1944. From a mountaintop near what was then the Dutch colonial town of Hollandia he planned America’s recapture of the Philippines from Japanese occupation—making good on his vow, “I shall return”. This place is littered with the history of 20th-century colonial wars.
Source/Sumber
The plane arrived nearly empty and the Papuan porters in the arrival hall are finding that custom is scarce. One of them wears a woollen hat with a white star on a red ground. It resembles the outlawed morning-star flag, a symbol for Papua’s fight for independence from Indonesia. Other porters sport dreadlocks and look like Rastafarians. At first sight a foreign visitor could be mistaken into thinking he had arrived somewhere in the Caribbean or in west Africa. In some ways the scene here is typical of Papua: poorly paid jobs like the porters’ are filled by native Papuans while skilled labour and commerce seem to belong exclusively to migrants from elsewhere in Indonesia. Javanese and other peoples from the great islands to the west seem to run the local economy, far beyond Jayapura’s airport. The sense of division is such that nearly all the locals use the term “Indonesians” to mean migrants from elsewhere, as if they did not share a single republic.
A friend meets me for the drive along Lake Sentani into Jayapura proper. Huts stand on wooden poles in the water. A woman moves her dugout canoe slowly along the shore. The car brings me to the house of another contact, an Indonesian who believes that I am on a business trip. As a foreign journalist in Papua—on an unsanctioned visit—it would be only too easy to get into trouble with the police and army. For the locals who co-operate with me, the risks are much greater. Stories of torture and secret killings abound. I try to keep a low profile and do everything I can to protect the identities of those who help me in my assignment.
The western half of the island of New Guinea is the most resource-rich region of the Indonesian archipelago, yet most of its native population lives in abject poverty. West Papua, as the natives of Indonesian Papua prefer to call the whole of their homeland (in Jakarta “West Papua” and “Papua” are different), is home to huge reserves of gold and copper, mined mostly by Freeport-McMoRan, as well as natural gas, which is extracted mainly by BP. These contracts make the case of Papua very different from that of Timor-Leste, which was able to split from Indonesia in 2002 after a long and sometimes brutal occupation. Papua is so heavily endowed with mineral wealth that Indonesia seems unlikely ever to loosen its grip. For decades now, the government has encouraged migrants from Java and other densely populated islands to find a new home in Papua. The consequences of this policy can be seen easily in Jayapura. It has become a predominantly Indonesian port city. The Papuans here have been made a minority in their own land.
I meet my first Papuan contact in an open-air restaurant near the harbour, far from the house where I stay. She turns out to be a shy woman who speaks good English, a student and a member of the radical National Committee of West Papua (KNPB), which has close links with guerrillas in the jungle. She refuses to have a meal in an Indonesian restaurant. We drink juice in a café and make plans to drive to a safe house outside Jayapura.
The safe house turns out to be only a short drive away, in a valley not far from an army garrison. Our car brings us to a house surrounded by shacks with corrugated iron roofs, all inhabited by Papuans. Before I am allowed to alight, several young Papuans scout the area, to see that nobody is watching us. We remove our shoes outside the entrance. A stream of visitors pours into the house after us, and the pile of shoes outside gets bigger and bigger. Reckoning that it could attract unwelcome attention, a young man brings the shoes inside. Curtains are drawn to shield us from curious passers-by. But for the people inside, the room is almost empty. We sit on the floor, eight men and two women. The student translates into English as everyone is introduced. A man across the circle catches my eye immediately; he does not look like a Papuan at all. He has a Portuguese name and hails from Timor-Leste. He explains that he came to Papua almost two years ago to support the KNPB, but he demurs saying whether he is on an official mission or not. “This place is not very safe,” he offers.
He is not the only foreign national in the circle. There is a pastor from the neighbouring state of Papua New Guinea—the island’s eastern half—who identifies himself as a member of the guerrilla movement. He says the KNPB “and the fighters in the forests are working together very closely.” Moses Tabuni, a spokesman for the KNPB, explains that the guerrillas of the Free Papua Movement (OPM)—“the fighters in the forests”—have been fighting the Indonesians since the 1960s. The pastor from Papua New Guinea speaks of joining the two groups to form a Revolutionary Army of West Papua. “We have lost so many people that we want to organise our struggle in a new network.”
Mr Tabuni wears a wristband emblazoned with the morning star. Its image became the official ensign of West Papua during a ten-month period from 1961 to 1962, when the region gained its independence from the Netherlands. That was when the island’s western half changed its name from Dutch New Guinea to West Papua—to distinguish it from Papua New Guinea to the east. After its short-lived independence West Papua was temporarily administered by the UN and then annexed by Indonesia in 1969. (Indonesia has designated its share of New Guinea with several names since then, but it has never allowed the whole region to be called “West Papua”.)
One of the KNPB’s young members says that they are only interested in organising demonstrations against the occupation. As such, all they want is the free exercise of their democratic rights, such as Indonesians elsewhere have been enjoying since 1998. “But the Indonesians call us troublemakers and terrorists. Should we not be allowed to gather and demonstrate in a democracy? It seems that democracy is all right for the Indonesians but not for us Papuans.”
“If the American mining giant Freeport-McMoRan wants to continue to extract our copper and gold, and if BP wants our natural gas, then they have to support our struggle,” says Mr Tabuni. He adds that he happy for me to quote him by name. On the way back to Jayapura the car is packed with men who took part in the secret meeting. They all seem to be concerned about my security. When we reach my destination, the home of a friend, I ask them to drop me. “No, not right in front of a police post,” Mr Tabuni pleads with a smile. They drop me farther down the road and I walk home like a tourist after a sightseeing tour.

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