West Papua: secret police, sensitivities and skepticism

West Papua is the western half of the second largest island in the world, divided perfectly down the centre with a razor sharp line, separating the mountainous terrain with an invisible boundary. Unlike its eastern neighbour, Papua New Guinea (PNG), it is not independent; it is part of the sprawling archipelago that is Nusantara, Indonesia.

West Papua is a province of Indonesia that is relatively unknown, quite off the beaten track and certainly not at the heart of the well-travelled tourist trail. It is right at the far east of Indonesia and is a place where a forgotten war has brewed for nearly 60 years over its sovereignty.

If you have heard of West Papua, it is probably because of the claims of the silent genocide against the indigenous population, a place where people are reportedly kidnapped and outsiders are treated with extreme suspicion. How West Papua became part of Indonesia, unlike its neighbouring brothers and sisters in PNG who stayed independent, is a subject steeped in controversy and the decision was deemed to be compromised, unfair and was rejected by Papuan nationals.

West Papua 01

To begin with when I knew I was going to venture on the little trodden path across the border from PNG, I anticipated that my adventurous spirit that coaxes me on intrepid travels was going to uncover the hidden secrets of West Papua. I guess it was my journalistic instinct that made me want to be part of the movement that unearths the hidden underworld of what is occurring behind the veil of secrecy that surrounds the ownership and inhabitance of this land.

However, in a short trip there was no way that I could even begin to unpick the complexities of the relationship between the indigenous people and the Indonesian migrants that were resettled here for economic reasons in the 60s. Nor could I support or defend either side or the claims being made. What I did realise is that West Papua is a hidden paradise; rugged, with untouched landscape, where you’re not jostling with other travellers and you can really immerse yourself and escape.

West Papua 03

For weeks I was told that what I had planned was unsafe and that I needed to be exceptionally careful, that secret police would be watching my every move, that Indonesian agents would be skeptical of my reasons for travelling to the remotest part of Indonesia and that at no cost should I part with my passport. So why would I want to go to this place? My experiences in PNG have shown me that often things need to be experienced first hand and your own judgments made. Like so often is the case, if you go somewhere with an open mind, are friendly and warm to people, you see things in a true light. If you are travelling somewhere with the soul intention of experiencing the sights, sounds, culture and flavour of a place why should you feel unwelcome or unsafe?

What I saw was a place with rich diversity; a real fusion from the lighter skinned migrants to the darker skinned indigenous Papuans. And the landscape, although significantly more developed than its eastern neighbour, its stunning beauty shone through. Crossing the border is quite safe as long as you have reliable transport on both sides. It is a quiet, peaceful crossing unlike other land border crossings I have made. Of course there are bag searches and being a white woman does direct some attention but it certainly isn’t the danger zone that I had been led to believe. On the other side, the protected wonderland of Raja Ampat with its huge abundant fishes and kaleidoscopic coral is hard to match. In Biak there are secluded waterfalls. Cheap, tasty food is available everywhere. And at no point are you far away from unspoiled jungle.

West Papua 04

Although more intrepid and perhaps a little more tricky, even the remotest parts of the world are possible to experience safely. I felt observed because I’m an outsider like I am whenever I travel, not because I’m a threat. I certainly didn’t feel like I was risking my safety.

The warnings reminded me how story telling and urban legends can effect your perception of a place and its people. What I’ve come to realise during this adventure is that I should have more conviction in my decisions. It’s important to be safe and listen to advise but also to trust your instinct. Stories are powerful but they are also someone else’s interpretation and the more you travel, the more you know when things don’t feel right.

I know that I’m going to keep viewing the world with my own eyes and keep having more adventures. I can’t wait for my next trip across the border.

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One thought on “West Papua: secret police, sensitivities and skepticism

  1. Truly inspiring! We have heard so many horror stories about Honduras when traveling through Central America, that we skipped it. The same stories for El Salvador which we did not skip and discovered the most beautiful landscapes and welcoming people. (Now I have a few regrets regarding Honduras…) When you have a bit of experience in traveling, a good intuition and hunger for discovering truly off the beaten path destinations, you get to the most most magnificent places having experiences like you had in PNG. Keep it up and thanks for this post!

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