Tensions Rise As Traditions Die In Highlands Of Indonesian Papua

Tensions Rise As Traditions Die In Highlands Of Indonesian Papua

Agence France-Presse
By Aubrey Belford

The "car wash" in the remote Baliem Valley of Indonesia's Papua region is not as innocent as it seems at first glance, and just decades ago anything like it would have been inconceivable.

A fertile basin gouged out of jagged mountains, the valley has been in contact with the outside world only since the end of World War II. Everything from clothing to metal, money and medicine is new here.

At the "car wash" on a quiet intersection in Wamena town, homeless men and boys from the villages squat by the roadside in the midday sun, drinking and waiting for cars and motorcycles to roll up.

Washing the cars brings in some money, but the real money comes from sex with the drivers. Seeing a camera, the workers point and laugh at friends lying drunk and unconscious on the ground.

In few places do modernity and tradition collide as dramatically as in the Baliem Valley. Many older men go naked except for the koteka, a long gourd covering the penis, and a feather or bark fibre headdress.

Christian missionaries have made headway, but gourds are still accepted attire in churches surrounded by domed grass huts and intricate gardens for growing yams.

But change is rapid and ubiquitous, and largely directed from Indonesia, which gained sovereignty over Papua in a 1969 UN-backed vote by tribal elders which has been criticised as a sham.

The rough terrain means there is no feasible way in except by air. Everything, including construction materials and fuel, is flown in by propeller planes.

The planes also bring in settlers from other parts of Indonesia, who own most of the shops and businesses here despite being overwhelmingly outnumbered by indigenous Papuans.

"We can see that our traditions are disappearing bit by bit because of development," said Paulus Asipalek, 40, a local human rights activist who recalls a childhood when tribal wars over stolen wives or pigs were a regular danger.

"The old people remember how to make the gardens, bark fibre bags and houses," he said. "When they die it means our kids in school are going to lose this."

As traditions die, tensions brew between indigenous Papuans, Indonesian police and troops and settlers.

Human rights abuses by police and the roughly 15,000 troops sent to fight a low-level separatist insurgency are a complaint throughout Papua, where many still yearn for independence and see the Indonesians as occupiers.

Indonesian government sensitivity over separatism means Papua is usually closed to foreign journalists. AFP was allowed to enter accompanied by an agent from state intelligence, which vetted what the agency could report.

In this highlands region there is palpable rage over the shooting death of 45-year-old tribesman Opinus Tabuni allegedly at the hands of police or military -- it remains unclear -- at a ceremony for the United Nations International Day of the World's Indigenous People in August.

Tabuni was killed after police fired "warning shots" as a crowd of hundreds wearing traditional clothes raised the banned "Morning Star" separatist flag, witnesses said.

Displaying such "separatist symbols" is a crime punishable by up to life in prison in Indonesia. Some 40 Papuans are currently in prison in Indonesia for allegedly waving the outlawed flag.

"People are looking for the right moment to have their revenge" for Tabuni's death, said one witness who declined to be named.

There is little accountability from Indonesian police and troops, who largely come from outside the region and see the ethnic Melanesian Papuans as primitive, human rights activist Theo Hesegem said.

"There's definitely racism, there's dicrimination. The police will defend themselves, they'll defend migrants but Papuans cannot get justice," he said.

These days sporadic cases of torture and abuse are more common than the shootings and military crackdowns during the time of former dictator Suharto, Hesegem said, but memories of bloodshed linger.

In Kurulu village outside Wamena, where most live in grass huts and children run with bellies distended by malnutrition, 45-year-old Judas Dabi recalled the years he spent hiding in the jungle during bloody fighting between separatists and the Indonesian military in the late 1970s.

"We're still scared, scared of being shot, scared of dying," he said.

Then he glanced at AFP's intelligence services escort and added: "We're still scared. But it's safe here."