Line between PNG and Indonesia increasingly blurred

11:52 am on 21 December 2015

Papua New Guinea communities along the border with Indonesia say growing links with the other side are inevitable.

The 750-kilometre line down the middle of New Guinea is the Pacific Islands region's only international land border. The division has long been problematic, due to sensitivities around the West Papuan self-determination struggle. But the line that separates the two sides is becoming increasingly blurred.

People from Papua New Guinea make frequent trips across the Indonesia border at Wutung

People from Papua New Guinea make frequent trips across the Indonesia border at Wutung Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

The border is long and porous, difficult to secure and an artificial barrier to many tribal groups who live on both sides. For many years, Indonesia and PNG have allowed members of these communities to move back and forth. One of them is James Nunakru from Lido village on PNG's north coast, a 40-minute drive from the border.

"Those people who are living close to the PNG border, we have relatives who are living on the other side of the border - we sort of have common, traditional ties," said Mr Nunakru.

"That is why, even though West Papua is ruled by Indonesia we still have those traditional ties and we still travel across for customary purposes and things like that, not using passports but using traditional TBC cards - a traditional border card," he said, showing me the yellow laminated card that gave him and other Papua New Guineans regular access to Indonesia's Papua province.

Border crossing

Another source of cross-border traffic is the OPM Free West Papua Movement whose members have long used PNG as a haven in their separatist conflict that has simmered in Indonesia for decades.

"I cannot give you any exact figure," said Mr Nunakru, "but we have elements living on our side of the border and we have PNG sympathisers who accept them when they come into our territory."

Mr Nunakru conceded that at times the traditional border crossing system is abused, but he stopped short of blaming the OPM. The problem in Indonesia's Papua region is that if you are a native Papuan and express aspirations for being independent, you can easily be branded an OPM separatist, by the authorities, even if you are not part of the OPM. One way or another, for decades, many thousands of West Papuans have felt a critical need to cross into PNG with Indonesian military forces in pursuit.

"Sometimes they are in search of medicine, maybe food supplies, and others they just cross over to escape from Indonesian authorities," said Mr Nunakru.

Indonesian military guard the border with Papua New Guinea

Indonesian military guard the border with Papua New Guinea Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

Incursions by Indonesian military have been a sore point for PNG governments over the years, underlining the inability of PNG's under-resourced Defence Force to adequately secure the border.

However, the PNGDF recently won praise from Indonesia for rescuing two Indonesian logging workers who had allegedly been kidnapped in a remote area near the border, on the Indonesian side.

News reports indicated the hostages were kidnapped by OPM rebels and then held in a West Sepik village from where, after several days, PNG soldiers rescued the pair and handed them over to Indonesian authorities.

Both PNG and the Papua provincial government in Indonesia have spoken of the need for a harmonious and peaceful border region in which business and trade can advance and help build common prosperity.

Trade and infrastructure

At the far north of the border, PNG people frequently use the crossing at Wutung to visit the Bhatas markets, just inside Indonesia, which offer a huge range of cheap goods, from bags of rice to the latest porn DVDs from Java. The Governor of PNG's West Sepik province, Amkat Mai, said this had its downsides.

"We think that Indonesia is benefiting more from this trade than us because even our kina gets across the border into Jayapura. Jayapura is becoming now a vibrant city rather than Vanimo and West Sepik province. So there is a trade imbalance," he explained.

Jayapura port, Papua province, Indonesia.

Jayapura port, Papua province, Indonesia. Photo: RNZI / Koroi Hawkins

"Our people buy all the stuff from Indonesia, but at the small to medium enterprise level. It's good for the grassroots because they buy stuff at Bhatas, they sell them and they make money for their daily living. But for us as a government, we are losing big time because money is going one way, to the other side."

The Governor said this was why he was urging the government to explore the concept of a free trade area in Vanimo to encourage PNG companies to establish themselves there and take advantage of proximity to Indonesia, in an effort to balance trade.

Vanimo harbour, West Sepik province, Papua New Guinea.

Vanimo harbour, West Sepik province, Papua New Guinea. Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

However in a sign of growing links, the municipal administration of Indonesia's Jayapura city has forged co-operation agreements with counterparts in the two main towns of PNG's Sepik region, Wewak and Vanimo,in sectors such as fisheries, agriculture and education. And the two national governments have plans to boost collaboration in areas of infrastructure.

Amkat Mai said that there was an inter-governmental recommendation being considered that the national provider, PNG Power, get its electricity supply from Jayapura, via Vanimo.

"So, the Indonesian side, they have actually built a power station and the power station has come as far as the border line," he said.

"I think temporarily it's worth doing because the maintenance of the power and it's going to be cheaper to get from Indonesia than maintaining our own generators, but eventually in the end we should have our own power. You know, we have plenty of rivers and streams, we could source power ourselves later."

Close neighbours, friends

West Sepik people have been increasingly turning to the other side for better services in education, health and telecommunications.

While Governor Mai and others were wary of becoming reliant on Indonesia, he aimed to grow people-to-people links.

"We are close neighbours, we are friends, we are buddies," Mr Mai said.

"I would like to see more Papuan people visiting Papua New Guinea and more Papua New Guineans visiting Jayapura, going there for education or for trade or for sports, I'd like to see more sports being encouraged."

But Indonesia's sensitivity about support for West Papuan self-determination remains an obstacle. Persipura Jayapura, the champions of the Indonesian football league, were recently invited to PNG to play the national side to mark PNG's 40th anniversary of independence; but after reaching the border, the Indonesian consulate in Vanimo barred them from entering.

Persipura Jayapura (green) at practice.

Persipura Jayapura (green) at practice. Photo: RNZI / Koroi Hawkins

However, this may be slowly changing, if the current Indonesian government has its way. Indonesia's president Joko Widodo has started to open up outside access to Papua region. In Jayapura, the Papua Customary Council secretary general, Leo Imbiri, cautiously noted that in the last few years, civil society collaboration with PNG had increased.

"I mean, I will see the participation of the church, some of the church organisations in Papua New Guinea can come visit us here. Also from indigenous people organisation," he said.

"But I can't really assume that in the future, the process will be smoothly increasing because if sometimes the process depends on how the government determine or interpreted the collaboration that now we have built."

One island

Yet, there's a growing understanding that the two sides of New Guinea have common concerns. Not the least of which, according to West Sepik environmentalist Dorothy Tekwie, has been rampant illegal logging and destruction of much of New Guinea's huge biodiversity.

"Well the island of New Guinea is the third largest tropical rainforest on earth. The first is the Amazon and then the Congo and this is the third largest. Well it is going very, very fast under logging."

Harvested logs in PNG

Harvested logs in PNG Photo: RNZI/Johnny Blades

Mrs Tekwie said that the destruction wrought upon New Guinea's forests by the logging industry typifies the way so-called development works in PNG.

"And here you know the world is talking about climate change, they really are not doing anything about saving the forest on this island. Both sides of this island. You know it is not (just) Papua New Guinea and Indonesia or West Papua, no. This is one island - it is supposed to be one island and meant to be one people, anyway."

"If we don't do anything about taking joint action on both sides we are going to lose this biodiversity, we are going to lose this because the logging is going faster than we government or the government can take action or take responsibility for," she lamented.

While such a thought is rarely outwardly entertained by either country, anxiety about an Indonesian takeover is something that festers in the backrows of PNG's national mindset. However growing demand for co-operation means various forms of merger between the two sides could become a fact of life.

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