The arrest and expulsion of Australian journalist Rebecca Henschke from the Indonesian province of (West) Papua over the weekend again highlights the sensitivities of the Indonesian military, the TNI, and its desire for over the territory. It also shows, again, that while Papua is more open to journalists than in the past, that openness remains limited, reflecting the TNI’s deep paranoia about separatist sentiments in the mineral-rich province.
Henschke, a BBC correspondent in Jakarta, was arrested after tweeting that malnourished children in Papua were to be given “instant noodles, super sweet soft drinks and biscuits” and that children in hospital have chocolate biscuits to eat “and that’s it”. Henschke also tweeted a picture of Indonesian soldiers with a bird in a cage, which could have been interpreted as illegal wildlife smuggling.
Colonel Muhammad Aidi said that Henschke’s tweets were defamatory because they implied wrongdoing or lack of care. Aidi said that goods being unloaded at a dock to which Henschke referred were ordinary merchant’s supplies and not emergency aid for the severely malnourished people of Papua’s Asmat province.
West Papua’s two provinces of Papua and West Papua are the poorest in Indonesia, despite the massive wealth generated by natural resources, including the world’s largest gold mine and the second largest copper mine at Grasberg near Timika. The standard of living of the territory’s ethnic Melanesians is significantly lower than that of other Indonesians in the territory.
A low-level separatist conflict has been underway in Papua since the mid-1960s and last September about 70% of the territory’s Melanesian population signed a secret petition calling for a free vote on independence. Last November and December, there was a spike in violence near Timika, with five villages being occupied by people claiming to be separatists.
Comments by Indonesian Lieutenant-General (ret.) Kiki Syahnakri — which incorrectly attributed responsibility to your correspondent for organising that violence — received extensive coverage in the Indonesian media. Syahnakri was previously the senior TNI commander responsible for East Timor during the TNI-controlled militia mayhem that destroyed more than 70% of the country and left over 2000 dead.
Despite a continuing military and paramilitary police “security” presence in Papua, the military continues to believe that the territory remains close to breaking away from Indonesia. External access to the territory was tightly controlled until President Joko Widodo lifted travel restrictions in 2015. Since then, journalists have had greater, if still limited, access to the territory.
As well as suppressing independence sentiments in Papua, the TNI was involved in legal, “grey” and illegal business activities throughout the territory. The businesses included transportation, construction, logging and mining. The TNI also had a history of providing “protection” to the territory’s rich mines, as well as running brothels, gambling and smuggling operations.
An Indonesian military spokesperson said that Henschke’s tweets had “hurt the feelings” of soldiers delivering aid, hence her arrest. Such “sensitivities” are an unusually delicate blind for the limiting of media access, in turn limiting reporting about the plight of Melanesian Papuans.
*Damien Kingsbury is Deakin University’s Professor of International Politics. He has been banned from entering Indonesia since December 2004.