Four Australians have been jailed in West Papua for two years and a fifth for three years after they flew into West Papua last September. They have become victims of Indonesian military (TNI) concerns in the face of coming elections. The five were sentenced two weeks ago for entering Indonesia without a visa. The pilot received an extra year for landing in West Papua without flight approval or security clearance.

Visa violations in Indonesia can bring up to six years jail, while unauthorised flying in Indonesian airspace carries up to five years. However, visa violations are usually dealt with by simple, and usually immediate, deportation. The five sight-seeing Australians flew into Indonesia’s most south-eastern town of Merauke believing they could obtain a visa on arrival. Visas on arrival are available elsewhere, but visitors to West Papua usually require specific security clearance.

West Papua has always been difficult to enter, primarily because the TNI attempts to cover up local resistance to incorporation into Indonesia and, as a consequence, extensive human rights abuses. But what makes West Papua especially sensitive now is that it is the last bastion of the TNI’s former economic and political dominance. Not only does the TNI have its greatest concentration of troops in West Papua, it also retains extensive business and criminal interests there.

The TNI’s interests include legal mining, logging, transport and fisheries, as well as illegal mining and logging, protection rackets, gun running, prostitution and gambling. At a time when TNI business interests are being slowly wound back by the government, and the TNI’s Jakarta-based leadership is moving to end its corruption and criminality, West Papua is the last hold-out against these reforms.

In an election year in Indonesia, the TNI is now worried that both its performance and the issue of West Papua’s nominal autonomy will become part of the political debate.

The TNI has always been especially concerned by Australian activists, especially in West Papua. The pliable local court’s harsher than usual sentence was intended to stand as a lesson to other Australians who might think about entering West Papua, perhaps for purposes less bland than sight-seeing.

The sentences for the five will now be appealed to courts outside West Papua and may have a better chance of success. But the initial sentences do show that the TNI is deeply worried and that it is most reluctant to let go of its last bastion of money and power.