In the Papuan highlands a cloud of long-held discord and potential civil unrest hangs, as calls for independence from Indonesia grow ever louder.
'We are killing ourselves'
Michael Bachelard visited the highlands of West Papua, one of the few western journalists ever to be allowed to come to this remote and beautiful region of Indonesia.
The people of Lolat in the high mountains of West Papua had their first experience of a white man in 1968, and it was a culinary one. When Australian missionary Stanley Dale hiked over the ridge into the nearby Seng Valley, his would-be flock mistook him for a demon. They chased him and his partner, American Philip Masters, killed them with bows and arrows, and ate them. A few months later, the villagers caught an early flavour of something else - the retributive violence of the Indonesian state. The army came in bearing heavy weapons and shot a number of people dead.
"One old man who helped kill Stan Dale is still alive," says Lolat man Javed Bahabol. "He had a good life in the village and now he's living in [the Central Highlands capital] Wamena. He's blind."
Now every soul in these villages is Christian and Dale is considered their martyr - they say the gospel spread where his blood fell. As for the Indonesian state, the year after Dale's death, Papua officially became its province by means of a rorted process called the "Act of Free Choice", and was renamed Irian Jaya.
Wild side: Lolat villagers wait by their airstrip to greet the writer. Photo: Michael Bachelard
The history since has been of Christian-Melanesian Papuans agitating against Muslim-Malay rule from Java while this resource-rich and fertile land remains mired in illiteracy, poverty and violence. HIV/AIDS is at epidemic levels, child mortality is at the level of sub-Saharan Africa and educational attainment is abysmal. In the highlands, people now regard the time of Dale and the other missionaries as a golden era.
Activists in the West blame the "structural violence" of the Indonesian state, describing it as "slow motion genocide". Indonesia's elites, to the extent they bother with Papua at all, view it as a "backward" culture in a land that is rich, underpopulated and threatened by the (imaginary) plots of foreign governments.
But scrutiny of the full situation there is scarce. Papua is virtually closed to Western reporters and academics. It makes the news only when Indonesian authorities kill civilians. I sought and won rare permission to travel to the remote highlands to seek out a deeper story. I wanted to test a comment made to me by new Indonesian President Joko ("Jokowi") Widodo that better health, education and economic infrastructure would reduce the agitation for a free Papuan state.Activists in the West blame the "structural violence" of the Indonesian state, describing it as "slow motion genocide". Indonesia's elites, to the extent they bother with Papua at all, view it as a "backward" culture in a land that is rich, underpopulated and threatened by the (imaginary) plots of foreign governments.
Village health worker Lea Sobolim discusses issues with other female elders in Lolat. Photo: Michael Bachelard
The highlands is not all of Papua. There are coastal plains, big cities, islands and mines. Since Jakarta subdivided it in 2001 to weaken separatist sentiment, there have actually been two provinces - West Papua and Papua. The 2010 census, which nobody believes is accurate, says the population across both is 3.7 million, of which the majority, 2.8 million, is in Papua, home to the biggest coastal city, Jayapura, and the highlands. West Papua has a multitude of migrants, often Muslim, from other parts of Indonesia, and in both provinces migrants have a stranglehold on the economy.
Deep divisions exist. Those on the coast complain that highlanders snatch disproportionate resources by deliberately inflating their population figures. But despite the differences the real problems across both sides of this half island are similar: violence is frequent and extreme between tribe and tribe, between migrants and natives, and within families.
In Papua's remote highlands, in Lolat, Eragayem and Bokondini, where I was likely the first Western reporter ever to travel, I asked about Jokowi's prescription for health, education and the economy. The locals were sceptical. They liked him, but believed only independence from Indonesia would be their salvation.
Darius Sohol proudly shows off the new health centre he built in Lolat. Photo: Michael Bachelard
What I saw was much more complex. It seemed to me that the most urgent threat to Papuans came not from the muzzle of an Indonesian gun but from its own kleptocratic local elite - ethnic Papuans to a man - who misuse their own cultural traditions to enrich themselves and their acolytes at the expense of the poor by making the most of largesse dispensed too carelessly by Jakarta. "We are killing ourselves," one teacher in the highlands, Otniel Elopere, told me. Local politicians are the cannibals now and it is their own people they consume.
Lolat is perched on a precipitous ridge among the stunning mountains of Papua's Central Highlands. There are two ways in: to walk several days over dirt tracks, or to fly, landing on a steep, grass landing strip. The village is barely more developed than when Dale met his fate. There is no electricity, no phone tower, no internet.
The landing of our Missionary Aviation Fellowship light plane brings the entire village out to watch. After the provisions are unloaded, we walk down to a wooden-floored building that serves as Lolat's administration block - one of half a dozen Indonesian-built structures.
A villager at Lolat and his baby. Photo: Michael Bachelard
But the existence of buildings does not reflect actual service delivery. Next to the airstrip is a newish health centre. Its boss, Elsona, a Lolat man, collects a government salary but he lives in the faraway capital, Wamena, and never visits to open it.
I ask about the other buildings and am pointed to the vacant elementary school, the mostly empty junior high school and the building that's by far the grandest in the village, but which is known as "The Building That Nobody Knows What It's For". It also never opens.
To get around the problem of a clinic no one can use, Lolat's elders have built their own. Young Darius Sohol proudly shows off the three-room structure he has just finished building using hand-hewn timber. He learnt how to do it by watching the visiting Indonesian builders, but labour was donated by locals, and most of the funds came from Yasumat, a church-run non-government organisation.
Lolat's Fenina Ilit protects herself from the rain using a traditional leaf umbrella. Photo: Michael Bachelard
The rest of the cost was paid out of an Indonesian government program called Respek. This is part of a surprisingly big cash-transfer scheme from Jakarta, designed to put a large proportion of the resource taxes extracted from Papua back into its development. Every year, 100 million rupiah (about $10,000) is handed to each village to spend as its elders see fit.
It's typically ill-conceived and often rorted. Some other villages "split it 600 ways, buy rice, and eat it for a week", says one aid worker.
Lolat has used the money in part to build the clinic. In the absence of a doctor, it will be run by Lea Sobolim, a middle-aged woman who was taught by missionaries in 1991 how to dispense medicine, and is given $300 every three months as an honourer - a part-paid volunteer. Sobolim can prescribe medicine, administer injections, put in stitches and mend broken bones.
A map of the Papuan regions.
Despite her best efforts, in April last year, 18 villagers fell ill with swollen glands and tonsils and high temperatures. Sobolim went to Wamena to collect medicine but the official at the store refused to hand over drugs to anyone but a government employee. "By the time I got back to Lolat, they were all dead," she says.
Village elders asked the government to investigate but nothing happened. A few months later, eight more people died of a mysterious illness.
Lahesa Kobak is Lolat's midwife. She also learnt her craft from the missionaries. "It's quite common that both mothers and babies die," she tells me, matter-of-factly. "Two mothers gave birth this year, but both babies died." An incredible 12 per cent of children die in the highlands before the age of five. The parents of the phantom health chief, Elsona, still live in Lolat. I ask villagers if the parents are ashamed of their son's absence. People shrug. Most of the important men have gone. They go to town and don't return for months.
"We want change: we don't want to live like our ancestors did," midwife Kobak complains. "But our leaders, from the chief down, they all live in the city. There are only women and children left. We are abandoned here like orphans. Who will help us? Who will we turn to?"
"It's possible Elsona doesn't show up because he feels he's already a big man," says Javed Bahabol, a village man now working for NGO Yasumat. "Perhaps he thinks it's enough being a government official."
Papuans might feel fervently about independence, but there is no higher attainment than to pass the civil service entry test so they can be paid an Indonesian government salary. "Everyone wants to get a position," says Murni Payokwa, a teacher in highland Eragayem. "They will do anything to get it, even killing."
Government jobs are plentiful because of Indonesia's radical post-Suharto decentralisation program. Health, education, infrastructure, mining and business licensing are all controlled by local governments known as kabupaten, or regencies - similar to city or shire councils in Australia. At the head of each is an elected official, the bupati.
In Papua, they are funded handsomely, both because Papua is the poorest region in the country (which means more "equalisation" funds) and because, as a sop to separatist tendencies, it's been granted "special autonomy", which opens a second pot of money (the village cash scheme, Respek).
Each kabupaten has its own micro-parliament and public service, its own school and health systems. The opportunities for employment - and for incompetence, theft and cronyism - are wide, particularly in a country in which clans and tribes remain society's basic organising units. Papuan officials, often tribal chiefs, feed government money and contracts through their own clan.
In highland Bokondini, the former head of the regional health centre - a Papuan woman - was well known for not only stealing most of the operational funds but also diverting the drug delivery truck to Wamena each month, where she sold the medicine.
Dr Poby Karmendra, a young contract doctor from Sumatra, says the problem starts even further up the line. His theoretical operational budget is 100 million rupiah ($10,000) every three months, but only two-thirds of it ever arrives. "What can you do?" he asks, looking around at the clean but rudimentary facilities. "I don't know where the money went."
As in Lolat, the regency of Tolikara, at the centre of the HIV-AIDS epidemic, has plenty of health buildings - a map on the wall proudly shows 25.
But only three outside Bokondini actually have a doctor. New buildings mean construction contracts, which officials grant to clan members in return for personal kickbacks.
"What I'm afraid of," says a forthright senior bureaucrat in Wamena, assistant secretary Gaad Piranid Tabuni, "is that in five to 10 years' time, all the bupatis in Papua will be in jail."
Competition for government jobs among ethnic Papuans may be intense, but they carry no obligation to actually perform work. As well as the health clinic, Lolat boasts a government primary school (years 1 to 5) and a junior high school (6 to 9) and, allegedly, nine teachers taking full-time salaries. None ever turns up.
The absent primary school principal is, like the doctor, a local. He returns once a year at exam time to help his illiterate charges pass so he can move them up to the next grade.
At the junior high school, one honorary teacher, Natani Kobak, earns a peppercorn wage to teach Pancasila, the Indonesian state ideology, to 60 students for about two hours per day. He does his best also to teach sociology, but "the maths teacher and the English teacher only come when there is an exam".
It's replicated in schools across the highlands. In Tagime, on the outskirts of Wamena, parents infuriated by the lack of teachers have nailed shut the school gate. Their children climb over it to play soccer on the grounds. The day I visit, only two teachers have shown up for 500 students. Even so, a brand new brick school building is under construction.
The competition between tribes for obligation-free government salaries means there is constant pressure from below to subdivide regencies further to create even more job opportunities.
In 2003, a relatively well-functioning highlands kabupaten, Jayawijaya, was split and a new one, Yahukimo, created. Responsibility for service delivery was transferred overnight, though nobody knew what to do.
"Immunisation stopped dead," says Naomi Sosa, a Yasumat consultant. "We had a lot of deaths from tuberculosis and some suspected polio cases: there was a measles outbreak, child health
issues. They missed years of school. There was a five-year gap, and then the church realised it had to step in. It's never run properly since."
Aid worker and writer Bobby Anderson has described Lolat's health service as "ailing villagers reduced to picking through medicine stocks in a vain attempt to self-prescribe, popping pills from containers with unreadable, waterlogged labels".
None of this epidemic of absenteeism invokes any official repercussions, nor pricks the conscience of politicians, nor stops tribal leaders agitating for more new kabupaten.
The problem here is not the threat of state-imposed violence, but the absence of a functioning state at all. I ask Sobolim, Kobak and a large group of other women crammed into a little hut in front of a cooking fire, if the police or army ever come to Lolat. They laugh hard, then put their heads together to think. "The army came in 1999 in a helicopter," recalls Sobolim. "They dropped ballot boxes for the election and then they left again."
Sila Wanimbo's self-penned permission letter is heartbreaking: "Dear Mr and Mrs teachers at Ob Anggen [school]. Please grant permission to Sila Wanimbo. Her parents have died so she must oversee the funeral ceremony. After that she will return to class as normal. Greetings and thank you. Sila Wanimbo."
The founder of Ob Anggen in Bokondini, American Scotty Wisely, has laminated the note and put it on his desk. A girl so desperate to be educated fortifies him in the face of all the forces pushing in the opposite direction. While others have no electricity, few books and no teachers, Wisely's fee- and donation-funded school has computer tablets and solar power. Students are taught in English and Indonesian to international standard.
The principal of the nearby government school is the head of Ob Anggen's parent association. He sends his children there because, though he collects his principal's salary, his own school never opens. "This way the officials can avoid working but still make sure their children are educated," Wisely says. "It's a happy situation for them, though they do get upset about our lessons on corruption."
Some parents get upset by the school's demand that the pupils actually attend it. Papuan clans are bound by powerful strings of mutual obligation and the uncles on both sides pull those strings. They offer a child protection, but they also have a claim on their future earnings, including organising a girl's bride price.
Ob Anggen principal Ones Wenda says he's often pressured by families to simply hand out graduation certificates without requiring attendance. "It means status, and then they can do the civil service test," he says. "The uncle is the law, and coming up against them is very tough. We lose five or six students per year because they interfere," Wenda says.
Sila Wanimbo is subject to the same pressure. "In the past when my parents were still around, they helped me to go to school," she whispers through her tears. "Now they have passed away ... often my stepfather and stepmother say I have to help [at home]. The best thing about school is that the teachers here always support us, unlike at home where they are always angry."
If the lack of competent government is a problem, most Papuans would say the solution is self-government. I was warned by the Indonesian foreign ministry as part of gaining a travel permit not to seek out independence groups. But in Lolat, one seeks me out.
Late at night I'm asked by Justinus Balingga, a local leader from the pro-independence organisation KNPB (National Committee for West Papua), to join him in a crowded room by torchlight. There he dissects Indonesia's five-point ideology, Pancasila, one clause at a time - belief in God; a just and civilised state; Indonesian unity; democracy; social justice - and concludes that "all of them are untrue for us. We can disprove them all."
KNPB, like the well-known umbrella group Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM, or Free Papua Movement), believes the foundational differences between Papua and Indonesia are race and faith in a different god. But their motivation to fight comes from a deep wellspring of grievance. They draw on Suharto-era brutality, particularly the traumatic events of 1977 when more than 4000 people died in the highlands from military aerial bombardments, indiscriminate shootings and gross acts of torture. Balingga says, to the agreement of the room, that events like this can never be forgotten.
I hear repeatedly from Papuans that Indonesia only wants to exploit this half-island for its gold, forests and land. Papuans say they are under threat from waves of migration from other Indonesian islands - "straight-hairs" - who they view as deliberately trying to outnumber and Islamise them. In Bokondini, Tubina Jikwa assures me that as soon as Papuans get a higher education "they are killed; they are poisoned" by straight-hairs to keep Papua down. I hear often that Javanese deliberately unleashed the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
In turn, other Indonesians casually use the words "Stone Age" and "backward" to describe Papuans, whom they view as lazy drunks. Jailed rebel leader Filep Karma told me his people were routinely referred to as "monkeys".
Into all this stepped the new (Javanese) Indonesian President Joko Widodo with a promise to pay special attention to Papua. He won virtually 100 per cent support. The clean sweep is the result of a rigged electoral system, but his personal popularity, in contrast to his opponent, Suharto-era general Prabowo Subianto, is undeniable.
"He's pro-people ... if only Jokowi was there a long time ago, we might not want independence," teaching student Debora Faidiban says.
Jokowi told Fairfax Media in October that, with better healthcare, education and infrastructure in Papua, "I'm sure, the political tension will drop". From the perspective of the highlands, though, just weeks after his election, this looks wildly optimistic. The KNPB's Balingga says the Indonesian education system can never fit Papuans' needs. Journalist Victor Mambor says that, given historical abuses, it's too little, too late: "The Indonesian people came and took everything. Jokowi can say that, but it's just ideology."
Papuans have heard such promises over decades, but have got nothing but more corruption and lapses into violence. Jokowi's ministers have already shown profound ignorance. Disadvantaged
Regions and Transmigration Minister Marwan Jafar proclaimed that all Papua needed was more Javanese migration because "there is still a lot of land".
Worse, Jokowi personally disappointed with his too-slow, too-weak reaction to the killing of five young civilians by soldiers in Enarotali, Paniai regency, on December 8. He said nothing as the military and police pre-emptively absolved themselves of blame, prompting church leader Benny Giay to tell the president he wasn't welcome for Christmas. To Papuans it seemed that, despite Jokowi's rhetoric, nothing much had changed.
There are two strains of Indonesian callousness towards Papua - neglect and brutality. Jokowi has rightly recognised the need for better health and education services. But he'll be able to do nothing as long as he allows the brutalists in the military and police to go about their business unchallenged - including appointing one of the worst, former general Ryamizard Ryacudu, as his defence minister.
While that happens, the less complicated story - told for different reasons by both his military and left-leaning Western activists - that Papua is a virtual war zone, will crowd out more accurate analysis. That would show, as did a 2011 World Bank violence study, that only 6 per cent of violent deaths in Papua and West Papua could be categorised as "political (state-OPM)", compared to 31 per cent for "popular justice", including witchcraft killings, and 13 per cent from domestic violence.
That said, there is still plenty of state brutality to report. Apart from the recent killings, a group of young protesters were beaten by police, then stitched in hospital without anaesthetic; local lawman Areki Wanimbo is in jail for conspiracy to commit treason simply for talking to French journalists; police have been attacking KNPB offices outside Dekai; and 66 political prisoners languish in Indonesian jails, including Filep Karma, now an old man, who is serving 15 years simply for raising a flag. Seventeen per cent of all violent deaths come from "crime and response" - often arbitrary police killings, or deaths in custody.
"Jokowi and independence are two different things," insists teaching student Debora Faidiban. "You cannot debate about independence. We've been broken-hearted for so long. We want this equality with others."
Everyone Papuan in the highlands agrees, though they differ on important details. Justinus Balingga says Papua is ready now. Journalist Victor Mambor says people should be better prepared first, with more education and better health. School principal Ones Wenda wants freedom, but fears the consequences of rule by indigenous leaders still deeply tribal and superstitious, divided by topography, language and ancient enmities. "With freedom we'd have World War III," says Wenda. "We'd fight each other, hate each other. We'd have 25 countries on one island."
Driving the desire for independence are feelings a Javanese Muslim such as Jokowi is powerless to change. "My religion is Christian. My hair is curly. My skin is black. My culture is different," says KNPB leader Justinus Balingga. "That is what motivates us. We're not asking Jokowi to fix all our problems. We just want the freedom to fix them ourselves."
It's a big ask when so many of the problems plaguing his country implicate ethnic Papuans themselves.