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Sunday, 10 May 2015

Foreign journalists can now travel in West Papua

Big news in today that Joko Widodo, Indonesia's president, has lifted travel bans for foreign journalists wanting to travel to the country's Papuan provices - or, rather, the independent state that separatists call West Papua. How this new arrangement will work in real life is yet to be tested but a lot of people around the world will be watching closely to see if the gesture on the part of the Indonesian government is sincere or not.

The two provinces were annexed by Indonesia in 1969 through a process that many still living there believe was illegitimate, although most of the international community recognises Indonesia's sovereignty over the land mass.

Sceptics say that Indonesia has, for example, killed 500,000 in its decades-long struggle to retain control over the provinces, which are inhabited by an aboriginal population of Melanesians who differ strikingly from the Javanese majority of Indonesia in terms of culture, religion and beliefs. But noone knows for sure. Part of the reason for reticence among the international community is a lack of reliable information about West Papua. This shortcoming should now change as the authorities allow journalists from around the world to travel inside the provinces and report on what they see and hear there.

The significance of this move on the part of Widodo cannot be disregarded and should not be downplayed.

Independence activists in West Papua say that Indonesia has a policy of ethnic replacement, whereby Javanese are allowed to live in cities and towns in West Papua in an effort to change the make-up of the population. This is a kind of colonisation-by-stealth. More disturbingly, however, any effort to show solidarity for independence fighters, who are armed, results in swift reaction by authorities, with people reportedly jailed on a regular basis. There are also reports of killings and torture. Now that journalists are able to travel freely in the provinces we should be in a better position to know exactly what is happening there.

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