As Indonesia correspondent for Fairfax Media from 2012 to 2014, Michael Bachelard covered West Papua more comprehensively than any other Western journalist, including making two trips to the province. Over coming days, The Interpreter will present a seven-part series about what he saw.
Thanks to a brutal history, an Indonesian Government that restricts journalistic access, and a group of committed activists in Australia and New Zealand, most people only ever hear one story about Indonesia's Papua and West Papua provinces. It's a story about a 'slow motion genocide'; about the greed of foreign miners and an Indonesian military occupation without scrutiny or accountability. It's about a proud people desperate for freedom from a repressive, extractive state.
Fenina Ilit from Lolat shelters from the rain under a traditional umbrella. (November 2014/Michael Bachelard.)
When that story is told in Australia, it reminds people of the long struggle of the East Timorese. In Indonesia, the similarity between the two poisons the relationship with Australia. The Indonesian elite is encouraged in the false view that Australia has a secret plan to also take this province away from them.
But it's a half-story.
The real story is much more complex. As Fairfax Media's correspondent, I wanted to see for myself. I made two trips into Papua, both into the highlands and the lowlands. To get there legally, the Indonesian Government put me through an application process that involved spelling out what stories I wanted to write, and precisely who I wanted to meet. My application was endorsed by civilian and military leaders.
Both times I was granted permission. Both times I strayed from the government-imposed reservation to fill out a more complete picture.
What I found in Papua was grief at dispossession and anger at Indonesia's repressive colonial occupation. I found an independence movement fueled by a strong belief in religious and cultural differences. But I also found ordinary people sick, impoverished and frustrated by the public sector dysfunction and local corruption that is mostly driven by ethnic Papuan elites. And I found fear – not only of Indonesia, but fear that an independent Papuan state, which all said they fervently hoped for, may descend into tribalism and chaos.
Few would say that they were better off as part of Indonesia, but a number paraphrased St Augustine's infamous plea, saying: 'Please grant us independence from Indonesia, but not yet'.