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Papua's journalists tell hard truths about local cronyism and violence

Papua's journalists tell hard truths about local cronyism and violence
Published 24 Jun 2015 

This is part 5 of former Fairfax Media Indonesia correspondent Michael Bachelard's series on Papua. Here is the introductionpart 1part 2part 3 and part 4.

Few work harder to advocate for the Papuan people than Victor Mambor. The son of John Mambor, who was a powerful independence leader, Victor has established himself as a robustly independent journalist, the editor of the newspaper Tabloid Jubi, based in coastal city of Jayapura, the capital of Papua province.

Journalist Oktavianus Pogau, editor of Suara Papua. (July 2014/Michael Bachelard.)

His newspaper is often the first to report news of arrests or killings. When four (originally reported as five) protesters were shot dead by soldiers in the highlands town of Enarotali in December 2014, it was Tabloid Jubi with the most credible and timely information.

But the situation Mambor sees and reports is much murkier and more complex than the binary story – Indonesian oppressors and Papuan victims – that some activists promote in both Papua and the West. 

Killings by the Indonesian state are still going on, particularly as palm oil plantation companies turn their attention to vast, forested lowlands, and start alienating traditional owners. Dozens of independence activists remain imprisoned by the Indonesian state, despite the promise of President Joko Widodo to release them, some for simply raising the banned Morning Star independence flag. And Mambor tells of the brutal indignities meted out by soldiers and the increasingly powerful police, including one story of students being tortured in police custody and, allegedly, by doctors at the police hospital.

Mambor himself is often stopped by a suspicious Indonesian military who remember his father's political activities and assume the son is the same. The night I meet him for dinner at a barbeque fish restaurant on the shore of Sentani in Jayapura, he rejects one restaurant after another because they are full of Indonesian military figures, and he does not want to be overheard.

But Mambor does not shy away from the untold story of Papua – the corruption and cronyism rife in the native Papuan political elite, and the tribal divisions and violence (including family violence) which kills far more people here than the Indonesian military or police. [fold]

There has been a spate of killings in the highland region of Tolikara, he tells me, because the mining giant Freeport is exploring there. The killings are not carried out by a rapacious foreign company, nor the security forces acting in concert with them, but by local tribes. 'It's about money: who can own the land and has the right to sell it. There is so much killing there,' Mambor says.

He says soldiers sell bullets to independence activists to make money and perpetuate the conflict. The going rate, he says is 1 million rupiah (about $105) per bullet, and 26 million ($2740) per gun, 'paid with (illegally mined) gold'.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who has shown a genuine interest in Papua, will try his best to improve welfare in the province, Mambor says, but the hardliners in the police and military would 'try to keep this land as a conflict zone – they'll do their best.'

'And the hardliners are more powerful than him' he continued.

The only answer he can see is the elevation of the Papuan people through 'better education and better health'. The real tragedy, then, is the local corruption that steals any chance of progress. So many Papuans are dependent on government cash from Jakarta – either through village welfare schemes or public sector salaries for no-show jobs – while everyone mouths the rhetoric of independence.

The current crop of local leaders, Mambor believes, is 'not fighting for indigenous people's rights, but for bad strategy, violence, the wrong story, lies...West Papuan people are living in a dream. We want all freedom of course, but we cannot work together' he said.

Oktavianus Pogau (pictured above) is another journalist, the chief editor of newspaper Suara Papua. After the presidential election last year, he tried to draw attention to the massive irregularities and ballot box stuffing that delivered counts in some places of 100% for Joko Widodo. In most Papuan districts, there was no ballot box at all, but every man and woman miraculously managed to vote. He accuses politicised electoral commission officials, not Joko's party, of wrongdoing.

In the remote village of Lolat the fact that a ballot box never appeared for the election makes people feel they have no stake in the outcome. Asked about the promises of Joko Widodo, a young woman in Lolat says: 'We didn't actually elect him so why should he listen to what we say?'

Victor Mambor remembers the struggle he and his siblings faced just to be educated while their father spent long years in prison. Papua has to struggle again, he says, to fight for an education system worth its name, and a health system that does not kill its own people. Like almost all Papuans, he also wants freedom from Indonesia, 'and I believe it will come, but not yet. First we need to prepare.'

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