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Jakarta cautiously lifts the veil in West Papua
Updated at 11:01 am today
The city of Jayapura. Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades
Johnny Blades, West Papua - firstname.lastname@example.org
The lid is lifting on what has been for so long Asia/Pacific's hidden region.
Since incorporation into Indonesia in 1969, outside access to West Papua - the western half of New Guinea, has been tightly restricted amid a simmering separatist conflict.
Listen to Insight - West Papua uncovered
However, in May, Indonesia's new president Joko Widodo signalled restrictions on foreign media access to West Papua were being lifted. I'd been declined a visa to visit West Papua in the past, but decided to give it another crack.
The process for obtaining a journalist visa involved jumping through a large number of bureaucratic hoops, but after a few months securing the required supporting documents and submitting relevant applications, I was approved and so too, my colleague Koroi Hawkins.
Door slightly open
Door slightly open
We travelled into West Papua by land, across the border from Papua New Guinea - that arbitrary straight line running along the 141st meridian east, down the middle of the huge island just north of Australia.
West Papua is tightly guarded by Indonesian military and police, with reports of killings and human rights abuses against the local population commonplace over the last few decades.
Once past the military checkpoints, the stark contrasts between Indonesia and PNG became clear: productive farmland, better infrastructure, thousands of scooters. Basically - more money.
As we entered Jayapura, the capital of Papua province, Indonesian cultural and religious influence was everywhere.
Melanesian culture on the other hand was barely visible. Like the West Papuans, it simply seemed overpowered, outnumbered.
A main reason: the Indonesian state programme called transmigration, whereby people from over-populated parts of the republic are resettled in less crowded regions like West Papua.
Transmigration has been changing the face of West Papuan society over the last two decades.
One evening in a house in suburban Kota Raja, the secretary general of the Papua Customary Council, Leo Imbiri, told us that every week up to four ships arrived in Papua with migrants.
"One big ship can bring about one to three thousand people. So if one week, there are four big ships coming to Papua, it means in one week we have up to twelve thousand people come to Papua," he said.
Mr Imbiri paused, and the sound of the call to prayer at a nearby mosque filled the silence.
"It is alarming for us," he went on, "not only for the culture, but for the future life of the Papuan people, because if there is demographic change in Papua, you will (have) loss in political control, economic, social, everything you will lose."
The Melanesian lifestyle and customs are struggling to adapt to a teeming Asian society with an expansive economy.
Papua’s Governor Lukas Enembe warned that West Papuans may vanish as a people within twenty years if transmigration and other forms of marginalisation continued at their current pace.
Jakarta's development drive
Despite the strong opposition, Jakarta is persevering with transmigration, saying Indonesians have the right to move around the republic freely.
A leading government representative on development in Papua, Judith Dipodiputro, argued that the influx of migrants helped West Papuans diversify their skills and become more competitive.
We visited Mrs Dipodiputro at a major new market construction in Sentani where she was overseeing the Jokowi government’s programme aimed at fostering economic and social development among Papuan grassroots communities.
"The need for not modernisation, but to help them integrate into modern market mechanism is there," she explained.
"The idea is that the communities have to be part of the supply chain that exists in Papua, and hopefully one day outside Papua. And this supply chain begins in their village."
The Phasaa market is what Mrs Dipodiputro called an integrated complex, where the government was trying to meet all the cultural and welfare challenges, and empowering "the Mamas", who she described as the natural leaders of productivity.
She expected Jakarta's development drive to help grow satisfaction among Papuans with being part of Indonesia.
"Because the majority of our people are grassroots, " said Mrs Dipodiputro. "The problem of Papua is not unique to Papua. We have poverty, and education, lack of competitiveness, lack of basic infrastructure all over Indonesia.”
However, West Papuans felt their efforts to adapt to "modern mechanisms" were hamstrung by the rather backwards structures imposed on them.
According to Septer Manufandu of the Papua People Network, if West Papuans complained about their basic rights not being recognised, they were often branded as separatists.
There are about 50 known political prisoners detained in West Papua.
The most prominent West Papuan political prisoner is Filep Karma, who we visited at Abepura Prison where he is eleven years into a fifteen year jail term for raising the banned Papuan nationalist flag.
President Jokowi recently freed a handful of Papuan political prisoners but Filep Karma refused the government offer of a pardon because he said it would involve admitting guilt for a crime he didn't commit.
Quite freely, he walked us out to the carpark to say farewell, reiterating that he would continue to campaign peacefully for independence.
We were later told that after we had left, intelligence officers emerged and grilled prison staff about our visit.
The climate of fear is pervasive, and numerous West Papuans we met did not want to talk on tape, for fear of repercussions.
But plenty did speak, including those simply trying to carve out a constructive living under difficult circumstances.
On a Waena roadside, we met Barbalina Mina Mandenas, a medical student who wanted to help improve HIV/ AIDS infection rates in Papua, which are the worst in Indonesia.
"Once graduated, I will share my knowledge," she said, "so the most important thing for me is to do something for the HIV/AIDs, prevent West Papuan people (getting infected)."
Getting on with life
Franzalbert Joku is a West Papuan who in recent years has returned to live in his homeland after years in exile campaigning for independence.
On his front porch near Lake Sentani, he told us life was far better today for West Papuans than during the years under President Suharto's rule.
"Even as citizens of Indonesia, we have a right to exist in our own land," he said. “Whether we are part of Indonesia as a province or as a self governing region, we have that right."
Mr Joku, who once felt forced to flee Indonesia, said that Papua had now gone through its worst.
"I say this without meaning to undermine my brothers and sisters who are still out there in the jungle or in other countries advocating outright independence.
“I just look at the issues," he explained, "and try to look at what options are within the realm of possibilities."
Getting into West Papua as a journalist was something I previously thought was not possible. The Indonesian government must be credited with opening the door a little.
The success of the Indonesian government's efforts to open up Papua depend on whether the security forces will allow it to continue.
On our way out of West Papua at the border, soldiers asked for selfies with us before we walked nervously, across the line and back into PNG.
It remains to be seen whether the smiling soldiers will accept the veil being raised on West Papua, or if greater access to the troubled province gives them more problems than it solves.
But for the moment - it's a start.