James Massola, Jakarta – Indonesia has taken the "unusual" step of blocking foreign diplomats from visiting strife-torn Papua, citing security concerns following weeks of violence and ethnic conflict.
The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age has confirmed diplomats from the British, Canadian and New Zealand embassies have all asked Kemlu, Indonesia's foreign ministry, in the last month for permission to visit Papua. All their requests were denied.
The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has also been blocked from visiting Papua – despite being invited by the Indonesian government back in February 2018. The organisation is still lobbying for permission to visit.
The Herald and The Age has also learned that diplomats from Australia and the United States have not asked permission from the Indonesian government to enter Papua since the violence flared, fearing such a request would be frowned on in Jakarta and cause a diplomatic headache.
The decision to temporarily block access for the British, Canadian and New Zealand missions and the UN body underscores Indonesian sensitivities about the independence movement and recent violence in the provinces of Papua and West Papua.
The diplomatic missions and the UN sought access to better assess and understand the recent conflict and to meet locals to discuss the violence that has broken out, amid growing concerns about human rights abuses by Indonesian security forces.
When approached for comment about the travel ban, a spokesman for the New Zealand embassy confirmed a request to travel to Papua had been denied by the Indonesian government.
Both the Canadian and UK embassies did not deny they had been blocked from entering Papua when approached for comment.
A spokesman for the Canadian embassy offered no comment, while a spokesman for the UK embassy said "we support the development of all parts of Indonesia, including Papua. We are working with the government of Indonesia to that end".
The UN office said "we remain in discussion with the government of Indonesia on the eventual timing for such a visit".
"We are extremely concerned about escalations of violence in the provinces of Papua and West Papua in Indonesia. We call on authorities to urgently engage in meaningful dialogue so as to defuse rising intercommunal tensions and prevent them from spiralling into further violence".
Kemlu spokesman Teuku Faizasyah said "security considerations were the main concern at the moment". "We [Kemlu] follow the decision by the government to limit foreigners to visit Papua, including diplomats."
Human Rights Watch Indonesian researcher Andreas Harsono said "it is unusual for foreign diplomats to be denied access to visit Papua".
"There are legitimate concerns about security but the embassies are not unaware of that, they have their own security, their own people, and they have development projects in Papua."
Sidney Jones, the director of the Institute of Policy Analysis of Conflict, said such refusals "had happened in the past" but it's usually not a direct refusal, "it's just not answering a request to go".
The rioting and clashes between Indonesian security forces and supporters of Papuan independence began in August and have been described as some of the worst violence in the provinces in decades.
Dozens were killed during a violent protest in Wamena, Papua province, this week.
It has led to 33 people being killed, hundreds of homes and businesses being burned down, widespread arrests, a temporary internet shut down and the displacement of at least 8000 people – though some estimates range as high as 55,000 people.
Thousands of extra Indonesian police and soldiers were flown in to stop the violence. Human Rights Watch called for an investigation into the deaths.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne recently said the Australian government was very concerned about the violence in Papua and urged "absolute restraint from both sides".
For decades, access to Papua by foreign journalists has been tightly controlled. Indonesian Security Minister Wiranto recently announced a broader ban on other groups of foreigners due to the security situation – though he did not specify who exactly.
Indonesia argues Papua voted to become of a province of Indonesia in the 1969 "act of free choice".
But independence supporters argue the vote was a sham – just 1026 locals chosen by Indonesia unanimously voted for integration – and they demand an independence referendum, as was granted to East Timor in 1999.
Senior figures in the Indonesian government including Wiranto – who ironically was Defence minister when East Timor voted for independence – have dismissed suggestions of an independence referendum out of hand.
Australia's central role in the events leading up to East Timorese independence remains a sensitive issue for some in Jakarta.
Comment was sought from the Australian and US embassies.