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After Decades, Indonesia to Allow Foreign Journalists Into West Papua

Indonesia announced on Sunday that foreign journalists will be allowed to travel unhindered to West Papau, a region where a 50-year separatist movement has challenged Indonesian territorial claims.

by Scott Mitchell
May 11 2015, 4:10pm

AP Photo/Tatan Syuflana

Indonesian President Joko Widodo announced on Sunday that foreign journalists will be allowed to travel unhindered to West Papau, a region where a 50-year separatist movement and low-intensity insurgency has challenged Indonesian territorial claims. 

The move marks the first time that journalists will have unhindered access to West Papau since Indonesia's rule in the province began, but a human rights investigator has warned that the factions of the military, who have grown rich from the occupation, could still stand in the way of transparency.

Indonesia occupied West Papua in 1963 when former colonial power the Netherlands gave up control of the region. Indonesia formally annexed the territory in 1969 in a vote that critics say was rigged. The Indonesian occupation and annexation sparked a separatist movement among the 750,000 people in West Papau, who in 1965 established a small political and military separatist movement known as the Free Papua Movement (OPM). Indonesia outlawed the OPM, and its symbol, the Morning Star flag. An estimated 100,000 West Papuans have died as a result of the occupation and thousands more have been imprisoned for belonging to the separatist movement or simply flying the separatist flag.

Foreign journalists have been generally forbidden from entering West Papua. Just last year two French journalists, Thomas Dandois and Valentine Bourrat, faced five-year jail sentences after being caught by Indonesian authorities filming a documentary in West Papua. They served two and a half months before being freed by authorities.

"Starting today, we allow foreign journalists to go freely to Papua, as well as to other Indonesian provinces," Indonesian President Widodo, who is known locally as Jokowi, said during a three day visit to West Papua. "It's time that we should think positively. There must be mutual trust that we've lost."

Related: VICE News Talks to the French Journalists Freed from Jail in West Papua

In the past journalists had to apply for special permits, often prohibitively expensive and time-consuming to obtain, and the few who were granted access were closely monitored by security officials.

During last year's election campaign, President Widodo was asked about access to West Papua by local journalists and responded: "Why not? It's safe here in Papua. There's nothing to hide."

Andreas Harsorno has been monitoring human rights in West Papua for over twenty years, and is lead investigator for Human Rights Watch. Speaking from West Papua, he told VICE News that the Indonesian government is still far from providing full transparency when it comes to the situation in West Papua.

"My understanding is that you will still need a special permit to travel to West Papua, whether you're a journalist or not," he said, while acknowledging President Widodo was making moves in the right direction. "If they are serious about transparency, then why do you need a permit to travel to West Papua and not other provinces like Surabaya or Bali? The truth is that this is a state within a state and that discrimination should stop."

President Widodo also granted clemency to five West Papuan prisoners during his trip. Coming within his first 12 months in office, it marked a change in policy from his predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who only granted one West Papuan political prisoner clemency during his 10-year rule. The prisoners given clemency had been serving 19 years to life in prison after their alleged involvement in a 2003 raid on an Indonesian military arsenal by separatist forces. 

"Last week, more than 150 independence activists were still arrested," said Harsorno who cautioned against excessive optimism following the clemency announcement. "It is too early to say whether Jokowi [President Widodo] can make a difference because the question is really how the military will take this. There are a lot of factions within the military, good and bad, and Indonesia's policy in West Papua will come down to whether they are willing to change."

West Papua is home to the world's largest known deposit of gold, at Grasberg Mine, and at last count had 3.5 million hectares of land waiting on government approval to be turned into palm oil plantations.

Related: Indonesian Army Kills Five Civilians as West Papua Independence Campaign Strengthens

As an example of how the military benefits from the occupation, Harsorno cited the case of Labora Sitorus, who was caught in Sorong, West Papua, in February this year after a prolonged manhunt. Labora, a convicted corrupt official, was first arrested in 2013 when it was revealed that 1.5 billion Indonesian Rupiah (US$146 million) had passed through his bank accounts, despite his position as a police brigadier.

"If you're a police officer in Indonesia, you want to be posted in West Papua," said HRW's Harsorno. "You can make lot of money from illegal logging, alcohol, prostitution, mining. There's a lot of money, and not a lot of transparency."

Follow Scott Mitchell on Twitter: @s_mitchell