Travel

'Extreme Travel' to Indonesia's West Papua Puts Local Papuans at Risk

The recent arrest of a Polish tourist who allegedly met with independence activists in Papua is getting headlines across the globe, but it's the three locals arrested alongside him who are going to face the harshest penalties.
September 19, 2018, 11:39am
Indonesian soldiers and aid workers assist a villager after she was evacuated from a villages authorities said had been occupied by armed separatists in this file photo. Photo by Muhammad Yamin/Reuters

Who is Jakub Fabian Skrzypski? The Polish citizen says he's an "extreme traveller," with a "passion for other cultures, languages, and humanitarian issues." The Indonesian police say he's a foreigner—possibly an arms dealer—with ties to separatist militias in Indonesia's restive Papua province.

So which one is correct? Is he just another "conflict tourist" trying to get a thrill out of vacationing in remote and dangerous places? Or is he an active participant in a low-level insurgency between the state and armed groups like the Free Papua Movement (OPM) that has been going on for decades?

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The police seem convinced that their claims are correct. Skrzypski is currently sitting behind bars on allegations that he was "trying to commit a felony" as well as a charge of makar—a legal violation that could be translated as "treason" or "rebellion" and is typically used to jail pro-independence activists in Papua for five-to-ten years for flying the banned independence "Morning Star" flag.

It's the first time authorities have decided to seek prosecution of a foreigner arrested in Papua—a heavily militarized region of Indonesia that's typically a no-go zone for foreigners thanks to a history of arrests like this one and a de-facto ban on foreign reporters.

“Foreign journalists have been [detained] before, but this is the first time the case has involved bullets," said Viktor Mambor, an editor at Tabloid Jubi, a locally trusted media outlet based in Jayapura. "Previous cases were about the misuse of tourist visas to report.”

Authorities in Papua have, in the past, detained a Spanish tourist on suspicions that he was a journalist after he attended a independence demonstration in Jayapura, West Papua. They've also detained actual journalists attempting to report off-visa in Papua, denied entry to tourists suspected of harboring secret ambitions to conduct journalism in Papua, and expelled some of the few ones actually allowed to report in the region.

But, each time, the Indonesian government has only sought, at most, to deport foreigners reporting caught in Papua off-visa. This time, despite the fact that police admit no money changed hands and no weapons were actually sold, the police are pushing for a trial.

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It's unknown what's going to happen here. The evidence against Skrzypski looks pretty thin (we say "looks" because it's notoriously difficult to verify information from Papua).

“I don’t know how he could have been accused of being an arms dealer.” Viktor told VICE. “Apparently there are photos of him online, but according to my associates at TAPOL he’s a tourist.”

One thing we do know is that, when the dust settles on this one, the local Papuans arrested by the police are going to pay a far bigger toll than tourists like Skrzypski. This kind of "extreme tourism," often puts locals already living in difficult situations at risk, just so that a foreign tourist can come in, see a place, and jet off to his or her home in a (likely) far safer, far richer country.

Local authorities also detained Simon Carlos Magal, a West Papuan PhD student who was communicating with Skrzypski before his arrest. He's also being held on "makar" charges. Two other local Papuans were also arrested alongside Skrzypski.

"Our findings show that Mr. Skrzypski is merely a tourist who may have been acting recklessly and irresponsibly in a conflict area," said Tapol, a prisoners' advocacy group in a written statement. "As a result, local people like Mr. Magal are left to face superfluous consequences."

The situation in Papua is still pretty tense. The province was annexed by Indonesia shortly after Dutch colonial forces pulled out in 1969 with a vote for self determination that independent observers derided as a sham at the time. That vote was held by Indonesian officials amongst 1,026 hand-picked elders who were asked to raise their hand if they wanted Papua to remain a part of Indonesia.

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Since then, a slow-burning fight for a new vote for self-determination has characterized much of Jakarta's relationship with its most far-flung province. Armed militants like the OPM engage in regular shootouts with Indonesian security forces in the forested area near the Freeport Grasberg mine—the largest copper and gold mine on Earth. Meanwhile, a separate wing of pro-independence activists like the National Committee for West Papua (KNPB) push for a new self-determination vote through non-violent means.

It's a difficult place to work as a journalist, even if you are from Papua. Two separate contributors to the English-language newspaper the Jakarta Globe were assaulted on the job, with one, Banjir Ambarita, suffering stab wounds during an attack in Jayapura. Others have been choked, beaten, and had their equipment smashed, both by local police and protestors.

“We local journalists work in dangerous career," Viktor told VICE. "We have often been subjects to torture and physical violence because we have the guts to tell 'risky' stories when others were too afraid."

It's also a place with a concerning history of killings and other rights abuses at the hands of the state, according to a report released earlier this year by Amnesty International Indonesia. It's, in short, not the kind of place for a naive foreign tourist to wander around meeting with local pro-independence activists.

"As an ‘extreme’ traveller, the West Papua Liberation Army is not the first armed independence group that he has met for the sake of adventure," Tapol said in its statement. "He had also visited the Kurdish Liberation Army in the troubled Qandil mountains region in Iraq in Spring 2017, before the liberation of Mosul from ISIS.

"His intention to learn about West Papua’s struggle is indeed easily misinterpreted by the Indonesian government. While Mr. Skrzypski’s choices may have been irresponsible and regrettable, his circumstances appear those of an idealistic and naive traveller, and not one of a criminal. By being accused of multiple counts of treason, we feel he has been unfairly charged."

Skrzypski's arrest will likely make things harder for local Papuans, as well as journalists, both local and foreign, trying to cover the region. He is currently receiving help with legal counsel from the Polish government, which is also trying to mediate on his behalf—both things that the other three men arrested alongside Skrzypski won't be receiving.

And, in the end, those three men, one of whom was about to head to a doctoral program in Australia, might end up paying the biggest price here.